Plywood: The underrated material that shaped our modern world

Published 14th July 2017
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Plywood: The underrated material that shaped our modern world
Written by Tom Morris, CNNLondon
Christopher Wilk, curator of a new exhibition dedicated to the eclectic history of plywood at the London's Victoria and Albert Museum, is singing the material's praises.
"It really is strong and stable," he says, stood under a plywood airplane that hangs from the ceiling.
He layers thin cross-grained veneers of wood with the palm of his hands: "Each layer of the sandwich is in a perpendicular direction. Wood splits along the grain. This can't split."
From curvy chairs to Victorian sideboards, and prewar planes to prefab houses, there seems to be no limit to plywood's versatility, flexibility and strength. This exhibition, "Plywood: Material of the Modern World," aims to bring the underrated material to prominence once and for all -- and reverse some institutionalized snobbery at the same time.
While the plywood technique goes back millennia (fragments of layered board have been found in Egyptian tombs) it was the Victorians who shaped our perceptions of the material today. Mass manufacturing and new production techniques in the mid-19th century meant plywood was ubiquitous, especially in furniture manufacturing. But with plywood's
"Because it became cheaper to make because of the rotary veneer cutter -- a lathe that essentially peels away timber in rings -- it started to be used on cheap furniture," says Wilk. "(The wood) would peel off and therefore got a bad reputation."
Soon the term "veneer" became a condescending buzzword in parts of society far beyond furniture. Charles Dickens called the nouveau riche social climbers in his final novel, "Our Mutual Friend," Mr. and Mrs. Veneering; and, according to Wilk, the most-used phrase in The Times in the 19th century was the "veneer of civilization."
"I soon realized this is a rich story of cultural prejudice," the curator says of his research.
"Plywood: Material of the Modern World" at London's Victoria and Albert Museum
"Plywood: Material of the Modern World" at London's Victoria and Albert Museum Credit: Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum
The word plywood was first used around 1906 and, as the 20th century came to life, perceptions of the material slowly changed. A growing number of manufacturers began to rethink the possibilities of this light, inexpensive and easily moldable material, especially in aviation.
Geoffrey de Havilland created the Mosquito plane out of plywood in the early 1940s. It was one of the fastest, highest-flying aircrafts in the Second World War.
"It was a fraction of the weight of the Lancaster bomber and was faster than a Spitfire," says Wilk. Transportation has done well out of plywood ever since: everything from canoes to racing cars to surfboards to skateboards.
Plywood's ability to be shaped obligingly is also what enticed modern furniture designers, including Marcel Breuer, Robin Day, Sori Yanagi and Charles and Ray Eames, to experiment so enthusiastically with it in the inter- and postwar periods.
While plywood became successful in the furniture industry because of its superficial nature, its unique structural qualities now mean it is most popular in the construction industry. Mid-rises everywhere from Vancouver and London use cross-laminated timber instead of steel for support, and the number of both floors and buildings the material supports is growing as technology develops.
Despite this, some of those latent Victorian concerns remain. I was walking past a furniture shop one day and there was a sign saying, '100% solid, 0% veneer!'" says Wilk. "I thought, wow, it's still going on today!"
"Plywood: Material of the Modern World" is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from July 15 to Nov. 12, 2017.