Materials in focus: plywood

Materials in focus: plywood


Dominika Švandová

In 2001, the Plywood chair by Ray and Charles Eames was named the design of the 20th century by the Time magazine. Not only could this design icon not deny its aesthetic excellence, it also started innovative use of plywood, which was, for its qualities, rapidly gaining popularity with designers and consumers alike. Join us as we delve into the history of design as written by this very material.

As early as the 1830s, the first daring designers began experimenting with gluing layers of veneer. Among them was Michael Thonet, who eventually used the technique with solid wood. It wasn't until a century later that plywood received its full attention. Its use was greatly accelerated during the war years, when the strong, lightweight, and not very costly form of wood proved its worth in a wide range of manufacturing applications, from aircraft to medical equipment.


Vitra Eames Plywood


It is the plywood splints and stretchers that bring us to the aforementioned designer couple, Ray and Charles Eames, who were able to apply their experience with bent plywood both in a commission for the US Navy and in their designs of decorative objects and seating furniture. They were the first ever to shape the material in three dimensions. In this way, they created curves that provide comfortable seating even without upholstery. Thus, when the collection of Plywood chairs was first introduced to the public in 1946, it was already clear that they would become a valued contribution to the world of design. The fact that it was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is further evidence of it. 

Vitra Plywood Chair


Vitra Plywood Chair


Vitra Plywood LCW

Meanwhile, plywood has made its way to the European continent. Not surprisingly, one of the first to bet on its great properties was Alvar Aalto. The Finnish architect and designer has always been enthusiastic about discovering new production processes that push the boundaries of working with wood.  He placed the shaped plywood in a frame made of bent solid birch lamella, thus achieving his goal of creating a simple, easy-to-clean chair. As part of the facilities at the tuberculosis treatment centre in Paimio, Finland, the chair, known today by the same name, also had to provide sufficient comfort for future patients.

Artek Paimio

Artek Paimio

Plywood has also found a place in the designs of many other designers. Notable names include Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen, Verner Panton, and Arne Jacobsen. While in the design of Series 7, Lily and Ant chairs Jacobsen complemented the wooden seat with a metal base, Panton took a step further. His S-Chair consisted of a single piece of plywood bent into the shape of a cantilever chair. Although no longer in production, the likeness can be seen in the curves of the famous Panton chair.

Ant Fritz Hansen


Although it was considered an industrial material suitable mainly for mass production, during the 20th century plywood found its way into households thanks to its ease of processing and strength. Moreover, renowned designers have managed to use it to create some of the most iconic pieces ever made.

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