How plywood became a design material and changed the furniture industry forever

What images come to mind when you think of plywood? Are they images of construction, of slats of wood to be used in the interior walls of a home? What words come to mind? Are they: design, sculptural, innovative, life-saving, sustainable? Nowadays, plywood is a ubiquitous, often taken-for-granted material, but it has a fascinating past and present that we at TOK TOK value highly. Plywood helped to revolutionize the furniture industry throughout the 20th century because of its sculptural malleability. Likewise, with innovations that included medical supplies, aircraft infrastructure, and railway construction, it also became valued for its uniformity and durability.

PlywoodBirch plywood

At TOK TOK, we utilize these qualities to create furniture pieces that will be long-lasting for generations to come, as well as pieces that are molded and comfortable for the body. For our local furniture production, we source plywood from the highest-grade Baltic birch that comes from sustainably-managed forests. It is also an economical material with regards to production, meaning that it is budget-friendly to the consumer, too. These reasons and more are why we use plywood to create functional, affordable, and durable pieces of furniture for your homes and professional spaces. Let’s take a look at the history of plywood and how the material radically altered the worlds of industry and design. 

History of Plywood

Plywood is made by cutting and gluing together thin strips of wood called veneers . In fact, the basic process of making plywood has not changed since the 19th century . There is even evidence of this process being used that dates back to ancient Egypt; however, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that plywood became integrated on an industrial scale. During that time, engineers began using plywood for its incredible strength. The process of gluing together pieces of veneer at alternating right angles means that plywood has increased strength and flexibility, making it the perfect material for industrial design. For example, in 1867, a 107-foot long elevated railway prototype, made entirely from plywood, was unveiled at the American Institute Fair in New York. Although the elevated railway remained a prototype, the designer, Alfred E. Beach, took advantage of plywood’s malleability to envision a piece of infrastructure that would become integral to the design and function of cities across the world.

107-foot long elevated railway prototype, 1876

Perhaps one of the most impressive feats of 20th century engineering that incorporated plywood was that of airplane design. The British military plane, the de Havilland Mosquito, was the highest-flying airplane of the Second World War. Because plywood is lightweight and strong, it became sought after to design aircraft fuselages, ultimately allowing for faster and higher-flying aircrafts at a time when the technology was both ground-breaking and pivotal to the war effort. It is difficult to understate the importance of plywood in engineering and design; it was an essential resource in the building of both urban infrastructure and emerging technologies of the time. Alongside its rise within industrial manufacturing, plywood became a foundational material in modern furniture and architectural design of the mid-20th century. The works of Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto, and Hans Wegner, have had an invaluable influence on modern furniture and architecture that lives through to today. These designers made use of plywood in their pieces to create sculptural, form-fitting structures, an ethos TOK TOK shares in our own design process.

de havilland mosquito

de Havilland Mosquito

Charles and Ray Eames were a husband and wife team who redefined furniture and architectural design in the mid-20th century. Their use of molded plywood in the 1940s cemented the Eameses as innovative and playful designers who also recognized the importance of functionality in building and sculpting their furniture. One ingenious use of plywood that ultimately led to revolutionary furniture design occurred during the Second World War, when the Eameses were commissioned to build leg splints for soldiers on the front lines, as the medical officers reported that the metal splints, which were standard issue at the time, were perpetuating existing injuries. The Eameses formed their leg splints out of molded plywood, taking the shape and structure of the human body into consideration to create an ergonomic splint that wouldn’t cause further harm to existing injuries.

