Your flexible friend

With the 100th anniversary of Aalto’s birth and a major Eames retrospective at the Design Museum, everyone is bending over backwards for plywood. Hilary Hastings selects the key pieces.

Strong, lightweight, economical, environmentally friendly and often very beautiful, plywood can be considered one of the finest modern materials. However, just as most of the world’s great ideas were first thought of by ancient civilisations, the early Egyptians can lay claim to the invention of this most versatile composition of slices of wood and glue. But it is really only in the 20th century that we have developed the skills and technology to transform the humble sheet into furniture of exquisite beauty.

Ply began its modern life in the late 19th century when it could be mass-produced. “True ply is a composite of balanced construction,” explains Duncan King of the Engineered Wood Association. “This means that in cross-section the central line can be wood or glue, but it then has an equal number of sheets on either side of this. The grain of the wood alternates from running horizontally to running vertically, to give the structure its strength. Its first widescale industrial use was in running boards for early cars and then it went on to be featured in ships and planes and housing – one real notable success was its use as a lightweight cladding for the Mosquito bomber used in the last war.”

Today’s most widespread use of plywood is in the construction industry, where ply has been developed to achieve such strength that it is even used as a structural material.

However, its most poetic deployment is in furniture where the two-tone, striped cross-section adds an exciting edging to the curved and shaped pieces. Plywood’s possibilities have fascinated designers throughout the century and its durability has led to its use for seating, both in homes and even really punishing environments like schools, offices and restaurants.

For many reasons, including its in-built eco-friendliness and new moulding technologies, plywood is enjoying a renaissance in furniture manufacture. This year’s Spectrum show at the Royal College of Art was a sea of blonde wood. Indeed, such is the renewed desirability of ply that it even has its imitators, who use a cheap board and then edge it with a plastic strip of the distinctive two-tone stripe. If there’s no greater flattery than imitation, great designers like Arne Jacobsen and Charles and Ray Eames should be delighted by the cut-price near-copies that have recently come on sale in bargain furniture stores. Meanwhile, if you’re after the real thing, auction houses including Bonhams have been holding regular sales of 20th century classics and Vitra has relaunched a group of the stunning plywood furniture by the Eames.

Alvar Aalto

In the Twenties and Thirties, as central European designers were immersed in their fascination with the machine aesthetic, those further north took a more gentle approach. While the Bauhaus was turning out industrial-style light fittings, concrete sculpture and tubular steel furniture, the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto was reconciling this refreshing blast of modernity with his affection for Scandinavian tradition and his instinct for more humanist design.

Being in plentiful supply, wood was a material he enjoyed using, and plywood’s flexible nature proved particularly appealing. He admired the work he saw produced in Europe and furnished his own apartment with furniture by Marcel Breuer, Mart Stam and Mies van der Rohe. However, although his own designs shared the clean, stripped economy of the International Style, he brought to it his own interpretations. His most brilliant early work was the sanatorium at Paimio, which is moored like a great white liner in the forested countryside.

Although only 30 years-old when working on these designs, he showed tremendous sensitivity to the needs of users – the door handles are designed to prevent catching coat sleeves, lamps were positioned to prevent glare, and wardrobes were wall-hung to make cleaning easier. In this same spirit, his Paimio Chair with its square and squat bent ply frame and sheet of undulating ply to make the seat and backrest, was designed to encourage better breathing. The choice of plywood was carefully considered. “We soon changed over to wood, because a lot of this nickel or chromium-plated steel furniture seemed too harsh, psychologically, for the environment of sick people,” he said.

This was the start of a career of experimentation in bending and forming wood. In collaboration with his wife Aino and the manufacturer/craftsman Otto Korhonen, Aalto developed a new process for bending ply and solid woods that made possible his fluid designs. Still in production are the neat, three-legged stools conceived for the Viipuri Library and a handful of armchairs including the elegant Paimio.

Charles and Ray Eames

Just about every photograph of Charles and Ray Eames shows them smiling broadly; he’s tall and handsome, she looks like a chubby Doris Day, the ideal husband and wife team. It’s all so Brave New World, so very Post-War US of A.

