From tube trains to aeroplanes, skateboards to flat pack houses, plywood quite literally made the twentieth century. A recent exhibition at the V&A showed how this often overlooked material shaped the world we live in and revolutionised design. Exhibits included a 1932 armchair by Alvar Aalto, a 1941 British de Havilland Mosquito and Charles and Ray Eames’ famous 1947 DCM chair.

How It's Made

Plywood is made by softening timber with steam then rotary cutting it into thin veneer boards that are layered, glued and pressed together. The grains of each sheet run in alternate directions, resulting in a super-strong yet flexible material that can be used to make everything from aeroplanes to skateboards.

Origins

Plywood has been around since as early as 2600 BC in ancient Egypt and by the 18th century English furniture makers were using the same techniques to create the decorative patterns known as fretwork. It was towards the middle of the 19th century that technological advances allowed plywood to be made on an industrial scale. Designers and engineers started to see it as a viable alternative to cast metal thanks to its ability to be moulded into strong, curved forms.

Planes, trains and automobiles

A prototype plywood elevated railway was designed and built in American in the 1860s. Ridden by 75,000 people at the American Institute Fair in New York, its strength and lightness meant it was seriously considered as a viable alternative to the traditional underground railway made from cast iron.

Plywood still had an image problem though and was often hidden under other materials. It wasn’t until the 1920s that it started being celebrated in its own right as modernist designers and architects began using it in experimental forms. It also became a crucial material in aeroplane design as its strength and lightness were highly prized.

During the Second World War, De Havilland convinced the Air Ministry to commission their Mosquito plane with its moulded plywood monocoque fuselage instead of a metal design because it could be quickly and cheaply made. It became the fastest, highest-flying aeroplane of the Second World War.

Plywood was even used to make cars, which were stronger, quieter, lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient than their metal counterparts. From 1928 the German company DKW made the bodies of their affordable family cars from moulded and flat plywood.

Chairs and Houses

During the Great Depression in America, plywood’s affordability and the fact that it could be produced in a factory made it the solution to the housing crisis. In 1936 the Forest Products Laboratory showcased an 'all-wood' house at the Madison Home Show that could be factory-produced using standard plywood panels and erected on site by seven men in just 21 hours.

During WW2, American designers Charles and Ray Eames experimented with plywood, developing a new method for moulding complex curved shapes. This led to them designing plywood parts for aircraft and ultimately, their iconic DCM (dining chair metal) – one of the most influential and imitated pieces of furniture of the twentieth century. In the 1930s legendary Finnish designer Alvar Aalto designed a chair for a sanatorium. It had a thin, curved plywood seat that appeared to float between two narrow frames. In 1933 it went into mass production and was exported along with other designs by Aalto. His experimental use of plywood heavily influenced designers in America and the UK.

Future Perfect

Plywood is even more popular than ever and the digital revolution has taken this ever-adaptable material into the 21st century. Designers can now share their cutting files online, to be downloaded by people all over the world. They can then cut their own plywood on a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine and assemble the design themselves, or have it made by a local craftsman. The fact that plywood is cheap, available and standardised makes this possible. With its exposed edges and visible grain, the look of plywood also appeals to contemporary tastes, reflecting a wider interest in DIY construction and sustainable, natural material.