Modern Furniture & the use of Moulded Plywood
Modern Furniture & the use of Moulded Plywood.
The History of Plywood for the design and manufacture of Modern Furniture
Plywood boards are made of 3 or more thin layers or veneers of wood which are glued together, the grain of each layer being set at right angles to that of the next in order to give the material greater strength. Light in weight and capable of being bent into elegant, curvilinear forms it has been in use in furniture making since the eighteenth century. Because it was so cheap, durable and easily accessible it became an important medium for experimentation by modernist designers from the 1920's onwards.
The earliest examples of plywood furniture date back to the 18th century, but it was not until the 1850's that it was put into commercial production by John Henry Belter, a german emigre to the US. Using heat to bend the plied-wood in three dimensions, Belter produced eight pieces at once. But his innovations were overshadowed by the commercial sucess of other US plywood furniture makers, like Isaac Cole and hte Gardener Company, and then by the experiments and successes of Thonet, the Austrian furniture maker, widely regarded as the pioneer of industrial furniture production.
Thonet was founded in Vienna in 1853 by Michael Thonet, a German cabinet maker who patented his bentwood furniture in 1841, Thonet experimented with plywood in the 1880's. Most of Thonet's furniture was made of bent wood, however most of the early 20th Century furniture designers who worked in plywood claimed to have been influenced by Thonet, rather than by the less well known Belter Cole.
Plywood technology continued to evolve through the investment and research of the aviation industry.during the First world war. These developments made it yet more flexible and durable. In the years following the first world war, modernist designers, were preoccupied with the Bauhaus inspired philosophy of mass produced modern design. They wanted to make good quality, attractive modernist furniture accessible to the masses. It was with this intention that they sought for flexible, cheap and durable materials, and so they seized upon plywood as a solution.
First Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, the Dutch cabinet maker made a seat from a single piece of plywood (1927), next Alvar and Aino AAlto, the finish architect / design couple produced the Paimio Armchair 41 (1933), suspending a one piece plywood seat and back in a plywood frame. Alvar and Aino working closely together to produce the 1930 plywood chair 'experiment' and the 'Stacking stool' (1933) for the Viipuri Library, which was designed with joiner Otto Korhonen. . It was one of the first pieces of modern furniture design that was actually suitable for mass production. The stool shown here was made in the 1970s, the original being three legged with a tubular metal foot rest ring. Easily cleaned, easy an inexpensive to produce, and with a simple elegance that captured the essence of modernist design. Its no surprise that the Aalto's furniture designs became so very popular, so quickly.
Marcel Breuer a Hungarian architect and designer, most famous for his tubular steel furniture, In 1935 he joined Gropius in London where he was commissioned by Jack Pritchard to design furniture for his company 'Isokon' a british plywood furniture manufacturer. It was during this brief period that we worked mostly in moulded plywood, producing pieces like his 1936 Dining Table.
During the late thirties many of the Bauhaus designers such as Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer and others moved to the US, where their modernist philosophy and aesthetic quickly gained attention, and inspired a US modernist renaissance. Young US furniture designers of this time admiring the designes of the Aalto's, Rietveld, and Breuer, began to work in moulded plywood as well. Most notably Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi and a British Designer called Gerald Summers.
As students at Cranbrook in Michigan, Eames and Saarinen entered a competition in Organic Designs in Home Furnishings. Organised by the Museum of Modern Art in 1940. They submitted designs for a molded plywood chair and cabinet. Although they won first prize in both categories, producing their designs was problematic. Yet Eames and his wife Ray, continued their plywood experiments after leaving Cranbrook for LA, where they set up a make-shift studio in their apartment. The studio had to be kept secret from their landlord while Charles smuggled woods and glues into the apartment form his day job at teh MGM movie studio. The couple designed more plywood chairs and later leg splints for the US Navy made from Douglas fir veneered in mahogany or birch and modelled on Charles' own leg.
Other Eames' plywood pieces include children's furniture, abstract scultpures and animals for children to sit on. When the Museum of Modern Art invited Charles Eames to stage his first one man furniture exhibition in 1946, (actually designed by Ray too) the highlight was the DCW Dining Chair Wood pg 6 and DCM Dining Chair Metal with plywood seat- pg 7. which reappeared in the 'Good Design' shows of the 1950's. They then added a fresh luxurious dimension to the plywood by molding it into their 1956 Lounge Chair.
In the 1960's and 1970's as plastics became more accessible and cheaper, plywood fell from favor, until the 1980's when British designer Jasper Morisson presented 'Some new items for the house', at the 1988 Deutsche Werkstatt exhibition in Berlin. An entire room, everything in it, (except for the rugs and artwork), made from plywood: the dining table and chairs, a pair of armchairs, and a side table, a chaise loungue, even the walls themselves.
Morisson's plywood chair and the 1998 'wood chair by Australian designer Marc Newson and the Europa and Body Form chairs by Persing Danko are now in commerical production and so it seems that the beauty and flexibility of plywood is once again being explored and indeed revelled in by contemporary designers.