History of plywood and its present day use

 

We have recently completed several projects that have used plywood as a feature material. Plywood is made by gluing together thin sheets of wood (‘veneers’), with the grain of each sheet running in a different direction. The result is a material that is stronger and more flexible than solid wood. The history of plywood has been described as “a history of the modern world” – plywood started to be used on an industrial scale in the 1850s. In this post, we take a quick journey through that history and reflect on the uses of plywood in architecture and design today.

Plywood kitchen design self build london

The art of moulded plywood

In the mid to late 1800s, plywood was most commonly used in moulded form and was used mainly in furniture design. The ‘Belter Chair’ was most famous at this time, as the technique of moulding plywood to make this high-backed chair increased manufacturing speeds and reduced production costs.

The Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, was also one of the pioneers in curved plywood furniture, enabling large-scale manufacture of chairs and other furniture designs that were exported across the world in the early 1900s.

American designers Charles and Ray Eames also experimented with moulded plywood during the Second World War, developing a lightweight, stackable plywood leg splint for the armed forces. The Eames Chair, also in moulded plywood, was one of the most influential chairs of the mid to late 20th century and continues to be adapted and imitated by designers around the world.

Ray Eames - stackable plywood leg splint for the armed forces

Plywood transportation

Cars, trains, boats and planes are perhaps not the first things to spring to mind when thinking about plywood. However, during the 1800s, designers and engineers explored ways to deal with increasingly crowded streets. An elevated railway, made entirely as a moulded plywood tube was suggested in 1867 in New York, and in the early 1900s, a German company extolled the virtues of using moulded and flat plywood for the body of their affordable family cars.

Perhaps more familiar would be the use of moulded plywood in canoes. From 1917, the US firm Haskell manufactured moulded plywood canoes and sold them in large numbers across the world. The boats were very light and very strong.

The firm went on to design aeroplanes using plywood and this was perhaps the most technologically significant phase of the material’s history. Between 1910 and 1945, its strength and lightness allows innovative new planes that ‘revolutionised the nature of flight’. Moulded plywood shells (the ‘monocoque’) were strong enough to be self-supporting (they didn’t need any internal structure) and became standard in future aeroplane design.

Plywood at home

In the 1930s, plywood was perfectly suited in the construction of prefabricated houses for people on low incomes during the Great Depression. With the invention of synthetic glues at the same time, it was possible for plywood manufacturers to produce waterproof plywood for external use.

Plywood in the digital age

Today, plywood is one of the most common materials of the digital age. It is possible for designers to share plywood projects via digital cutting files, or videos and other images posted online. It continues to be widely used in residential and commercial architecture projects, and its ‘clean’ finish is appreciated by a growing market interested in using sustainable materials that are sourced responsibly.

Build your own home

 

Tens of thousands of people in the UK have built their own home. It can cost a lot of money, take a lot of time to plan and manage, and require a lot more attention to detail than when buying an existing property, but many find that it is worth it to ensure they live in a home that suits their requirements and tastes. In this post, we tell you a bit about what is involved in building your own home so that you can decide whether or not it is for you.

New build architect london

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Self-build properties now account for nearly ten per cent of all private new-build homes in the UK each year. While ‘self-build’ may conjure images of statement ‘Grand Designs’ properties, most tend to have relatively modest designs. This helps the design to receive planning permission and receive funding from mortgage lenders. Mortgages tend to be ‘interest only’, with the borrower paying interest when money is drawn down at the completion of each stage of the build.

A larger deposit than that for buying an existing home is usually required, and additional early costs include buying the building plot, funding planning applications, as well as employing an architect, project manager and a builder. It is ideal to source the architect and construction team via word of mouth, preferably from others who have gone through the self-build process.

Institutional support and finding a plot

As a rule of thumb, building your own home costs £1,500-£2,000 per square metre, although any changes to the original design and spefication during the construction phase can increase these values. Although initial costs are higher than for buying an existing home, there are tax advantages to building a new home rather than extending your current (or an existing) property: new self-builds qualify for rebates on VAT, for example, with the self-builder able to claim back most of the VAT paid on materials. Although VAT cannot be reclaimed on professionals’ fees, nor on household appliances, the average VAT reclaim for one-off schemes is about £13,200.

The Housing Strategy for England (2011) set out the expectation that the number of self-built properties in England would double, with 100,000 to be completed by 2021. In 2016, several legal measures have facilitated more self and custom builds by placing a duty on councils to allocate land for this purpose. Despite this legislation (the Housing and Planning Act), access to land in London remains an issue, as does gaining planning permission and accessing the required funding.

Demolish and redevelop

While there may be few plots with planning permission available, estate agents tend to know about properties that are suitable for demolition and redevelopment. This is likely to be more expensive than buying land with planning permission (i.e. the value of the building is included and there are also demolition costs), but it tends to be easier to get planning permission via this route.