But there’s another, less attractive, period detail: despite the fact that they worked jointly, Charles seems to have grabbed more than his fair share of the credit for their output. And this is no more plainly advertised than in the couple’s plywood chair collection. When it was first shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1946 the exhibition was, quite bluntly, called New Furniture designed by Charles Eames. Ray’s lack of credit makes you question the balance of input in the plywood experiments during the late Thirties collaboration with Eliel and Eero Saarinen. After all, Eliel Saarinen knew Alvar Aalto and must have discussed his plywood designs of the Thirties. That said, no one can deny Charles’s contribution to 20th century design and, together, the Eames worked on buildings, toys, films, exhibitions and furniture. “Charles changed the way the 20th century sat down,” said the Washington Post.

The couple met in 1940 in the dynamic, creative hothouse that was the Cranbrook Academy of Art, outside Detroit. Eliel Saarinen was the school’s president. Charles was there as head of the industrial design department. New York artist Ray Kaiser attended as a student of weaving, ceramics and metalwork. They shared the school’s post-Depression idealistic philosophy that better design could improve lives and before long they were working together. Their first collaboration was for the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition. This was a project headed by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames for which Ray contributed presentation drawings of much of the furniture. They won first prize and the smooth-form, sculpted furniture, including a piece in three-dimensionally moulded plywood, went on show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1941.

In the summer of that year the couple married and moved to Los Angeles – the aviation capital of the US. Here they set to work on experiments in moulding plywood. To speed the work, they secured funding from the US military to develop a plywood splint to replace the inefficient metal ones in use. At last they could test their ideas for moulded ply in mass-production and, in November 1942, the US Navy placed its first order for 5000 legs splints.

Building on this expertise Ray produced large, highly-wrought plywood sculptures that showed off her new-found virtuosity in making compound curves. This accumulated knowledge was fed back into their furniture designs and into chairs in particular. The goal they set themselves was to make a one-piece plywood chair with moulded seat and back. However, the technology was still too raw to achieve this and they had to settle for a chair composed of separate shaped elements.

By 1946 their experiments and designs culminated in the now instantly-recognisable DCW and LCW plywood chairs with their deep-scooped seats and curved backs fixed on to the hooped plywood legs. These great classics, unveiled at the Moma exhibition of 1946, won instant acclaim. The handling of plywood was clearly a breakthrough, the elegant minimal design was startling to the Forties consumer, and their ergonomic form and lightly sprung seat and backrest made them extremely comfortable. The chairs were put into mass-production along with the fast-selling variation using a tubular metal frame.

Further experiments produced the plywood folding screen, tables and, ten years later, the luxurious Lounge Chair with its three-piece ply shell and leather-upholstery. However, by this time they had discovered the ideal material for realising their dream of a one-piece chair and had moved on a stage to producing sculpted chair forms in glass fibre-reinforced plastic.

The Work of Charles and Ray Eames is featured in a major retrospective at the Design Museum, Butlers’ Wharf, London SE1, from 15 September to 3 January.

Nanna Ditzel

Continuing the distinguished line of Scandinavian designers working with plywood, Nanna Ditzel relishes the opportunity to test the material. Her latest chair, Tempo, is intriguingly soft, the ply appears to have been draped over its steel frame. It is produced by Denmark-based Fredericia and is available in the UK through Howe. “I started to work with ply in the Fifties. Of course, I knew of Aalto’s work and the pieces designed by the Eames. From the designer’s point of view things have become much easier since then; in the Fifties we were limited to moulding in just two dimensions, bending just one way, but now, of course, with stronger presses it’s possible to achieve much more sophisticated shapes. I believe the reason we love ply so much now is because, with increasingly good technology, it can be shaped freely,” she says.

A product of the interaction of design with improving technology, one of Ditzel’s landmark chairs is the Trinidad, remarkable for its pattern of slits cut from the ply in the shape of a fan. She was inspired by the decorative fretsaw work of folk art during her time living in the Caribbean. “The chair was only made possible by the introduction during the past five or six years of improved cutting facilities,” she says.

“In my workshop I try experiments and make models of the near-impossible and then present this as a challenge to the ply manufacturers and furniture makers. When they are intrigued, they find ways of solving the problem.” This was certainly the case with the new Tempo chair with its complex shaping. “Here I have been able to introduce an advance in production too – the chair is not screwed or riveted to its frame, its shape allows the ply to sit over the metal and then it is glued.”

