It’s not often that a humble material such as plywood creates controversy, but that’s what happened in September 2015 when, for Pope Francis’ visit to New York, Jim Lenahan Production Design designed a papal throne constructed from plywood, to reflect the Pope’s “emphasis on simplicity and humility” (Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York).
In contrast, writer Alyssa Walker described the plywood throne as “henous” and a design blasphemy” of which “New York should be ashamed”.
Perhaps the mistake was to use plywood to create a traditional heavy chair, when, as a material, it provides the opportunity to create something contemporary, curving and lightweight.
Just how flexible plywood can be, and how important it is for modern and contemporary design, is demonstrated at the exhibition “Plywood” at the Victoria and Albert Museum which demonstrates the technological development of plywood and many of its uses since it was first developed at the end of the 18th century when the British naval engineer Samuel Bentham described gluing several layers of wood veneers to form a thicker and stronger piece, an idea taken up 50 years later by Immanuel Nobel, father of Alfred Nobel who recognised that several thin layers of wood glued together were stronger and more stable than one thick piece of wood. Shortly afterwards, furniture makers realised that they could make curved shapes for furniture and a whole new industry was born.
A material which is strong and economical, but can be lightweight, water-resistant and curved and folded into a variety of shapes, used for racing cars, prams, boats, aircraft, furniture, suitcases and packing cases (especially tea chests), sewing machine cases and tables, skateboards, cladding for buildings and, even a proposal by John Mayo in 1867 for a tubular elevated railway in New York, Most recently, the WIKI House design comprises plywood panels joined together to form the structural frame and cladding of a building that could be constructed and erected anywhere in the world and cross laminate timber (CLT) structural panels are being used to construct buildings which are several storeys tall.
This excellent exhibition reminds us of the dexterity and variety of applications that can be achieved by such a simple material.