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Plywood: Material of the Modern World, V&A exhibition

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This staple of the building industry may not seem the most glamorous subject, but the sheer range of items from Second World War planes to Eames chairs makes for an exuberant celebration, says Rupert Bickersteth

As you walk off Cromwell Road into the Grand Entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the huge Murano glass Chihuly chandelier hanging in the rotunda immediately prompts consideration of design, the object, the handmade and the unexplained – innovation and creativity.

You glance right to the brightly lit Renaissance gallery littered with sculpture and stained glass by Della Robbia, Donatello and Michelangelo. On your left, in the large shoebox space of the Porter Gallery, is a dramatically lit cacophony of even more objects, all of them constructed from plywood. Aeroplanes, canoes and boats hang from ceilings, racing cars break out into the space of the main entrance itself, with stacks of hat boxes, wall-mounted chairs and protuberant surfboards jostling behind.

The point is that the V&A has always been about stuff and lots of stuff at that (2.3 million objects spanning 5,000 years of human creativity). The museum’s new director, Tristram Hunt, was right when he said in his introduction that only at the V&A would you find exhibitions of Pink Floyd and Plywood. The stuff in its collection is omni-spanning – the art of the V&A being to exhibit it in educational, engaging and exciting ways.

An exquisite Aalto drawing of his 1939 Finnish pavilion shows a three-tiered wall of sculptural plywood inspired by the Northern Lights.

Plywood: Material of the Modern World is, Hunt claims, a world-first exhibition on a world-changing material. And while plywood, undeniably, has a long and fascinating history, it is perhaps the ennui of ubiquitous IKEA rip-offs that initially prevents this show appearing as a thrilling prospect when pitched against the dark side of the moon and other saucerfuls of secrets. Certainly, when I told colleagues and friends I was off to an exhibition on plywood it was met with a mixed, often pitying response.

Thankfully the curators have worked hard to present the huge variety of use that this light, strong, affordable and versatile material allows. They throw more than a hundred objects at the visitor in a small, sometimes cramped space. However, the clamour of objects ultimately works in the show’s favour and the smorgasbord brings an excitement that flows from plywood’s industrial material beginnings in the 1850s all the way through to the CNC Wikihouse project – via Second World War aeroplanes and Charles and Ray Eames chairs.

There is lots for the designer in this exhibition, but also for the architect. Today plywood is a staple of the building industry but it was not until the 1930s that architects and builders first began to experiment with it as a building material. Low-cost and with standardised factory production, the invention of synthetic glues in the 1930s added waterproofness to its list of attributes. It was deployed on a national scale in the USA in the 30s and 40s, spurred on by the Great Depression and a growing need for cheap housing. Simultaneously it was heavily promoted to industry, often at world’s fairs. And there is a beautiful moment of calm in the show, in a little plywood cabin, where photographs and drawings of the use of the material at these world’s fairs are sensitively exhibited. An exquisite Alvar Aalto drawing of his proposal for the Finnish pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair illustrates a three-tiered wall of sculptural plywood inspired by the Northern Lights.

Alvar Aalto drawing of design for the Finnish pavilion at the New York World Fair of 1939-40

Alvar Aalto drawing of a design for the Finnish pavilion at the New York World Fair of 1939-40. 

Source: the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As you progress clockwise down and round the rectangular Porter gallery (with above-mentioned cabin sitting at the far end), taking in the objects and drawings and potted histories, there are three innovative and educational wall-mounted displays on plywood’s manufacturing process. The show is not just an account of plywood products and uses but also an account of the history of its production and how it has been made and processed over the years: the invention of the rotary veneer cutter in the early 19th century; the advent of moulding techniques that enabled the innovations of 1930s Modernist design; and the recent dominance of the material for CNC-cutting and digital manufacture.

Its reputation transformed from a cheap product maligned for its inferiority to solid timber, to a material prized by Modernists

The exhibition is co-curated by the V&A’s Christopher Wilk, keeper of furniture, textiles and fashion, and Elizabeth Bisley, curator in the same department. It combines significant new research with new acquisitions and objects that have never before been on public display. It might lack some of the glamour of Pink Floyd, but it impressively and exuberantly celebrates plywood’s many reputational transformations: from a cheap product that was often hidden or maligned for its inferiority to solid timber, to a material prized by mid-century Modernists as well as today’s flourishing maker movement.

The V&A is a treasure trove for exploring and it’d be impossible to visit and only see this show. For starters, it extends to the Madjeski Garden where a cluster of sleek Patkau plywood skating shelters nestle under the Victorian eaves of Aston Webb’s monumental building. There’s also AL_A’s Exhibition road quarter courtyard to explore if you haven’t already. Nevertheless, this little exhibition does a fine job of maintaining the educational, engaging and exciting display of some of the ‘stuff’ in the museum’s mind-boggling collection.

Plywood: Material of the Modern World is free at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 until 12 November, 2017.

Waugh Thistelton Architects’ model

Waugh Thistleton’s model features towards the end of the exhibition where new plywood technologies are explored, alongside a giant CLT dowel by Shigeru Ban.

Waugh thistelton

L-R: CLT structure of the model in the Waugh Thistleton workshop before cladding and other building materials are added to it on the right.

Waugh thistelton model detail 2

Details of the Waugh Thistleton model in-situ in the exhibition.  

Waugh thistelton model crop

Labelled render of the Waugh Thistleton model detailing all the different materials applied to the CLT structure



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