The Berlage

Session Room K

Plywood in the Designed World

Christopher Wilk

Plywood is one of the most ubiquitous yet, at the same time, overlooked materials in architectural andindustrial design. It has a fascinating history that, until very recently, has been little known or understood.  Adding to the confusion, most of what is published in print and online is inaccurate. This lecture will look at the development and use of plywood in many fields of design while also demonstrating that, from the 19thcentury to the present day, cultural attitudes to the material have been instrumental in decisions to make use of the material, even if its presence was often hidden. In technological terms, plywood is a simple material made only of wood veneers and glue. What has changed most is that its 19th century reputation as a cheap material was largely eradicated by its proven success as a material in the fastest of aeroplanes, first before the First World War, and then especially during the Second World War.Plywood’s use as an architectural material depended upon the 1930s invention of synthetic resin glues that enabled waterproof plywood to be sold for the first time. Plywood’s image was transformed in the post-World War II period from a cheap wood substitute to a high-tech miracle material from which factory-made housing could be produced. It entered the home after the war in both domestic furniture and as a material perfectly adaptable to DIY home improvements. After a period of decline, plywood is now more popular than it has been since the 1980s owing to its suitability to digital cutting and moulding, its perception as a ‘natural’ wood, and by its marketing as a sustainable material.

Christopher Wilk is Keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, leading one of five curatorial departments at the world’s oldest museum of design (founded 1852).  Before the V&A he worked at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Architecture and Design) and at the Brooklyn Museum (Decorative Arts).In addition to being Chief Curator of the V&A’s British Galleries 1500-1900 (3400 sq. m. of gallery space, earning the V&A the Museum of the Year award), he created the V&A’s Frank Lloyd Wright Gallery (now closed) and conceived the museum’s Furniture Galleries, which tell the story of the materials and techniques of furniture from the late medieval period to the present day. His exhibitions have included ‘Marcel Breuer: Furniture and Interiors’ (MoMA, 1981), ‘Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 (V&A, 2006) and, most recently, ‘Plywood: a material story’ (V&A, 2017). In addition to books on Marcel Breuer, Modernism and Plywood, associated with exhibitions, he authored Thonet: 150 Years of Furniture (Barron’s, 1980) and Frank Lloyd Wright: the Kaufmann Office (V&A, 1993). He also edited and contributed to Western Furniture 1350-the present day (V&A, 1996), and (with Nick Humphrey) The British Galleries: a study in museology (V&A, 2002).  His current research focuses on anti-Europeanism in Britain arising from a major gift of Art Nouveau furniture to the V&A in 1901 and also the 1930s Surrealist furniture and interiors commissioned by the British patron and poet Edward James.

More events