A Material History


17 July 2017

Plywood: Material of the Modern World, a new exhibition from the V&A is perfectly formed. Curated by the museum’s Christopher Wilk and Elizabeth Bisley, Plywood is a vital and highly researched piece of cultural and technological history, told through a single material.

“Why an exhibition on plywood?” asked Wilk at the show’s press preview this week. In large part, Wilk’s answer to this question is that of a researcher. “Plywood is an utterly ubiquitous material, but its history until now has been completely unknown,” he notes and a large part of the exhibition’s appeal is its efforts to unearth forgotten aspects from ply’s history. “What is vital is how the public perception and fluctuating reputation of a material can actually affect how it’s used. It’s not just a matter of science and technology.”

A series of furniture design’s greatest postwar plywood hits are (predictably albeit necessarily) present: Charles and Ray Eames’s DCW chair (1946); and Robin Day’s Q Stak chair (1953) chief amongst them. Wilk and Bisley, however, find fresh interest in the works beyond their status as design icons, instead arguing for plywood’s postwar design resurgence as a result of sociological factors.

“It was seen as a material that in part won the war,” notes Wilk, citing in particular the development of the De Havilland Mosquito, the fastest, highest-flying plane of the Second World War. The plane bucked the trend for military hardware being built from metal – a decision driven by preconceptions as to which material was more suitable for warfare, as opposed to any analysis of performance – and created a newfound perception of plywood as a modern material that could be used in new application. “Postwar, advertisements started to appear ‘Plywood for war and now plywood for peace’” notes Wilk. “Many of the people who designed things in the second part of this show all worked on military designs during the Second World War and after the end of the war they used that knowledge to design everyday objects.” The Eameses, who designed a wartime plywood splint (c.1942) and later applied the lessons they learned in a series of commercial furniture designs, are the prime examples here.

Throughout, a major focus of the exhibition is its examination of plywood’s changing fortunes within manufacturing as driven by social favour. From early laminated veneers discovered in Egyptian tombs dated 2600BCE, through to the industrialisation of the 1800s, and onto the digital technologies of contemporary design, Wilk and Bisley are interested in charting the material’s history, and mapping the ripples and variances therein. What is fascinating is quite how uneven that history is. The show unfurls chronologically, and it is curious as to how many of the most ambitious projects on display date from the 19th century. An 1858 mould seems startlingly modern, showing a column onto which lengths of wood veneer could be bent into shape and subsequently cut up to create eight chair backs. More surprising still – and with echoes of Elon Musk’s planned Hyperloop – is a model of an 1867 plywood tube railway, of which a 107ft-long prototype was built in New York and which carried 75,000 people in trains powered by fans. For plywood, the 19th century was clearly a time of remarkable ambition and invention.

Wilk and Bisley do not shy away from more difficult periods in the material’s history, however, notably a shift away from the material as it came to be perceived as cheap and inferior to solid wood alternatives. “In the [late] 19th century veneers began to get a bad reputation and so did plywood,” says Wilk. “Any talk of plywood in the market place rather disappeared.” The grandeur of the earlier projects disappear, to be replaced by a display of plywood tea chests. They are beautiful in their own right, albeit stripped of the kind of aspirational, utopian material thinking of the plywood railway. Nonetheless, they represent an intriguing part of plywood’s history. “Britain was the largest importer of plywood in the world, because of tea chests,” notes Wilk.

Stories like this recur throughout Wilk and Bisley’s exhibition, which although small (the accompanying publication will allow their research and academia a wider canvas in which to play out) manages to capture and condense a vast history. Most striking, is the sense of a society discovering a material and its virtues (as well as its vices – one exhibit charts the international supply chains of illegally logged timber) multiple times over. From prefab housing schemes designed to tackle the lack of affordable housing post the Great Depression like the Forest Products Laboratory all-wood house system (1935); through to plywood surfboards produced in the 1950s and 60s out of do-it-yourself culture; and onto contemporary explorations of maker labs and new architectural materials such as cross-laminated timber, the exhibition does fine work in setting out that the trajectory of a material is rarely straightforward, but rather ebbs and flows in accordance with a complicated network of social, technological and political factors. As an intimate portrait of a material's fortunes Plywood is hard to beat.