Charting Flexiblility

Ubiquitous, cheap and light, plywood is the focus of an exhibition opening at the V&A, London, this summer. The focus on one particular material is eminently justified: these glued layers of board can be found everywhere, from WWII aeroplanes to the IKEA shopfloor — and many places in between. In this respect, the V&A take a profitably social-historical approach. Despite being pervasive in everyday lives, plywood was much maligned in its early days, and was often disguised to resemble high quality timber. It has not, therefore, received much in the way of scholarly or curatorial attention until now.

But things that assume quotidian prevalence are intrinsically significant, and this particular collection of objects makes that fact abundantly clear. Many of them are on public display for the first time. The material’s trajectory is also ripe for exploration: we see how its malleability has inspired furniture designers, engineers, architects and more. Essentially, its fundamental flexibility has allowed for questions into physical form that would otherwise be extremely complex to produce.

Throughout the 20th century, this property can be credited with its growing popularity and eventual aesthetic acceptance. Charles and Ray Eames, for example, made wide use of it in their celebrated designs, as did modernists such as Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, Grete Jalk and Robin Day. Iconic items from each of these creators are on display. Somewhat more idiosyncratic but, arguably, no less important uses can be found in the hard-wearing covers of a book especially printed for an Antarctic expedition, the chassis of a race car and pioneering work in surf and skate boards.

Bigger notions about technological change are also brought to the fore: sections on specific technical moments explain how mass production became possible. These are especially interesting when counterposed with the reasons behind reputational change. What factors finally won plywood respect? Whilst this show takes audiences on a journey through the last two centuries, it also forms part of an ongoing resonance, or afterlife, showing the role museums can play in imbuing materials with cultural significance.

Plywood: Material of the Modern World opens 15 July at V&A, London. For more information:

1. Ice skating shelters, Patkau Architects, 2012, Winnipeg. © Patkau Architects.