Which of these can be made of Plywood? Chairs? Yes. Racing cars? No. The fastest, highest flying aeroplane in the Second World War? Don’t be daft. They were the answers that I would have given you before I went to see the Plywood exhibition at the V&A. Turns out that the answer to all three questions is yes and that plywood is altogether more interesting than you would have thought.
Around the middle of the nineteenth century the production of plywood was mechanised and at a stroke a cheap, strong, light, pliable material became available. Hatboxes, surfboards, whole houses, cars and, yes, chairs were all constructed out of it. How does ply differ from normal wood? I hear you cry. Well, you get a large log and shave it into one very long, very thin piece and then you glue lots of the thin layers together. Once you have a sheet of plywood you can mould it into pretty much any shape you want. When it came to designing the De Havilland Moquito, it was found that the lightest metals need welding and support but not plywood and so the very metallic-looking plane is actually made of wood.
There are, of course, lots of Eames chairs on display. We’ve all seen the picture of Christine Keeler astride the plywood chair. Also on show is a Singer sewing machine with a curved plywood cover. At the turn of the nineteenth century Singer was the biggest furniture manufacturer in the world. Not making chairs but tables and cabinets for all those domestic sewing machines.
Outside in the Madejski garden at the heart of the V&A stand some other worldly wooden shapes. Winnipeg is the coldest city of its size outside Siberia. During the long winter, skate trails are made on the cities two frozen rivers. Wind whips across the prairies making it chilly when you stop skating. Every year the city comes up with a new design of temporary skating shelters to protect the skaters when they stop for a hot chocolate. These plywood structures are the skate shelters from 2011. They may have started of life in Winnipeg but I quite fancy one at the bottom of my garden, far more interesting than a shed.
Plywood is an incredibly interesting exhibition and it’s free. Take a look round and you will soon be spotting ply everywhere. The V&A is encouraging you to share any examples that you see using the hashtag #ISpyPly
If you are meandering round the V&A why not pay the Cast Courts a visit to see how the Victorians saw the world.
PLYWOOD at the Victoria and Albert Museum
15 July 2017 – 12 November 2017
Open: Daily 10am – 5.45pm (10pm on Fridays)