One nice thing about a newspaper column is that no matter how stultifyingly dull your writing, you never get to see the glazed-over eyes of your audience, or hear the soft snores escaping from their lips. In our last column, we talked about the history of plywood in the US. This time we’ll talk about plywood furniture.
But first, I’ve touted plywood as a marvel of engineering, an untold market for softwood and an opportunity to conserve our natural resources. So, you might ask (you curious devil you), how much wood do we cut in the US? Thanks to my good buddies at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, WI, I can tell you that in 2002, we cut 48 billion board feet of lumber. If I did the math correctly, that’ll let you build a walkway 1 foot wide to the moon and back…19 times. Out of this, we made 15.2 billion square feet of softwood plywood (and another 2.9 billion square feet of hardwood plywood).
But on to the topic at hand, plywood furniture. In some ways, plywood furniture is almost the prototypical mid-century modern furniture. It’s the stuff we think about in those crazy 1950’s space age bachelor pads. But actually, it goes back before the first plywood patent, when a German émigré John Henry Belter started making it. He heated the plywood so he could bend it in 3 directions and he could make 8 pieces of furniture at the same time.
As we noted before, plywood really came into its own in World War I and designers started to realize what they could do with a cheap, flexible product. They were especially interested in finding ways to mass-produce furniture, in the same way that Ford made cars.
The first chair with a seat made from a single piece of plywood was the 1927 chair designed by Gerrit Thomas Rieveld, a Dutch cabinet maker. In 1933, the Finn Alvar Aalto made the first “resilient”, i.e. springy, chair where both the seat and the frame came from plywood. Marcel Breuer and Jack Pritchard wanted to make chairs out of aluminum and tubular steel, but the shortage of these products in English 1930’s wartime, led them to use plywood. Well, that and the fact that Jack “Plywood” Pritchard owned a plywood factory.
All of this was part of the Bauhaus art movement. Influenced by post-war modernism, and abstract art, these designers were looking for simple, stylish products that could be used by the masses. The Volkswagen, for instance, which translates literally as “peoples car”. Coco Chanel a la K-mart.
This means the products had to be practical, as well as artistic. So although Eero Saarinen and most notably Charles Eames won awards for the designs of their furniture, they were also inexpensive to build and hence became wildly popular. Their first work was created when they were students at Cranbrook in Michigan but winning the Home Furnishings Competition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940, really made their name. Eames was quite a character, smuggling wood and glue into his Los Angeles apartment while working his day job at a movie studio. He even made splints out of plywood for the US Navy based on the shape of his own leg.
For cheap “peoples” furniture, plywood has fallen out of favor to the even cheaper plastics which could (and can) be molded into any shape conceivable (and a few inconceivable).
But for my tastes, there is something warm, inviting and fun about a plywood chair. Maybe I’ll go sit in one while you sit there and snore. It’s OK, I can read US Timber Production, Trade, Consumption and Price Statistics 1965-2002 while I wait.
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