An exhibition themed around a material is a hard act to pull off particularly where the material is as commonplace as plywood but the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition ‘Plywood: Material of the Modern World’ makes a great success of it. Not too short to be insubstantial yet not too long to be boring and with a great story to tell.
Plywood is of course a sheet material manufactured from thin layers of wood veneer glued together with adjacent layers having their grain rotated by 90 degrees giving it strength, dimensional stability and light weight.
The exhibition covers the history of the material and its diverse uses which include furniture, aircraft and buildings etc. It brings the story up to date with the opportunities for the mass manufacture of plywood pieces using digital design files anywhere in the world where there is access to a digital cutting machine.
At the part of the exhibition dealing with aircraft I thought of my uncle, Squadron leader Bill Brodie DSO DFM, who piloted mosquito bombers during the second world war. Nicknamed ‘the wooden wonder’ the De Havilland Mosquito was constructed almost entirely of plywood – the fuselage was a monocoque design that came together in two halves lengthwise.
Unfortunately later on I also thought of IKEA. I’m at the stage where I hope to never see another piece of flatpack furniture. What IKEA sells is cheap and some of it is well designed but you have the overwhelming impression that most of what you are looking at is going to end up in a skip in the not too distant future. You can furnish a teenage student’s flat with it and not feel the need to enquire what has become of it when the course is over.
Used creatively and true to its nature (ie celebrated for what it is with its qualities dictating the way in which it is used) plywood can be a super and cost effective choice. I just finished a refurbishment project with a bespoke plywood kitchen by Mark Heeler Kitchens. The minimalist aesthetic featured clean lines with exposed plywood faces and edges.