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  • Ice skating shelters, Winnipeg, Patkau Architects, 2012. Photo: © patkau architects

The ever-changing perceptions of ply

Christopher Wilk looks at the history of the material

Plywood is such a ubiquitous material that consideration is rarely given to its origins or to the extraordinarily varied history of its use and manufacture. The first history of plywood, published in conjunction with a new display at the V&A, reveals that it has been made artisanally as far back as ancient Egypt. The exhibition, however, focuses on the much later period, between about 1850 and the present day, telling the story of how a workshop-made product, used in 18th- and 19th-century furniture making, was gradually transformed into an industrial one.   

Throughout its long history, the basic construction of plywood has barely changed. Made from a sandwich of cross-grained veneers and glue, it is unusually strong and stable. The fundamental technological breakthrough that enabled plywood to be made economically was a series of improvements in veneer cutting. First, the mechanisation of British saw-cutting in about 1800 led to a dramatic drop in the price of veneers. Then, later in the century, large-scale rotary cutters were developed that could peel an entire log into hitherto unachievably thin and long veneers. This led to the manufacture of Victorian-era moulded plywood furniture, including that made for sewing machines. 

Man carrying a complete Deperdussin monocoque fuselage, Deperdussin factory, Paris, c.1912. Photo: monocoque: © Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace –Le Bourget – INV Prim

At the same time, cheap veneers, which formed the unseen layers of plywood, were faced with a higher quality veneer, leading to accusations that plywood was a ‘sham’ material – a poor substitute for solid wood that aimed to deceive the consumer. Prejudice against plywood meant that its use in products was rarely advertised until the early 20th century, when its unique properties began to be exploited in fields such as boat design and modernist furniture.

No field contributed more to the improvement of the material’s status than aircraft design. In 1911 the fastest aeroplane in the world, the French Deperdussin racer, was hand-made from a moulded monocoque (single shell) fuselage, which weighed an incredibly light 22kg. Such monocoque plywood fuselages revolutionised all future aircraft design and culminated in the British de Havilland Mosquito, the fastest aeroplane of the Second World War. 

Plywood’s use as an architectural material depended upon the 1930s invention of synthetic resin glues that enabled waterproof plywood to be sold for the first time. During the Depression and into the Second World War it
was used to construct experimental, low-cost housing and urgently needed accommodation for defence workers. Much of this was factory produced, and quickly and economically erected onsite. 

Plywood’s image was transformed in the post-war period from a cheap wood substitute to a high-tech miracle material. It entered the home after the war in both domestic furniture (with moulded plywood becoming visible, for the first time, in mass-produced designs) and as a material perfectly adaptable to DIY home improvements, from flooring to panelling, seating to storage.

Armchair, Alvar Aalto, 1930. Photo:  © alvar aalto museum, victoria and albert museum, london

Given that sales of plywood were eclipsed, first, in the 1970s by MDF and then, in the 1980s, by the structural particleboard OSB, it is surprising that it has become more popular than ever in the 21st century. Its importance to today’s creative practitioners is mostly to do with how it has been adopted as a material of the digital age. The ease with which plywood can be worked and its relatively reasonable cost has made it the most popular material in makerspaces. It has become part of a makerspace aesthetic, inspired by its association with ‘natural’ wood and by its perceived sustainability.

Plywood’s material possibilities have also given rise to new types of online furniture and architectural platforms (among them Opendesk and WikiHouse) that base their products on the global availability and uniformity of both the material and of digital cutting tools, allowing for distributed (local) manufacturing. 

Plywood: Material of the Modern World is at the V&A, London, 15 July to 12 November.