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Got wood: inside the V&A’s new plywood exhibition

PUBLISHED: 12:17 13 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:04 13 July 2017

Workman carrying a complete Deperdussin monocoque fuselage, Deperdussin factory, Paris, about 1912, © Musée de l’Air (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Workman carrying a complete Deperdussin monocoque fuselage, Deperdussin factory, Paris, about 1912, © Musée de l’Air (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

© Musée de l’Air (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

In a world-first exhibition, plywood is placed under the microscope for an in-depth look at the material that’s full of surprises.

Alvar Aalto, armchair, Finland, 1930, © Alvar Aalto Museum (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London) Alvar Aalto, armchair, Finland, 1930, © Alvar Aalto Museum (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

From planes, trains and automobiles to tea chests and hat boxes: plywood is the material of the past, present and future. Now, for the first time, an exhibition at the V&A has documented the historic multiplicity of uses of plywood across the globe.

If your knowledge of wood isn’t exhaustive, plywood is made from thin layers of wood veneer, glued together to form a light and strong form of engineered wood. The versatility of plywood and its propensity not to shrink or warp has lent itself to its use in everything from a 1908 plywood-bound book printed during the Nimrod Antarctic expedition, to a 1917 moulded canoe and a 60s British racing car.

The exhibition space in the Porter Gallery is small but well used with over 120 objects on show. Models of the fastest flying aeroplane of the Second World War, the Havilland Mosquito and a recreation of the self-assembly WikiHouse fill up every inch of the space (which is itself constructed of plywood).

Through a range of multimedia resources, visitors are given a history of plywood’s technological past, and its contribution to social and economic history.

Moulded plywood chair designed by Grete Jalk, 1963, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London Moulded plywood chair designed by Grete Jalk, 1963, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From its early beginnings in the 1850s with the invention of the rotary veneer cutter, plywood was seen as a technological solution that was considered rather ugly. It was only after its widespread wartime use that it was reconsidered and seen as a material of the future. It was adopted as a global design style by Modernist pioneers such as Marcel Breuer, who worked for the Isokon company, and Charles and Ray Eames thanks to the advent of innovative moulding techniques. In the modern age, it is now dominant in digital manufacture and CNC cutting.

Chirstopher Wilk, exhibition co-curator and keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, said: “Plywood is such a common, every day 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.”

For a material with such an illustrious history and notable contribution to our global utility and design heritage over the years, it is surprising that plywood has escaped our attention for so long as the composite has, quite literally, shaped our material past.

Iris pendant light, available in Oak or Walnut as standard, �475 (large), �395 (small). Bespoke timber options available, but subject to extra charge dependent on choice, www.macmasterdesign.com, 01299 861 738 Iris pendant light, available in Oak or Walnut as standard, �475 (large), �395 (small). Bespoke timber options available, but subject to extra charge dependent on choice, www.macmasterdesign.com, 01299 861 738

Get the look

To get the look in your own home, Made.com have partnered with the V&A to design their first ever range of offline products available at the V&A shop. The range includes everything from clocks and pen pots to mirrors, combining the two major of-the-moment interior trends of Scandi smoothness, and the Japanese preoccupation with wood.

Ruther Wassermann, head of design at Made.com, said: “Plywood as a material has hidden depths. Created to have more strength and reliability than solid wood, its development as a mouldable material has changed furniture design immeasurably through the 20th century, and with current moods around provenance and honesty of material, has now come into its own for its decorative properties. Plywood is integral to the soft wooden curves of Nordic design and features in furniture and home accessories from every design style at Made.com.”

For a little local inspiration, the Isokon Building in Hampstead was one of the residences created by Isokon, formed in London in 1929 to design Modernist buildings. Its sister Furniture Company never took off since the Second World War put an end to its plywood supply, but many of the remaining flats continue to demonstrate the material in use.

Plywood interior dividing walls hark back to the original Modernist minimalist vision, when the material was used in all the flats Plywood interior dividing walls hark back to the original Modernist minimalist vision, when the material was used in all the flats

Plywood: material of the modern world opens on Saturday, 15 July at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Knightsbridge and is free to visit. See the website for more details. Plywood: a material story by Christopher Wilk is published by the V&A and Thames & Hudson, £29.95.

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