Many important examples of modernist furniture were made in plywood. Cheaper and more easily accessible than aluminium or steel, plywood was a key material for early 20th century designers such as Gerrit Rietveld, Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto, as well as mid-century modernists like Charles and Ray Eames, and contemporary figures including Jasper Morrison.
Plywood consists of at least three layers or veneers of wood which have been plied together with the grain running crosswise to add strength and resilience. The earliest examples of plywood furniture date back to the 18th century, but it was not until the 1850s that it was put into commercial production by John Henry Belter, a German emigré to the US.
Using heat to bend plywood in three dimensions, Belter produced eight pieces at once. But his innovations were obscured: first by the commercial success of other US plywood furniture makers, like Isaac Cole and the Gardener Company; then by the experiments of Thonet, the Austrian furniture manufacturer widely regarded as the pioneer of industrial furniture production.
Founded in Vienna in 1853 by Michael Thonet, a German cabinet maker who patented his bentwood furniture in 1841, Thonet experimented with plywood in the 1880s. Most of its furniture, notably the famous Chair No14, was made from bentwood, yet most of the early 20th century designers who worked with plywood claimed to be influenced by Thonet, rather than Belter or Cole.
The next advance in plywood technology was during World War I, when its quality, flexibility and durability were improved by research for the aviation industry. When the avant garde architects and designers of the 1920s searched for ways of making cheap mass-producible furniture, plywood looked like an attractive solution.
The first breakthrough was the 1927 chair with a seat made from a single piece of plyboard by Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, the Dutch cabinet maker and member of the De Stijl group. A lighter version of Rietveld’s chair was later mass-manufactured in molded plywood.
Alvar Aalto, the Finnish architect, took plywood to the next stage in 1933. After three years of experiments, he developed Armchair 41, the first ‘resilient’ plywood chair by suspending a one-piece seat within its own frame. "Though buoyant as a spring cushion, the seat back is virtually unbreakable," he boasted of Armchair 41, which was designed for the Paimio sanatorium.
Other plywood pioneers were less enthusiastic about the material. Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian-born architect and Bauhaus stalwart, reluctantly agreed to work in plywood when he sought refuge from Nazi Germany in London during the late 1930s. Breuer longed to continue designing in aluminium and tubular steel as he had in Germany, but Jack Pritchard, the British furniture maker who had encouraged him and other Bauhaus emigrés to settle in London, insisted that he worked in plywood. One reason was that Isokon, Pritchard’s company, specialised in plywood furniture. (His nickname was ‘Plywood Pritchard’.) Another was his conviction that British consumers preferred the warmth of wood, even in an industrialised form like plywood, to cold metal. Breuer designed five plywood pieces including the sinuous 1935-36 Isokon Longchair, which replicates the curves of the human body. His achievements were then clouded by a legal battle when Aalto’s British licensees tried (unsuccessfully) to stop production of his plywood designs.
Both Breuer and Aalto’s plywood experiments were admired by young US furniture designers, notably Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames: as were the multi-dimensional plywood designs of Gerald Summers, a British designer and manufacturer whose chairs were sold in the US during the late 1930s.
As students at Cranbrook in Michigan, Eames and Saarinen entered a Organic Designs in Home Furnishings Competition organised by the Museum of Modern Art in 1940, with a molded plywood chair and cabinet. Although they won first prize in both the categories, producing their designs was problematic. Yet Eames and his wife, Ray, continued their plywood experiments after leaving Cranbrook for Los Angeles, where they set up a makeshift studio in their apartment. The studio had to be kept secret from their landlord, while Charles smuggled woods and glues into the apartment from his ‘day job’ at the MGM movie studio. The couple designed more plywood chairs and, later, leg splints for the US Navy made from Douglas fir veneered in mahogany or birch and modelled on Charles’ own leg.
Other Eames' plywood pieces include children’s furniture, abstract sculptures and animals for children to sit on. When the Museum of Modern Art invited Charles Eames to stage its first "one man" furniture exhibition in 1946, the highlights (actually designed by Ray too) was the unveiling of the DCW (Dining Chair Wood) and DCM (Dining Chair Metal with a plywood seat) which reappeared in the ‘Good Design’ shows of the 1950s. They then added an opulent dimension to plywood by molding it into their 1956 Lounge Chair.
In the 1960s and 1970s, plywood fell from favour and as plastic became popular among avant garde designers. By the late 1980s, it seemed time-warped in the 1950s until the young British designer, Jasper Morrison, unveiled an installation, Some New Items For The House, at the 1988 Deutsche Werkstatt exhibition in Berlin. It was a replica room and everything in it - except for a couple of rugs and a Buckminster Fuller map - was made from plywood: the dining table and chairs, a pair of armchairs and a side table, a chaise longue, even the walls.
Like Gerald Summers and the Eameses, Morrison revelled in plywood’s flexibility by contrasting the rough texture of the walls with the sleekness of his subtly curved furniture. That year, one of Morrison’s contemporaries, the Australian designer, Marc Newson, exploited the sculptural qualities of the wood in the complex curves of his 1998 Wood Chair, a competition entry.
Both Morrison’s Plywood Chair and Newson’s Wood Chair were put into commercial production, by Vitra and Cappellini respectively. And the young furniture designers of the 1990s and early 2000s saw plywood as an intriguing vehicle for experimentation just as Rietveld and Aalto had in the 1920s.