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.
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.
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.