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Plywood

A Materials Exploration

Architectural Association School of Architecture, London

Today plywood is the oldest industrially manufactured sheet material on the market. Its use can be traced back to ancient Egypt, when veneer was applied for decorative purposes on furniture, tools and weapons. Covering the surfaces with ornamental layers of veneer increased the value of the objects. The dry Egyptian climate has preserved such artefacts for millennia, demonstrating the potentially unlimited lifespan of glued wood.

Plywood is constructed from multiple layers of wood veneer, which are glued together in a specified manner. The wood layers typically consist of an odd number of sheets with the grain of adjacent plies rotated up to 90 degrees, resulting in a hard wooden board that is ultimately stronger and more flexible than solid wood.

Industrial production of plywood began in the early 1930s. During World War II, improved technologies were developed to compress layers of veneer by applying heat and high pressure, which enabled mass production on a larger scale.

In the furniture industry, Alvar Aalto and Charles and Ray Eames are renowned for their pioneering use of plywood. They devised new techniques and experimented with the material to solve ergonomic and structural design problems.

In the early 1930s, the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto developed a structural principle that he called the ‘bent knee’. First, narrow parallel cuts were sawed lengthwise into the end of a piece of solid wood. Then thin sheets of veneer were glued into these slits, producing a laminating effect and allowing the wooden piece to be bent to the desired angle. Aalto himself described his chair leg as ‘the little sister of the architectural column’. The architect’s simple forms were a radical departure from the traditional voluminous furniture of the era, and paved the way for plywood.

Aalto’s innovative bent plywood furniture had a major influence on the designer couple Charles and Ray Eames. The Eameses had been experimenting with techniques for moulding plywood into three-dimensional shapes since their move to Los Angeles in the early 1940s. Inside their apartment, they built a contraption to bend layers of wood during the lamination process – a ‘magic box’ which they later enthusiastically named the ‘Kazam! machine’. Using this apparatus, they investigated the possibilities of plywood moulding techniques, and during the war Charles and Ray Eames became so proficient in wood moulding that they were able to manufacture equipment for the US Navy, such as leg and arm splints for wounded soldiers and moulded parts for aircraft. Thanks to their creative minds and endless curiosity, they also conceived a range of experimental objects, including plywood sculptures, animals and children’s furniture.

In 1945 the Eameses finally succeeded in producing seating out of moulded plywood: the Eames Plywood Chair immediately met with positive recognition amongst design critics and the public. By combining three-dimensionally moulded plywood elements with flexible rubber connections – so-called ‘shock mounts’ – they created one of the most famous chair designs of the twentieth century.

Reflecting on the development of the Plywood Chair, Charles Eames declared: ‘A chair should look equally good, approached from above or from below. If it’s going to be a chair, it should be a whole chair.’ This is precisely what Charles and Ray Eames achieved with their design: a chair that looks beautiful from all angles.

Time magazine called the Plywood Chair ‘the chair of the century’, while Eliot Noyes, the director of MoMA at the time, described it as ‘a compound of aesthetic brilliance and technical inventiveness’.

One of the material properties of plywood is its equal strength in every direction, which allows plywood pieces to be shaped into complex ergonomic forms.
In the mid-1950s, Verner Panton designed his S Chair in plywood. While working on this design, Panton drew on his previous experience collaborating on the Ant chair in Arne Jacobsen’s studio. The S Chair emerged as an avant-garde cantilever chair made from a continuous piece of plywood moulded into an S form.

Other designers who have made prominent use of plywood are Sori Yanagi with the Butterfly Stool, Jasper Morrison with the Ply Chair, and Jean Prouvé with the seats and backs of his Chaise Tout Bois and Standard.


Publication date: 11.12.2020
Author: Stine Liv Buur
Images: © Alvar Aalto Museum, Artek collection; © Eames Office, LLC; Vitra;