Plywood: Material of the Modern World

The Victoria and Albert Museum has been collecting furniture for over 150 years and is a rich source of inspiration for designers. Not to be missed is their thematically arranged collection in the Furniture Gallery. We recently visited their exhibition Plywood: Material of the Modern World which brings together some of the pieces.

Plywood: Material of the Modern World traces the history of an often overlooked material and how it transformed furniture design and the modern world. Who would have thought a material once considered utilitarian could have become such a direct influence on modern design?

Unlike industrial materials, plywood can be moulded in small scale factories using simple tools, and this inspired pioneering designers of the 1930s to experiment with form and shape.

The exhibition explains how plywood is produced, its history, all the way back to ancient Egypt, its re-emergence in the 19th Century and finally its role in revolutionising the production processes for an incredible range of objects from planes to skateboards.

1920s Plywood Skateboard, © V&A Museum London

Of particular interest to us at Devas Designs, were the ground-breaking designs by Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer and Charles and Ray Eames. Many of their furniture pieces are on display and the exhibits clearly show how the designers themselves have made use of the flexibility of the material and how it has informed their work.

"Form must have a content, and that content must be linked with nature" - Alvar Aalto

Finnish designer, Alvar Aalto was at the forefront of experimentation, manipulating and forming plywood to create his iconic cantilevered chairs. Aalto rejected mass production and embraced the ethos of organic forms created from natural materials, and rejected tubular steel furniture which was popular with the Modernist Movement at the time. The introduction of plywood allowed him to create flowing simple forms which didn't rely on traditional frame construction.

Designs by Alvar Aalto

Ikea is a great source for inexpensive furniture inspired by the classics such as these stacking stools based on Alvar Aalto's design and this simple birch plywood chest.

Ikea's Frosta stools and Moppe chest

"I am as much interested in the smallest detail as in the whole structure" - Marcel Breuer

The architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer based this birch and plywood chair, below, on an earlier aluminium chair he had produced in 1932. Inspired by Alvar Aalto's use of plywood, and realising the appeal of the soft curves and the warm appearance of wood, Breuer went on to reproduce the design in plywood for the British market while working in the UK with ISOKON. The company is still going strong and a number of Breuer's designs are available to order alongside a number of other iconic designs from the 1930s.

Isokon, based in London's Hackney Wick, also produce contemporary pieces of handcrafted furniture such as this Loop Coffee Table and Bodleian Chair, both are contemporary pieces but clearly inspired by the clean lines and sculptural, organic forms of both Alvar Aalto and Marcel Breuer.

Isokon's Bodleian Chair and Loop Coffee Table - from their contemporary range

"I feel that the knowledge about an object can only enrich your feelings for the object itself" - Charles Eames

Charles and Ray Eames, the husband and wife team who created the Eames Look, with its sleek, sophisticated and beautifully simple forms, were inspired by Aalto and his use of Plywood which they described as ‘a flash of inspiration’. Many of their plywood moulded forms also incorporated their signature chrome tubular frames.

The Conran Shop is always a great source for simple classic styles very much inspired by the work of Eames, Aalto and Breuer.

Conran Shop designs

Finally we also spotted these very decorative vintage posters at the V&A's exhibition, celebrating the progress of new ideas and innovations in the world of design.

Kiki Werth is a London based dealer who has specialised in original vintage posters for over 30 years. We picked some of our favourites ...

Kiki Werth vintage posters

We also liked the Vintage reproductions by King & McGraw which are expertly printed in their Sussex studios, to exact museum conservation standards using inks and papers developed to create a perfect reproduction.

Vintage reproduction posters by King & McGraw

Plywood: Material of the Modern World is open now at the V&A Museum in London until 12 November 2017. Click here to find out more.