Plywood- Material of the Modern World at the V&A (2017)

It is so very easy to overlook the products and materials we use everyday. Take plywood for example. This amazingly versatile composite has benefitted so many areas of our lives in ways most of us are hardly even aware of. Without it and the principles by which it is made, our society would be radically different if not impossible. The V&A hopes to redress this lack of awareness by presenting an eclectic and engaging new exhibition called ‘Plywood: Material of the Modern World’, which runs from 15th July to 12th November 2017. Admission is free.

The examples on display are arranged to showcase the evolution of plywood and its many uses; from the mid 19th Century to the present day and beyond. There are things you might expect to see, such as chairs and furniture. But also many other products and designs that utilise the material in really surprising ways. You don’t have to look far to find the unexpected and ingenious in this exhibition.

Like most technologies, the development of plywood was incremental. New uses suggested others and over time and certain clever people saw lucrative opportunities to exploit its unique characteristics. Not only was plywood cheap compared to pure wood, but it also offered a large number of other advantages.

Today there are many kinds of plywood and related composite materials. It is an engineered wood, along with MDF and particleboard. But the process of manufacturing plywood is different to both of these, involving peeling paper thin sheets of wood from certain kinds of trees. The type of wood used to source each form of plywood depends on the particular application for which it is to be used. To make softwood ply, trees like the Douglas Fir are used. There’s an example of this tree on display and an accompanying film showing its collection and processing. For hardwood and aircraft varieties, angiosperm trees and mahogany may be used.

You start to make plywood by placing one peeled sheet onto another, with glue or resin in between each, so as to build up a ‘sandwich’ of alternating layers. It is important to make sure the grains of each sheet run in opposing ‘criss-crossing’ directions, in order to multiply the overall strength of the finished material. Before the resin hardens, the plywood sheet is malleable and can be manipulated into almost any shape or complex form. This is usually done with a mold that carries the desired shape, pressing and holding the plywood until the glue dries. One of these is on show in the exhibition, as is documentary film of the process.

There are different kinds of glues used for specific applications, including vary strong and resilient varieties. Plywood may also be heated under pressure to strengthen it and some types are able to tolerate stresses that would fracture and destroy other kinds of wood. Plywood may be treated during the process of manufacturing; certain types are given fire retardant, waterproof or even fungal resistant qualities. The entire process of plywood production is presented on the back wall clearly to see.

Plywood can also be used to create lightweight and strong component parts, which can then be fitted together to make more complex items. During the early twentieth century, it became possible to manufacture and use plywood components for such things as mass produced cars; in conjunction with metals and other materials. We see a cut-in-half of an affordable DKW car, which uses moulded plywood inside it. Showing for one thing just how precise a measurement the material can be cut to. It also demonstrates plywood’s strength and reliability; parts are not just cosmetic, but an integral part of the design.

The origins of plywood can be traced back to at least the Egyptians, as fragments of layered board have been found in certain tombs. Romans found that by fixing certain kinds of wood together, they were able to create stronger shields, giving them a tactical advantage in battle. However, for the modern concept of plywood, we need to look to the end of the 18th century, when Sir Samuel Bentham (a notable military innovator) first described the idea of fusing with glue layers of wood to create something thicker. Later still, it was discovered that if you use thinner strips of wood in greater number, they were stronger, lighter and more flexible. Before the invention of oil based plastics, plywood offered the designer and engineer a versatile material that had no equal.

Early items of plywood on display give us an insight into the sense of propriety that dominated nineteenth century design, right into the twentieth. We see furniture and objects made to resemble other materials or solid woods, because these were deemed more ‘acceptable’. However, by the start of the modern period, plywood had come of age. Isaac Cole’s patent of 1874 had shown the way ahead by creating the template for its use in making chairs. By the 1930s, it was aesthetically desirable to have furniture with clean lines free of ornament, in the home and elsewhere. The Eames and Breuer chairs on show are beautiful examples of ‘form following function’, but also of ‘truth to materials’ because their plywood construction isn’t hidden. On the contrary, it is emphasised and celebrated. Breuer had run the carpentry shop at the Bauhaus and learnt that mass production and new materials offered enormous possibilities in shaping the new Post (first world) war world. His ‘Short Chair’ is entirely made of plywood and so well thought through that all the necessary elements required to seat a person (very complicated when you actually think about it) are incorporated and achieved in the design, without the need for metal fittings to hold the wooden parts in place (something reminiscent of Japanese carpentry). We see Breuer’s ‘Short Chair’ presented, together with the process by which it is made and other pieces on show by Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen that display similar ingenuity and refinement.

