Plywood: a multi-layered history

Header Image

Words:
Pamela Buxton

From Ancient Egyptian mummy boxes to open-source digital construction, this once-denigrated material has been on quite a journey

Patkau Architects, Ice skating shelters, Winnipeg, 2012.
Patkau Architects, Ice skating shelters, Winnipeg, 2012. Credit: Patkau Architects

From Ancient Egyptian mummy boxes to open-source digital construction, plywood has been on quite a journey. It’s certainly proved itself to be a survivor, as shown in the V&A’s lively new exhibition Plywood: Material of the Modern World, which celebrates this humble material’s global impact from the 1850s onwards.

The installation makes full use of the Porter Gallery with suspended canoes, boats and parts of planes hung high above the object-packed main displays. I liked the interspersion of archive films, in particular footage of the manufacture of plywood swimsuits, as modeled by a bevy of bathing beauties in a 1932 promotion of plywood’s waterproof qualities. 

Co-curator Christopher Wilk’s enthusiasm for the ubiquitous material is infectious. ‘I love plywood as a material,’ says Wilk, who is the V&A’s keeper of furniture, textiles and fashion. Amazed to find that no book had previously been written on plywood, he set about his own research and uncovered a colourful tale of fluctuating fortunes prompted by key technical innovations. Once denigrated as a sham material designed to hide, plywood is today, he says, enjoying greater sales than ever. 

‘The shifting reputation of plywood is one of the most fascinating aspects of its history,’ he says, adding that it has repeatedly, from the 18th century to the 20th, been presented as a new material.

So what is plywood? The sheet material is a composition of layers of plies – or veneers – bonded together, with the grains of each layer set at 90 degrees to the last for enhanced strength. 

  • Singer Sewing machine with plywood box, 1888.
    Singer Sewing machine with plywood box, 1888. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Ply tea chests.
    Ply tea chests. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Workman carrying a complete Deperdussin monocoque fuselage, Deperdussin factory, Paris, about 1912.
    Workman carrying a complete Deperdussin monocoque fuselage, Deperdussin factory, Paris, about 1912. Credit: Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace-Le Bourget - INV.Prim
  • British de Havilland Mosquito, 1941.
    British de Havilland Mosquito, 1941. Credit: de Havilland Aircraft Museum
1234

‘The reason that plywood became an industrial material is because of its remarkable qualities. It’s incredibly stable and strong,’ says Wilk.

The word plywood itself wasn’t widely used until the 1920s, he says, adding that before then it was referred to as veneering, veneers, veneerwork or built-up work.

At first, its manufacture was an artisanal activity made by craftsmen. That all changed with the invention of the rotary veneer cutter in the early 19th century. With mechanised sawing, the price of veneers dropped and could now be mass-produced and applied to cheap furniture. But this practice was later discredited in a number of high-profile legal cases as a deceptive means of hiding inferior material.  Its negative connotations are clear in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, which features the unappealing nouveau-riche couple Mr & Mrs Veneering who are obsessed with all things new.

Yet plywood was to bounce back from this all-time low point in its fortunes in the next century when it become, as the exhibition title asserts, a true material of the modern world helped by the advent of new moulding techniques. Plywood proved particularly useful in warfare with uses including pontoon bridges and splints and, in particular, aircraft. Plywood had been utilised in the pioneering days of flying as streamlined monocoque fuselages for early aircraft but the material really came into its own in the Second World War in the construction of important aeroplanes such as the de Havilland Mosquito. 

Plywood was also enthusiastically embraced by modern architects and designers including Alvar Aalto, Robin Day, Marcel Breuer and Charles and Ray Eames, who delighted in its warm, natural appearance and its ability to be moulded into experimental shapes. Chairs by all these and more are included in the exhibition, which does a good job of conveying plywood’s unsung ubiquity in our lives with plenty of varied familiar objects such as Singer’s sewing machine covers, surfboards and skateboards.