Eames leg splint

Leg splint by Charles and Ray Eames

Plywood in the Furniture Industry

The Eameses, intrigued by their use of plywood for the splint, started working on other applications for the material. The Lounge Chair Wood was first created in the mid-1940s using the molded and sculptural techniques employed in the leg splints mentioned above. The chair was designed with the contours of the human body in mind. The chair was dubbed “the chair of the century” when it was showcased in 1946, and it is easy to understand why! The Eameses work with molded plywood has become acclaimed throughout the furniture industry, producing what is now known simply as “the Eames look”

Lounge Chair Wood by Charles and Ray Eames

Alvar Aalto was another pioneer of furniture design throughout the mid-20
th century. Initially working in his native Finland and then throughout Europe and the United States, Aalto employed the concepts of Nordic Classicism and, later, Modernism into his work. Aalto has since become cemented as one of the key figures of mid-century Modernist design, and one of Finland’s most celebrated architects. His most recognizable chair, Model No.41, was borne out of experiments in bending plywood to achieve sculptural shapes. The beauty of plywood is that the shapes achieved by Aalto come from the wood itself – there is no need to add external materials to produce an ergonomic design. Model No.41 was a revolutionary lounge chair for the ways in which Aalto took the contours of the human body into consideration, which when combined with his process of sculpting plywood, produced an organic approach to furniture design. Without a doubt, Alvar Aalto’s work helped to usher in the modern era of design concepts that continue to inspire today. 

Model No.41 by Alvar Aalto

We also draw inspiration from the Danish furniture designer, Hans Wegner. Wegner was likewise a pioneer of Modernist design and was a prolific creator, making upwards of 500 pieces during his career. Although initially poorly-received by the general public in 1963, Wegner’s Shell Chair is now regarded as an “architectural masterpiece” for its curved backrest and wing-like seat that provide the ultimate experience in comfort and design. Along with the Shell Chair, Wegner’s numerous works have earned him many design awards, as well as exhibitions in some of the world’s most renowned design and architectural museums. The Eamses, Alvar Aalto, and Hans Wegner are some of the mid-20th century designers whose impact on the furniture industry have been profound and long-lasting. Their respective uses of molded plywood, each innovative and ground-breaking in their own ways, ushered in an era of modernist design that focused on the simplicity and sculptural potential of the material. Their legacies remain to this day as contemporary designers continue to draw upon the principles of ergonomic and sustainable design concepts. In this present moment, plywood remains an indispensable material in both architectural and furniture design. 

Shell Chair by Hans Wagner

Plywood Today

Nowadays, when one thinks of plywood, IKEA often comes to mind. The Swedish home furnishing giant has had an undeniable impact on the furniture industry, most notably for their mass-produced and affordable pieces that can fit, stylistically and practically, in any home or office setting. Likewise, IKEA employed flat-pack shipping – a method of shipping items disassembled that is more economical and environmentally-friendly – before any other major retailer. The company completely altered the way people look for, buy, and incorporate furniture into their homes; however, IKEA furniture also has a reputation for being poorly-made and ultimately, wasteful. Because of IKEA’s massive influence on the furniture industry, and because of their widespread use of plywood in their designs, plywood can be perceived as also being an ineffectual resource that isn’t made to last. As we have demonstrated throughout this piece, that could not be further from the truth. Plywood is indeed a durable material that is used for a wide-range of architectural purposes. For example, the University of British Columbia’s Brock Commons, or “Tallwood House,” is a hybrid building made of laminated wood, concrete, and steel, and stands as one of the world’s tallest wood buildings. As the building is made with mass timber, it possesses a smaller carbon footprint than those made with concrete or steel, as well as having the potential to be deconstructed, reused, and/or recycled. The UBC Tallwood House is one example of plywood design that embodies the focus on functionality and environmental impacts to create a sustainable present and future. 

UBC Dorm

Brock Commons or “Tallwood House” at UBC

Finally, our Sibley Lounge Chair incorporates the values of simplicity and environmentally-conscious production that we have explored throughout this piece. Our lounge chair is sculpted for the human body in an effort to create the most comfortable sitting experience possible. The Sibley Lounge Chair is crafted using simple expressions and refined organic lines out of molded plywood, and will last in your home or professional space for generations to come. We value good design that simplifies your life and that is precisely why we at TOK TOK choose to use plywood in all our designs. 

Sibley Lounge ChairSibley Lounge Chair by Tok Tok

Thank you for joining in the first of many knowledge-sharing sessions we will be hosting at TOK TOK. As we move forward, we hope to create a community of individuals who want to engage with the products they buy on various levels, from knowing how materials are sourced, to the intention built into each piece of furniture we create. We welcome you with us along this journey!

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