The most important aspect of a self-build project is staying on budget. This requires a project team that estimates the cost of the build accurately and keeps to this quote. A good project manager is crucial in this regard. If you would like to discuss a new self-build project with us, please get in touch.

Spotlight on Jean Prouvé

 

French architect and designer, Jean Prouvé (1902-1984), has been described as one of the most influential designers of the early modern design movement. Once quoted as saying “never design anything that cannot be made”, he combined engineering and design to produce a wide range of furniture and prefabricated architecture. An influential force among modern designers and constructionally-minded architects, we also take inspiration from his work here at RISE Design Studio.

Jean Prouve RISE Design Studio

Modern metal furniture

A apprenticeship in his teenage years with a Parisian metalsmith led Prouvé to become a master of of various metals. Opening his own workshop, Atelier Prouvé in Nancy, he became adept at working with wrought iron and steel at scale, creating numerous furniture designs and then opening his own factory. He fabricated lamps, chandeliers, and handrails, as well as the famous ‘La Chaise Inclinable’, the first reclining chair to use the technique of flat steel tubes, which allowed the chairs to be stacked.

He collaborated with some of the best-known French modern designers of the time, such as Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand, and his early successes led to the mass-production of his furniture (tables, chairs, shelves, etc.) for universities, hospitals, offices and schools. Tables made via an innovative method of folding sheet material were described as having “the perceived lightness of bridges and the presence of architecture”.

Prefabricated architecture

During World War II, Prouvé was commissioned to design prefabricated barracks for the French army. This allowed him to develop the structural system that became central to his later architectural designs. The roof and walls were supported by large A-shaped columns that a ridge beam could be slotted into.

In the 1950s, Prouvé devoted more and more of his time to the challenges of prefabricated architecture. His own house, which he designed as a prototype, is now considered a major development in prefab housing and, even today, engineers can’t always grasp the complexity of the bracing and support system that he set up intuitively in the structures he created.

His ‘demountable houses’ combined easy assembly and structural integrity that were used in a range of scenarios in a number of countries: durable housing for homeless war victims, manufacturers’ offices, and rural schools, to name a few.

The poetics of the technical object

Many of Prouvé’s furniture pieces are still manufactured by a Swiss furniture retailer, and his prefabricated houses remain preserved and regularly displayed. In 2008, Prouvé’s ‘Maison Tropicale’ (developed in the 1950s to address housing shortages in French colonies) was assembled in front of the Tate Modern in London to coincide with an exhibition of his work at the London Design Museum.

Since 2010, there has been reinvigorated interest in Prouvé’s prefabricated architecture. Many have been sold to collectors as installation art and, at a time when architects, planners and governments are becoming increasingly interested in addressing the issues associated with mass affordable housing, his ideas are being developed, adapted and modernised to suit modern day needs and increase their original material and economic efficiencies.

The Search for Totality

 

We are researching a method of designing our projects ‘in totality’, an approach developed by Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen. Using this concept, we plan to research and design a range of ‘imperfect’ yet universally appealing products that would be handmade in London using raw materials like wood, metals and glass. Initial ideas include door handles, threshold details, light fittings, furniture, light switch plates and knobs, and plug sockets. As we undertake this exciting piece of research, this short blog post explains Arne Jacobsen’s approach in some more detail and reflects on how his unique Scandinavian architectural tradition has had a profound impact on international architecture.

totality interior design london

A life’s work

Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971) designed numerous notable buildings of the 20th century, ranging from theatres, sports halls and schools, to hotels, the Danish National Bank and St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Although first and foremost an architect, he is arguably most remembered since his death in 1971 as an interior design innovator, thanks to his prolific and diverse designs. He created a range of modernist chairs in the 1950s that are still widely seen today (examples include the ant chair, the tongue chair, the swan chair and the egg chair), and his collaboration in the late 1960s with VOLA led to the design of a customisable system of plumbing fittings meant for both kitchen and bathroom. The mechanical parts of the VOLA series are all hidden, leaving only the spout and handle visible to the user – a completely new concept at the time. This design is now recognised and found across the world and in many prestigious buildings such as the German Reichstag in Berlin, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. In conjunction with specific building projects, he also designed a wide assortment of textiles, lighting fixtures, door handles, cutlery, tableware, clocks and other accessories that were awarded many prestigious accolades and can now be seen in design museums around the world.

The goal of totality

Arne Jacobsen’s goal was totality. He strived to create total concepts, whereby everything was designed with a common thread between the building, the furniture and other interior décor so that all parts were ‘in harmony’. As his portfolio of projects completed in this way grew, the quality of the products he designed became so highly regarded that, although they were developed for specific building projects, they had such universal application and appeal that they became part of standard production. The VOLA design is still popular today, inspiring bathroom and kitchen designs that ‘clean-up’ the aesthetics of these rooms.

As we continue to research and design our own range of interior design products that use local materials and complement our architectural projects, we will be inspired by the timeless, holistic approach that Jacobsen used so successfully.