the irony of plywood @MoMA
Making beautiful, affordable design available to the masses was a central tenet of mid-century modernism, one that never would’ve been possible if not for the advent of a key material: plywood.
That plain little sandwich of lumber and glue-with its origins in ancient Egypt and its reinvention under the auspices of 20th-century military research-gave designers from Alvar Aalto to Charles and Ray Eames the raw material with which to shape some of the most iconic furniture of the past 100 years.
Plywood: Material, Process, Form is an ongoing exhibit at New York MoMA that reveals the huge variety of forms designers managed to wring from this “modest but consummately modern material,” as the show’s text says. What made plywood so special? First, it helps to understand what plywood is exactly. It’s three or more sheets of thin wood that are assembled, their grains at right angles to each other, then laminated with glue. The perpendicular arrangement of the grain makes plywood exceedingly difficult to break. At the same time, a machine can easily bend and shape the material, so it’s optimized for mass production.
The irony is that the very design objects that showcased plywood’s greatest potential are beyond the reach of most people today. The Eames’s beloved molded plywood chair checks in at around $800. Aalto’s Paimio chair retails for a whopping $4,000. The humble material that was supposed to serve up affordable, beautiful design is still plenty beautiful. But affordable? Afraid not.