Plywood from Past to Present: UK Museum Exhibits ‘Material of the Modern World’

Plywood is one of the most common, yet overlooked materials used throughout the world today. But how has this revolutionary wood composite, dating back to 2600 BC Egypt, influenced the changing times?

A new exhibit at the United Kingdom’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), the world’s leading museum of art and design, delves into the history and versatility of plywood, exploring the handy material and how it helped move our world from the past to the present.

 “Plywood: Material of the Modern World” showcases the story of plywood and its resourceful nature, featuring everything from furniture to houses and airplanes.

Despite its first emergence in 1880, the use of plywood increased in the 1920’s, when it signified the beginning of the industrial age. Architects praised the material’s flexibility and began building simple furniture, such as armchairs and stools. An armchair by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto is just one of the pieces shown at the exhibit.

Full-scale house, built at the 1937 Madison Home Show to demonstrate the Forest Product Laboratory’s plywood prefabrication system.

In addition to early 20th century furniture, the showcase features a full-scale prefabricated plywood home, similar to the first all-wood one built here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in 1937.  “Prefab” houses gained popularity after scientists at the Lab developed a waterproof adhesive that allowed for easier construction and mass-production of the product. Many people sought and bought these humble abodes in response to the Great Depression, seeing them as a means to quick, affordable housing.

Beginning in the 1940’s at the dawn of World War II, plywood played a role once again, and FPL was at the forefront of wartime innovation. Researchers designed and created a number of military applications, including adhesives and papreg, a strong paper-plastic that was used in the floors of gliders. The 1941 DeHavilland Mosquito aircraft, on display at the V&A, was renowned for its strength and lightness. Thanks to the planes plywood fuselages, built at FPL, the Mosquito was the fastest aircraft manufactured for the war.

Other exhibition highlights include an 1800’s elevated plywood railway, an automobile, and displays showcasing how the material influenced DIY efforts of the 1950’s. Various tours and lectures on the groundbreaking influence of plywood are also offered.

“Plywood: Material of the Modern World” will run at the V&A until November 12, 2017.

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta