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.

Spotlight on Charles and Ray Eames

 

‘A chair that looks like a crisp’ or ‘a folding screen that ripples’ are descriptions that are likely to bring to mind North American husband-and-wife design team, Charles and Ray Eames. Revered as two of the ‘most important designers of the 20th century’, their ‘grand sense of adventure’ made significant contributions to modern architecture, furniture design, industrial design and the photographic arts. In our ‘spotlight’ series about architects and designers who inspire us here at RISE Design Studio, we share some of the distinct characteristics of the designs developed by the Eames, trying to capture their spirit of ‘way-it-should-be-ness’ (when an object, through hard work and meticulous process, is realised in the incarnation of its ideal state).

RayEames-plywood

Mass-produced furniture

In the early 1940s, the Eames developed designs with a unique synergy that led to a new phase in how furniture looked and how it could be produced. When knowledge of their moulded-plywood method spread at this stage of their careers, they were asked to design moulded-plywood splints, stretchers and even aeroplance parts for the military during World War Two. After exhibiting their experimental moulded furniture at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1946, the Herman Miller Company in Michigan began to produce their furniture designs. The success of these initial designs of chairs with compound curves meant they went on to design and mass produce over 100 designs for these types of chairs over four decades, perhaps the most famous design being the moulded-plywood and leather lounge chair with matching footstool.

A mecca for modern architects

In 1949, the Eames switched their focus away from furniture, designing and building their own Californian home as part of a Case Study Home Program, sponsored at the time by an American architecture magazine. ‘The Eames House‘ (as it is known today) is where they lived for the rest of their lives and is considered a classic example of modern residential architecture, as well as a ‘must-see’ for today’s architectural students interested in this type of design. Intended as an experiment to realise the design of a house for a young married couple needing a place to live and work, the design of the house is perhaps as visionary today as it was all those decades ago.

From furniture to film and beyond

In the mid-1950s, the Eames began to focus more on their work as photographers and filmmakers. Charles Eames was an exceptional photographer and his photography work clearly permeated into their design work. The couple designed museum exhibitions, including the IBM Pavilion for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York and the Copernicus exhibition at the Smithsonian in the 1970s, both of which drew extensively on their photography and film work.

Looking forwards

Although Charles and Ray Eames are no longer with us (Charles died in 1978, Ray in 1988), members of their family run The Eames Office, which works on communicating, preserving and extending their work.

The Eames understood design as a solution rather than a luxury, and as something that is as much about industry as it is about art. Their vision of design that can get ‘the best to the greatest number of people for the least’ is perhaps one of the reasons why their designs are so timeless and why almost everyone recognises their work.