A Bent for Design

A Bent for Design

Alvar Aalto Paimio Chair

Alvar Aalto Paimio chair, 1931-32; bent plywood, bent laminated birch, solid birch

MOMA

In 1940, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, up-and-comers who would become 20th-century design luminaries, entered the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition. The designers, who had met and taught at Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit, submitted a series of structural shell chairs constructed by molding layers of plastic glue and wood veneer into three-dimensional forms – a method never before used to make furniture.

The groundbreaking composition of the chairs – lightweight, stylish, and functional – perfectly fit MoMA curator Eliot Noyes’ definition of organic design: “a harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material, and purpose.” 

Eames and Saarinen took top honors. Unfortunately, their collaborative designs were never reproduced for the mass market, in part because American industries were consumed by war efforts. It wouldn’t matter, however, because within a year of the MoMA competition Eames would relocate with his wife, Ray, to Southern California, where together they would refine the molded plywood forms that would foreshadow not only their later work in other materials, but also influence a generation of modern furniture designers. 

The process of bending plywood for use in industrial and furniture design dates back much further than Eames, Saarinen, and the mid-20th century, however. As early as the 1830s, German furniture maker Michael Thonet was using manufacturing tools made possible by the Industrial Revolution, such as a pressurized steam chamber, to produce parts. At the London Great Exhibition in 1851, Thonet’s steam-bent laminated wood chairs and settees far outshone the heavy, ornate furniture of the period. His designs were popular from the 1850s on, especially among 20th-century architects such as Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto.

Throughout the 1930s, in fact, Aalto incorporated Thonet’s basic principles into his own architectural design ideals as he experimented with continuously rounded plywood seats and backs. His most famous design, the Paimio chair, with its sleek organic curves and rounded knees, was produced early in that decade and is one of the first truly modern plywood furniture constructions.

Like bent plywood, molded plywood wasn’t a midcentury invention; before the turn of the 20th century the bodies of canoes and other small vessels were molded. But it was World War II that prompted new forms. Techniques first used in boat construction were adapted for aircraft, particularly as steel became scarce. And as it happened, the aviation industry was largely based in Southern California, home to the Eameses. While continuing to develop the equipment and skills to produce their curved shell chairs, the couple contributed to the war effort by crafting leg splints and machinery parts from molded plywood. The success of their military designs, as well as the time they spent in manufacturing and production, gave them the experience they needed as the war ended to launch their line of ready-made plywood furniture.     

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s plywood boomed. But with the increasing popularity of inexpensive plastics, particularly fiberglass, in the ’60s and ’70s, its use subsided through the latter half of the 20th century. Renewed interest in midcentury design, beginning in the 1990s, brought plywood back into the spotlight, with Herman Miller producing classic Eames furniture, and design firms such as Blu Dot, Reholz, and Pfeiffer Lab (led by Eric Pfeiffer, co-author of the definitive 2003 book, Bent Ply: The Art of Plywood Furniture) bringing innovative technologies and fresh design aesthetics to the material.

That resurgence is evident in any contemporary art or design magazine; it’s clear that the organic approach first heralded by MoMA and expressed in plywood more than 70 years ago has regained its hold on the popular imaginations of makers and consumers alike.

How Plywood Began

How did plywood as a material come to be? We asked Marianne Eggler-Gerozissis, design historian and Museum of Modern Art gallery lecturer, to fill us in.

Plywood, as we know it today, is largely an invention of the Industrial Revolution. How far back can we trace its beginnings?
The history of modern design and the history of plywood, that man-made marvel of natural materials and human innovation that Popular Science magazine referred to as “a layercake of lumber and glue,” are as interconnected as a carefully laminated piece of furniture. Indeed, as Dung Ngo and Eric Pfeiffer point out in Bent Ply: The Art of Plywood Furniture, modern plywood technology can trace its roots to ancient Egypt and China, with the development of wood veneers and cross-grain lamination techniques.

When did modern plywood first appear in the marketplace? 
Modern plywood was made possible by the advent of steam-powered machinery, the veneer rotary cutter and hydraulic heat press, along with the development of new glues and resins. An 1865 patent for a product called “scale board” was a key milestone.

Plywood goes in and out of favor among makers. What are the pros and cons of using it in furniture and industrial design?
Perhaps the greatest drawback of plywood is also its primary asset: its planarity. It is basically a line drawn in space, extended into a plane. Plywood entails a relatively strict set of parameters within which the designer must operate. But perhaps it is just that challenge – the possibility to innovate within narrow restrictions – that has resulted in some of the most exciting modern designs. Charles and Ray Eames’ wonderful 1946 plywood and canvas folding screen exploits that very planarity while brilliantly referencing both Japanese prototypes and the notion of the “curtain wall” so central to the language of modern architecture. Expanding the boundaries and playing around with the notion that “form follows process,” designers continue to explore the magic of plywood.

Jessica Shaykett is the librarian of the American Craft Council.