One of Ditzel’s preoccupations is the scope offered by plywood produced in varying thicknesses within one sheet. “This really is an exciting development; once a pattern is made, the ply can be produced with perhaps thicker parts for seat and thinner areas for bending and wrapping round arms. Ply has tremendous strength, in some parts of a structure just a couple of millimetres thickness is all that is required. I still have the prototype for my Bench For Two which was made with 1mm aircraft-grade ply – this was stepped up to 2mm but it remains a great lesson in economy,” she says.

Ron Arad

Having forged his name in steel, Ron Arad has also produced stunning furniture designs using plywood. Among the most delightful examples is the Schizo Chair manufactured by Vitra. The name derives from the fact that it sits happily on its own as a solid, interlocking piece of furniture, or can be pulled apart to make a pair of chairs composed of vertical strips of ply. The pair can be stored in its own aluminium box which itself makes a third seat.

Another beautiful piece – A Suitable Case, is described as a “tight-fit” case for the London Papardelle chair. The flowing lines of the ply hug the shape of the chair inside. “I came to ply because I wanted to do something with wood that did not involve sticking one lump to another,” he says. The first project was the Empy chair for Driade, as seen in Belgo. This has an intricately moulded shape including a seat which wraps round under the inclined back legs showing off the ply to dazzling effect.

“The company asked me to use timber and the brief stated it should be a piece of high design that could be economically produced in the Far East. I ignored this because I felt very strongly that it was important to use the very highly developed furniture-making skills of Italian artisans. Driade liked the design and it’s now made in Italy,” says Arad.

The Schizo Chair exploits plywood in an entirely different way. “The ply is moulded almost like an extrusion, then sliced like salami.” Perhaps his most conventional use of ply is in the Suitable Case: “It’s bent and curved in just one direction, this is using ply as ply.”

Jasper Morrison

For sheer understated elegance it’s difficult to beat Jasper Morrison’s plywood furniture of the late Eighties. In Morrison’s hands, the blonde wood has an innocence and simplicity that makes the pieces almost resemble doll’s house furniture. A Modernist doll’s house, of course.

“Ply was the chosen material because it was readily available and could be shaped into pieces of furniture using unsophisticated machinery. Designs such as the Plychair were completed shortly after I’d left college and ply was ideal for the prototype because I could make it up myself,” says Morrison.

Plychair continues to be produced by Vitra and features the neat detail of having a concave cross-brace under the seat, which allows the ply to give when sat upon. Other adventures in ply include the curvy desk for Galerie Neotu, the plywood and aluminium Chair 3 for Cappellini and, for the same producer, the neat and spare Universal System storage units. Though Morrison is currently exploring plastics, steel and timber, he continues to have an affection for ply: “Its use tends to go in waves, there’s been a fairly strong revival in the past few years. Though I haven’t used it for a while, it certainly isn’t cancelled from my list of materials.”

Carl Clerkin

A recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, Carl Clerkin is part of the new wave of designers working with ply. “For me, its appeal is that it’s a ready-to-go material, it’s easy to handle and form and doesn’t even need a finish,” he says. His latest work using the material is a cleaning trolley. “The idea was to build in value to something we think of as a chore. It’s not so much making cleaning fun, as making fun out of cleaning. For me, ply is associated with pleasurable things – it reminds me of the cases that old record players were built into. With companies like Ikea using a lot of birch ply and selling for rock bottom prices, the effect has been to cheapen the image of ply, but if you look beyond that, it really has great value,” he says.

Sarah Wakefield

“For the past two years I’ve worked solely in ply because I’ve found it such a versatile material. It’s strong, stable, sculptural and has little wastage.” Sarah Wakefield has just graduated in Furniture Design and Craftsmanship at

Buckinghamshire College. Among her eye-catching pieces is a table with huge arched plywood legs and a nimble curved plywood bookshelf. “With every piece I’ve tried to make the most of plywood’s properties and use each in a different way. The bookshelf, for example, was made with thin flexible ply which I laminated together, four sheets at a time, and then held in a form. As the glue dried it fixed the curved shape. The pieces are then designed to simply slot together.”

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