Material Design


Material of the Modern World

Doll’s chair with moulded plywood seat and back. Gardner & Company, 1875, New York.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has recently unveiled a new exhibition exploring the history and countless uses of Plywood. Structuring a route which follows the history of the material, from the actual tree trunk to its modern applications, the gallery has managed to intrigue even a casual visitor like myself.

Plywood is a material beloved by designers worldwide due to its strength, flexibility and relatively inexpensive production costs — characteristics which make plywood particularly suitable for mass production. Firstly appeared about 150 years ago, it has since been an essential component in the production of cars, aeroplanes, furniture, buildings, and digital manufacture.

Formula Two racing car with plywood body, Frank Costin, 1967.

Throughout the history, plywood was shaped and adapted to meet the needs of people, and especially professionals, worldwide. Book covers, cases, prefabricated houses, and even railway carriages were entirely, or partially, built out of plywood.

Prototype of a plywood tubular rail system in operation at the American Institute Fair, New York, in 1867.

The cult for plywood has recently made its mark into digital design. The Edie Set in one of the latest design prototypes built entirely from plywood and distributed through Opendesk: “Designers share designs for products that can be downloaded and made locally using the latest digital tools. We call this model Open Making”(Opendesk).

Modern technologies have made possible the introduction of plywood into three-dimensional solids and architects are currently researching new ways to manufacture wood to replace existing, less sustainable materials.

Winnipeg Ice-Skating Shelters, Patkau Architects, 2011. (left) | Moulded plywood chair, designed by Grete Jalk, 1963. (right)

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.