Plywood - Material of the Modern World

 

It is not often that a major museum pours time and curatorial efforts into an exhibition solely dedicated to a single material.  With Plywood - Material of the Modern World,  open until 12th November, the V&A breaks the mould with a thorough retrospective of the groundbreaking material.  Looking back through the last 250 years, this exhibition retraces the technological developments that made plywood the ubiquitous material it is today.  From its early days a a cheap alternative to steel to the open source production common in today's digital age, this is a fascinating history of modern day manufacturing as told by a beautiful array of diverse objects.  Plywood truly is the material of the modern world. 

 
Plywood - Material of the Modern World sign, V&A museum.

Plywood - Material of the Modern World sign, V&A museum.

Inside Plywood - Material of the Modern World, Image curtesy of V&A museum. 

Inside Plywood - Material of the Modern World, Image curtesy of V&A museum. 

 

Focusing mainly on historical objects, from furniture to aeroplanes, innovative underground trains to surfboards, this short but beatifully researched exhibition is a perfect taster for anyone curious about this extraordinary material. 

Unsurprisingly furniture features heavily, with a beautiful selection of modern and antiques pieces on display, from some of the earliest examples of plywood, when it was used as curved backs for rosewood chairs, to ground breaking modern day Open Desk's DIY Edie Stool.  By looking at the evolution of plywood in furniture this exhibition humanises a material often seen as cold and pragmatic whilst also showcasing the inherent beauty and fascinating manufacturing processes required to produce curved plywood pieces.  One of the original presses used to create the Isokon Plus Short Chair is on display with a short film showing the start to finish process required to create one of their pieces - a surprisingly hands on process for a design that seems so technological.  

 
Chair (front and rear views), probably designed and manufactured by John Henry Belter, about 1860, New York. Museum no. W.2-1971. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Chair (front and rear views), probably designed and manufactured by John Henry Belter, about 1860, New York. Museum no. W.2-1971. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Moulded plywood chair, designed by Grete Jalk, 1963. 

Moulded plywood chair, designed by Grete Jalk, 1963. 

Two-part mould with moulded seat from 7 ply birch plywood. Made by Isokon Plus, London, 1986.

Two-part mould with moulded seat from 7 ply birch plywood. Made by Isokon Plus, London, 1986.

‘Edie Stool’ by Opendesk, 2013, London. © Opendesk. Photograph Victoria and Albert Museum, London

‘Edie Stool’ by Opendesk, 2013, London. © Opendesk. Photograph Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Armchair, designed by Alvar Aalto, 1932, Finland. Museum no. W.41-1987. © Alvar Aalto Museum. Photograph Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Armchair, designed by Alvar Aalto, 1932, Finland. Museum no. W.41-1987. © Alvar Aalto Museum. Photograph Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Close up of Armchair, by Alvar Aalto

Close up of Armchair, by Alvar Aalto

 

Though plywood has always been used in transportation, it wasn't until the 1930s that its full range of possibilities was fully explored. Plywood is made by layering thing sheets of wood (or plies) with their grain going in opposing direction, creating a sheet of wood that is stronger and more resistant than solid wood.  Being light weight, easy to produce and extremely strong made it a great replacement for cast steel and iron, especially during times of war when raw materials were in shortage.  

Several key transportation pieces are on display here, hung from the ceiling and majestically towering over the floor level displays.  By far the most eye catching is a huge distressed fuselage of a DeHavilland Moskito, a plywood fighter jet common during the second world war.  Strong and lightweight, resistant to warping and cracking, plywood was ideal for mass producing aeroplanes.  At the end of the war, processes and manufacturing innovations discovered in the military were applied to other transportation systems, from racing cars to DIY sailing boats, and plywood became a modern highly visible material.  Though the use of plywood in automobiles was nothing new by then, Harris-Costin Protos formula 2 racing car used a complex layering system, rotating the plies so they were laid at 45 degree angles rather than 90, giving huge strength to a lightweight material, and allowing racing car manufacturers to build entire car fuselages from wood. 