  • Alvar Aalto, armchair, Finland, 1930 © Alvar Aalto Museum.
    Alvar Aalto, armchair, Finland, 1930 © Alvar Aalto Museum. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Alvar Aalto’s drawing of the Finnish Pavilion at the New York World's Fair, 1939-40
    Alvar Aalto’s drawing of the Finnish Pavilion at the New York World's Fair, 1939-40 Credit: Alvar Aalto Museum
  • Full scale cross section showing FPL prefabricated construction built for the exhibition. Demonstration house built in 1937.
    Full scale cross section showing FPL prefabricated construction built for the exhibition. Demonstration house built in 1937. Credit: USDA Forest Products Lab
  • Moulded plywood chair designed by Grete Jalk, 1963.
    Moulded plywood chair designed by Grete Jalk, 1963. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1234

As well as furniture and objects, the show demonstrates plywood’s use as a building material, especially in the US and Scandinavia. From the 1930s to 1950s, American architects and builders adopted it as a cheap material for mass housing, and the show includes an installation of a section of a 1935 all-wood demonstration house.

Plywood featured at several key world fairs including the New York World Fair in 1939 where it was used to repair the event’s iconic Trylon after some of the structure’s original plasterboard covering fell off. Out of all the exhibits, Wilks is particularly pleased at the inclusion of a drawing by Alvar Aalto of the Finnish Pavilion from the same fair.

‘This is a sumptuous and dynamic ink drawing that conveys with great fidelity the remarkable undulating plywood wall that leaned into and dominated the white box exhibition hall,’ he says.

By the 1950s, plywood was used extensively for concrete formwork – its largest use – and was also a hugely popular DIY material. The US Department of Defense even promoted designs for plywood nuclear fallout shelters in 1962.

But in the late 20th century, plywood’s fortunes changed again, as it hit another low with the emergence of MDF (which surpassed plywood sales in 1975) and OSB, which eclipsed it as a building material in the 1980s. But that was not to be the end of the story. First, plywood’s natural look began appealing to the ‘green’ movement of the 1980s. This resurgence gathered steam with the advent of digitalisation, given the material’s suitability for CNC cutting and digital manufacture through both commercial and open-source platforms such as WikiHouse. 

  • Plywood skateboard.
    Plywood skateboard. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Edie Stool in birch plywood, designed by David and Joni Steiner for Open Desk, London, 2013.
    Edie Stool in birch plywood, designed by David and Joni Steiner for Open Desk, London, 2013.
12

‘Plywood sales are now higher than ever. It’s on the up,’ says Wilk.

I especially enjoyed Patkau Architects’ sculptural cluster of six ice skating shelters, installed in the John Madejski Garden for the duration of the show. These cocoon-like structures were designed for use on a frozen river in Winnipeg, Canada, but could surely be used for other applications.

As well as looking to the past, the book and exhibition consider plywood’s future. While they doesn’t duck what Wilk describes as plywood’s ‘dirty secrets’ – such as deforestation and the adverse effects on workers and residents of the urea-formaldehyde (UF) glue that is still used by some manufacturers today – this is balanced with recent innovations. Danzer of Austria has developed a way of curving plywood in three dimensions. We also learn about a new technique to create veneer from unwanted coconut trees. Embracing sustainable manufacture is vital, says Wilk, if plywood is to continue to enjoy continued popularity in centuries to come.

At the exhibition launch, V&A director Dr Tristram Hunt talked of plywood being ‘hidden in plain sight’ throughout most of its history, and for the need to reclaim the term veneer from being a term of abuse. It may take a while yet for it to lose all of its negative connotations. But thanks to this exhibition and book, plywood may finally be starting to get the recognition it deserves. 


Plywood: Material of the Modern World 15 July – 12 November 2017
Porter Gallery, V&A, Exhibition Road, London. 
Sponsored by Made.com. Supported by the American Friends of the V&A.

 

The accompanying book Plywood: a Material Story by Christopher Wilk is published by the V&A with Thames & Hudson, £29.95.