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Plywood: Material of the Modern World – Free Exhibition at V&A Museum

Updated on August 17, 2017
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Frances has many years' experience writing travel articles and reviewing art galleries, museums, and the books they publish.

Armchair, Alvar Aalto 1930.Plywood: Material of the Modern World at the V&A, sponsored by MADE.COM

Armchair by Alvar Aalto. Sold in large quantities to the UK and USA. This iconic design influenced a new generation of modernist designers. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.
Armchair by Alvar Aalto. Sold in large quantities to the UK and USA. This iconic design influenced a new generation of modernist designers. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.

Plywood - Hidden in Plain Sight

The V&A Museum invites us to explore plywood – something that is so much a part of our everyday lives that it almost goes unnoticed. It's hard to imagine an exhibition devoted solely to plywood. Co-curators Christopher Wilk and Elizabeth Bisley present fascinating new research as they explore the history and global impact of plywood from the 1850s to the present day. Plywood: Material of the Modern World charts how this often overlooked material has helped to shape the modern world. We see how plywood has revolutionised design since the Industrial Revolution.

Objects from the V&A's comprehensive furniture, design and architecture collections are accompanied by articles loaned by public and private institutions across the world. The exhibition is sponsored by MADE.COM, with support from the American Friends of the V&A. The display features creations from some of the world's finest modernist designers including Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, Grete Jalk, Robin Day and Charles and Ray Eames.

The display explores many of the world's iconic designs ranging from armchairs, hat boxes, tea chests and a 1908 book printed during Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expendition to Antarctica to the Singer sewing machine and the de Havilland Mosquito, the fastest and highest-flying aeroplane of WWII.


What is Plywood?

What is plywood? We see it everyday. Christopher Wilk tells us: “Plywood is such a common, everyday material that most people barely notice when it is used. One could say that it has been hidden in plain sight. Since Victorian times, it has been one of the most popular and versatile materials used in manufacturing, and by designers and architects. Today it is more popular than ever.” But what exactly is it? Collins Concise Dictionary describes plywood as: “a structural board consisting of thin layers of wood glued together under pressure with the grain of one layer at right angles to the grain of the adjoining layer.”

Formula Two Racing Car with Spare Plywood Body 1967. Plywood: Material of the Modern World at the V&A, sponsored by MADE.COM

Formula Two Racing Car with Spare Plywood Body. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.
Formula Two Racing Car with Spare Plywood Body. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.

Plywood – An Ancient Material in the Modern Day

Maybe we think of plywood as being something very modern but in fact pieces of layered board have been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs. We owe its proliferation to the Industrial Revolution. The coming of mass production during the nineteenth century allowed the full exploitation of this very useful and adaptable material.

You can make almost anything from plywood ranging from cars to aeroplanes, furniture to architecture and hand-making to digital manufacture. Modernist designers love it, and as technology advances they find more and more novel and interesting ways to shape, mould, cut and fix it.

Key Developments in the Evolution of Plywood

Plywood: Material of the Modern World is brought to life by three 'process' moments. These events chart key developments in the evolution of plywood manufacture:

  • Process 01 Rotary – Rotary veneer cutting. The first technological breakthrough came in the early 1800s with the invention of steam-powered rotary veneer cutting machines which allowed cheap mass production of plywood.

  • Process 02 – Moulding. Unlike plastics or metals, plywood can be moulded easily with simple tools. It can be made in small workshops or large factories, often without expensive equipment. To make curved plywood, layers of cross-grained veneers are glued together and placed in a mould. The veneers are held together under pressure while the glue sets.

  • Process 03 - CNC Cutting. Since the turn of the 21st century plywood has become increasingly popular in the world of digital design made possible by digital fabricating machines especially CNC cutters. A CNC (Computer Numerical Control) cutter is controlled by a computer. The main types of CNC machine are CNC routers, which cut two- and three-dimensionally with rotating cutting bits called endmills, and CNC laser cutters which utilise laser beams to cut two-dimensionally. With both machines the process is fast, precise, and more complex than previously possible. Plywood is eminently suitable for CNC cutting because it is made to a standard, worldwide specification. Due to this standardisation designs can be cut anywhere in the world using a single digital file.


De Havilland Mosquito, 1941. Plywood: Material of the Modern World at the V&A, sponsored by MADE.COM

Light-eight, built for speed, the Mosquito had a plywood fusilage. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.
Light-eight, built for speed, the Mosquito had a plywood fusilage. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.

Plywood: Material of the Modern World – Highlights of the Exhibition

The scope of this exhibition is extremely wide and varied and explores many important designs such as the de Havilland Mosquito. Custom-made of curved and glued veneers, the aeroplane was designed for speed and range. The two-seat unarmed long-range light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft flew almost at will over enemy-occupied territory for much of the war. Originally the Air Ministry wanted a metal plane but the designer, Geoffrey de Havilland, convinced them to trial the Mosquito. The low-cost design could be manufactured relatively cheaply by craftsmen from furniture and other woodworking factories.

Iconic Designs Influence New Generations of Modernist Designers

Plywood is used to create all sorts of furniture with many designs, such as the armchair by Alvar Aalto, becoming recognisable the world over. Aalto's chair was originally created in for the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanitorium in Finland but went on general sale in 1933. Produced in a small factory alongside other designs by Aalto, the chairs were exported to the UK and the USA. The armchair has a 7-ply birch plywood seat and 4-ply laminated birth frame with solid birch struts. The innovative use of plywood influenced a new generation of modernist designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Grete Jalk.

Armchair, Alvar Aalto, 1930. Plywood: Material of the Modern World at the V&A, sponsored by MADE.COM

Aalto's armchair influenced a new generation of designers. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.
Aalto's armchair influenced a new generation of designers. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.

From Sewing Machines to Ice Shelters

At the other extreme we have the “New Family” sewing machine manufactured by the Singer Manufacturing Company. From the 1880s to the 1950s Singer was one of the world's largest plywood producers making tables, cabinets and sewing machine covers.

The final exhibit, to be found in the John Madejski Garden, takes the form of a group of ice skating shelters. Designed by Patkau Architects the structures are created by bending flexible plywood sheets and fixing them to a timber frame to made the sculptural forms. Visitors are invited to take a seat in the shelters which were originally designed to sit on a frozen river in Winnipeg, Canada.

"New Family" Sewing Machine, Model 12/12K with Moulded Plywood Cover 1888. Plywood: Material of the Modern World at the V&A, sponsored by MADE.COM

"New Family" Sewing Machine, Model 12/12K with Moulded Plywood Cover, 1888. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.
"New Family" Sewing Machine, Model 12/12K with Moulded Plywood Cover, 1888. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.

Ice Shelters, Patkau Architects, 2011. Plywood: Material of the Modern World at the V&A, sponsored by MADE.COM

Ice Shelters designed to sit on a frozen river in Canada. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.
Ice Shelters designed to sit on a frozen river in Canada. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved.

Plywood – No Longer Hidden in Plain Sight

Who would have thought an exhibition devoted solely to plywood could be so fascinating? Who would have thought this near ubiquitous material would have changed the world so completely? Through their outstanding displays the V&A gives us an exhibition that will increase our aware of and change our attitudes to plywood – no longer hidden in plain sight!

Plywood: Material of the Modern World is accompanied by a fully illustrated book co-published by the V&A with Thames & Hudson. Further details about this free exhibition and the wide programme of events that supports it can be obtained from the V&A.

V&A Museum

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Cromwell Rd, Kensington, London SW7, UK
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© 2017 Frances Spiegel

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