 

 
British de Havilland Mosquito, 1941. © de Havilland Aircraft Museum

British de Havilland Mosquito, 1941. © de Havilland Aircraft Museum

Fuselage of a de Havilland Mosquito, 1943–45, Designed by Geoffrey de Havilland

Fuselage of a de Havilland Mosquito, 1943–45, Designed by Geoffrey de Havilland

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‘Wood flies to war’ poster, 1943, Designed for the US Army Bureau of Public Relations

‘Wood flies to war’ poster, 1943, Designed for the US Army Bureau of Public Relations

Print, full-scale prototype of a plywood tubular rail system in operation at the American Institute Fair, New York, 1867

Print, full-scale prototype of a plywood tubular rail system in operation at the American Institute Fair, New York, 1867

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 Formula two racing car (Harris-Costin Protos), 1967, Designed by Frank Costin (1920–95)

 Formula two racing car (Harris-Costin Protos), 1967, Designed by Frank Costin (1920–95)

 

Originally considered ugly and cheap, plywood was used in construction and building sites to prop up and secure spaces.  Like with furniture, it wasn't until the 1920's that designers and architects started to experiment with the visual properties of plywood, using it as an exterior material, showcasing it rather than hiding it away.  Alvar Aalto's Finnish Pavillion for the World's Fair in 1939 is regarded as the first major building to heavily use plywood as an embellishment. 

At the same time in the US, the government was desperate for schemes to produce cheap and mass manufactured houses.  Plywood's standardised production was ideal for this and full scale houses entirely made from plywood and requiring extremely limited labour to erect started to appear.  These houses were the precursors to modern day prefabricated buildings and paved the way for Open Sourced plywood manufacturing we see today.  Companies such as Open Desk and Wikihouse design open sourced files for CNC routers which they then send to smaller local production places who can produce pieces to a set standard on a CNC router.  

The Wikihouse is a fantastic example of modern day plywood prefabrication, entirely cut with a digital machine and easy to assemble, it is the perfect combination of digital and traditional manufacturing methods. 

 
Drawing of Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto. © Alvar Aalto Museum

Drawing of Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto. © Alvar Aalto Museum

Cnc router cut Wikihouse

Cnc router cut Wikihouse

Full-scale house, built at the 1937 Madison Home Show to demonstrate the US Forest Product Laboratory’s plywood prefabrication system. Photograph courtesy USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory

Full-scale house, built at the 1937 Madison Home Show to demonstrate the US Forest Product Laboratory’s plywood prefabrication system. Photograph courtesy USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory

Model of a plywood nuclear fallout shelter, About 1962, Designed by the US Department of Defence

Model of a plywood nuclear fallout shelter, About 1962, Designed by the US Department of Defence

 

Finally a tour of this exhibition would not be complete without mentioning some of the more unexpected uses of plywood.  From stretchers to tube lines via artic explorations, plywood's unique combination of strength, light weight and affordability made it ubiquitous.  Ernest Shackleton used plywood cases for his Antarctic exploration voyage in 1907, as the material had just started to be produced in large flat sheets and was capable of withstanding extreme antarctic weather condition. 

Regarded as the godparents of plywood, Charles and Ray Eames explored plywood's potential like no others, creating a plywood leg cast, light enough to be easily carried to the battlefields of World War 2 and cheap enough to be mass manufactured.  

Plywood, a seemingly unassuming material with extraordinary properties, is being given the attention it finally deserves in this stunning exhibition.  By explaining and shining a light on the complex and often hidden systems required to create many unassuming objects of everyday life, this exhibition turns common items into magical objects, and elevates centuries of manufacturing developments.  Hugely informative and well curated, this is an unmissable exhibition.  

 
Cover for Aurora Borealis, Photograph, explorers digging plywood cases from the ice, 1908, Antarctica. Photograph courtesy of the Library of New South Wales

Cover for Aurora Borealis, Photograph, explorers digging plywood cases from the ice, 1908, Antarctica. Photograph courtesy of the Library of New South Wales

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Leg splint, About 1942, Designed by Charles (1907–78) and Ray Eames (1912–88)

Leg splint, About 1942, Designed by Charles (1907–78) and Ray Eames (1912–88)

Plywood hat boxes, suitcases and hand bags, various manufacturers, about 1930. 

Plywood hat boxes, suitcases and hand bags, various manufacturers, about 1930. 

Further reading: 

Plywood - A Material Story by Christopher Wilk, 2017, available at the V&A Shop

https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/a-history-of-plywood-in-ten-objects