Yet consumer goods were only the start of what this amazing material could be used for. In aircraft design, plywood was refined to offer even greater strength, lightness and flexibility. So that during the Interwar period on into WW2, it was a major material used in the manufacture of aeroplanes and was produced in huge quantities to create designs like the De Havilland Mosquito aircraft (‘The Wooden Wonder’); part of the fuselage of which is suspended above the exhibition. Another (mostly) plywood aeroplane presented represents surely one of the most single minded efforts of will in the history of aviation. Howard Hughes’ H-4 Hercules or the ‘Spruce Goose’, the largest flying boat ever built, which is shown on its long awaited maiden flight in 1947. Given that boats have long been produced using plywood, there are several examples of these to be seen too. Trains and even a full size 1967 Harris Costin Protos formula two racing car demonstrate just how many different applications plywood can be used for. Including skateboards.

All of the above is only part of the story, because plywood is an important material used in buildings and large structures. On show are modular housing schemes such as that proposed for the ‘Century of Progress International Exposition’ at the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair. The early twentieth century was an age of optimism, full of ambitious and visionary plans for creating a modern utopia. Federally funded schemes during Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ gave designers and architects the chance to produce radical design solutions to solve Depression era housing problems. Also presented is the part-ply ‘Trylon’ from New York’s World Fair of 1939, which symbolised a belief in future scientific and technical progress.

During the postwar economic boom that gave Americans the highest of global living standards, modular prefabricated designs for buildings (or building parts) utilised plywood composites to make cheap and quick-to-assemble houses, offering even low paid workers the chance to have large and spacious places to live in. Therefore by extension, it could be argued that the material played a significant part in creating the modern ‘American Dream’.

The exhibition is well organised in a small space and carefully and cleverly curated by Christopher Wilk and Elizabeth Bisley. Together with this space, in the V&A’s John Madejski Garden are a cluster of ice skating shelters designed by Patkau Architects that visitors are encouraged to use. Inspired by the moulded modernism already touched upon, they are located for the duration of the exhibition.

In addition to the technical developments that utilised plywood, there are some amazingly little known historical facts that are revealed. For example, ever wondered why tea chests are as they are? Ply was used in the 1890s after it became clear the material wouldn’t warp or contaminate the precious tea. Or it’s use as splints for broken legs. Even as the cover for ‘Aurora Australis’, bound in 3 ply from 1908, published at the winter quarters of Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition.

‘Plywood: Material of the Modern World’ also considers contemporary and future uses for the material that are both fascinating and optimistic. We see objects produced by CNC cutting machines to a level of precision hitherto unattainable. Digital design offers huge potential for creating sophisticated forms of great complexity, which can be used for a variety of applications. One clever idea extends the concept of the Airfix model kit. A flat sheet of refined plywood is laser cut with the necessary shapes into its surface, so as to create the two dimensional parts to make a three dimensional piece of furniture. In this case a stool. There are no complicated metal or plastic parts and the design takes up only the space of a single flat rectangle of wood. Simple yet efficient, this is something to revolutionise the concept of the flat pack! If combined with the ever evolving 3D printer, expected to be in most people’s homes within a few years; this idea surely offers the tantalising possibility of ‘downloadable’ three dimensional objects.

What if we extend the concept of laminate and composite materials beyond wood (and perhaps the remit of this review)? Well, the story gets even more interesting. For example, fibreglass is a laminate technology, as are carbon composites used in Formula 1 racing cars, cycles, boats and even fishing rods. Indeed, the strength, flexibility and lightweight nature of such materials is improving all the time. Carbon composites- themselves based on principles of plywood construction- offer the tantalising possibility that such materials will one day be used to create everything from kilometres high buildings to space elevators. This may seem far fetched until we consider the fact that spacecraft such as the Apollo Command Module were technically composite materials, carefully developed and manufactured by North American Aviation/Rockwell back in the mid sixties.

Finally, if you have an interest in how things are made and want to learn about the significance of materials that make up our modern world, then this is an exhibition I would certainly recommend. For such a small show, you end up learning a great deal of fascinating and relevant information. It will definitely make you think harder about and be more sensitive to the fabricated environment in which we all live.

(C) Gideon Hall 2017