The De Havilland Mosquito was the fastest, highest-flying plane of the second world war, its light, streamlined body making it able to outrun all enemy aircraft. So it might come as a surprise to learn that, beneath its sleek lacquered skin, it was all made of plywood – lighter, cheaper and more aerodynamic than the metal equivalent, unhindered by bracing and rivets. It could be easily made, too, by workers in furniture factories, and easy to repair. Yet metal won out, perceived as the more “modern” material.
Plywood: Material of the Modern World, a new exhibition at the V&A, is an eye-opening story of design, technology and – as the Mosquito pictured here shows – prejudice and taste. From plywood packing cases taken to the Antarctic by Ernest Shackleton’s expedition, where they were then broken down and transformed into furniture, to the finest mid-century modern chairs, visiting the show is like walking through a particularly well-stocked bric-a-brac store, complete with plywood surfboards, boats and planes dangling from the ceiling.
The thing that most stands out is that, for its entire life, plywood has been hailed as an exciting new material. It was first “new” in 2600 BC: archaeologists have discovered that laminated timber was used to make everything from jewellery boxes to coffins for the discerning pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
It then reappeared in the 1800s as the newfangled material for moulded chairs, which look as striking and contemporary as their descendants from a century earlier. The material was still being touted as new by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941, when Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen presented their competition-winning design for a moulded plywood chair. And all this time, the basic principle of gluing wafer-thin layers of wood together, with the grain of each running in an alternate direction, hadn’t changed a bit.
The exhibition begins with the birth of industrialised plywood in the 1800s, when the invention of the rotary lathe enabled entire tree-trunks to be unravelled in one go – a mesmerising process shown here in a video, and in the form of a diaphanous wafer of birch hanging from the wall like a billowing sheet. The lathe changed everything. Suddenly veneer went from being something that was only used for the finest handmade furniture to a thin disguise that could be used to hide much cheaper materials. The word entered the lexicon as a synonym for a sham.
Available at low cost for the first time, this immensely strong and flexible material was quickly discarded by luxury furniture makers, but taken up into the realms of infrastructure and engineering, inspiring a whole wave of inventions. One of the most prescient was a plan for a pneumatic railway in a great big plywood tube, designed to hang off the side of buildings like an aerial sewage pipe. The drawings, published in 1867, bear a striking resemblance to Elon Musk’s plan for a Hyperloop (which would shoot people through a similarly sized tube in capsules travelling at 760mph). A 107ft-long prototype was built for an exhibition in New York, shuttling 75,000 people back and forth in carriages propelled by large fans, but development was halted by the economic depression in the 1870s.
Nearby stands the DWK, a German family car from 1937, sliced open to reveal its plywood chassis, used because it was strong, stress-bearing, easy to repair and quieter on the road with better suspension. Plywood housing gets a look-in too (decades before today’s WikiHouse structures) in the form of the US Forest Products Laboratory’s blueprints for cheap mass housing, an early DIY model with open-source plans, prompted by President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Plywood’s seamless sheets suited the stripped aesthetics of modernism, too, as seen in the Isokon building in Hampstead, London, whose flats were decked out with plywood furniture and “plymax” doors, covered in sleek sheets of polished copper.
The show reveals how developments in wartime spawned a whole range of later applications, from Charles and Ray Eames’ famous ply furniture, inspired by the leg splint they developed for the US military, to DIY dinghy kits. But one thing that is all but absent from the show is what curator Christopher Wilk calls “plywood’s dirty secret”.
The rise of synthetic adhesives, developed in the 1930s, created what one historian has called the “petrochemical house” – homes drenched with toxic substances that would unleash formaldehyde on their unsuspecting residents. There are now standards for adhesives, but they are difficult to enforce, particularly now that the vast bulk of plywood is manufactured in China and south-east Asia, where the use of illegally logged wood is also on the rise, the forbidden timber being easily hidden away in the layers.
Plywood has enjoyed a recent resurgence, as the symbol of the maker movement. Its raw surfaces are used to project a green, natural image – when the truth is it can often be anything but.
- Plywood: Material of the Modern World is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from 15 July to 12 November
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