The V&A has crammed some great exhibits into a small space, but its scattergun approach fails to get beneath plywood’s surface, writes John Jervis
Expectations around plywood: Material of the Modern World have been high. Its main progenitor, Christopher Wilk, curated the V&A’s excellent Modernism: Designing a New World a decade ago. And an exhibition exalting a humble board over design megastars and rejecting further scrapings from the movement barrel seems exactly the sort of thing that ‘the world’s leading museum of art and design’ ought to be doing.
Sadly, such hopes prove unrealistic. A blockbuster show on plywood was always likely to be hard to pull off given its scattered focus, and also a harder sell – to the public, to sponsors and within the institution itself. As a result, Plywood has been squeezed into the Porter Gallery, an attractive, flexible and free space, yet one that is only a third of the size of the main exhibition galleries, thus is more suited to manifestos and miniatures than wide-ranging surveys. The curators make an energetic effort to encompass 200 years of plywood’s diverse and evolving applications – as well as fluctuating perceptions around its status – but it’s a tough call, despite an intelligent exhibition design with a clearly defined route and with larger exhibits placed overhead.
There are great moments, for instance the model of the fan-powered ‘Pneumatic Passenger Dispatch Tube’, which shuttled 75,000 passengers back and forth in a 33m-long moulded plywood tube at the 1867 American Institute Fair in New York. There’s a copper-faced ‘Plymax’ door from Hampstead’s Isokon Building of 1933, a sparkling example of plywood’s decorative potential. The battered fuselage of a de Havilland Mosquito provides eloquent testament to the final, potent peak of plywood’s contributions to the evolution of the monocoque chassis. The immaculate surface of a homemade British surfboard from the 1960s is an unexpected pleasure. But my favourite is the fully assembled Mirror dinghy that hangs colourfully above, a tribute to plywood’s role in boat-building and also as a backbone of the postwar DIY boom. The latter point is reinforced by a cluster of 1950s and 60s magazine covers depicting jaunty couples bashing together trendy fitted kitchens or resting against newly completed hi-fi cabinets. Such moments of nostalgia abound – and it’s certainly intriguing to discover that the V&A has such an extensive selection of skateboards.
Of course, homage is paid to modernism’s reinvention of moulded plywood as a functional but attractive material in its own right. There is a concise cluster of Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto pieces, and later a more extensive display of chairs from the 1940s and 50s alongside their wellsprings: the DCM chair of 1945 by Charles and Ray Eames, and the pair’s famous, formative leg splint for the US Navy. Sori Yanagi’s 1954 butterfly stool is also included, an acknowledgement of parallel Japanese experience in constructing plywood fuselages during the war. But it’s telling that this display is the most effective in the show – it is the one moment where sufficient space is provided to allow a story to be teased out, and where aesthetics come firmly to the fore, allowing the eye to linger for sheer delight.
Overall, however, the abundance and diversity of exhibits proves overwhelming. How could one adequately explain all of the projects mentioned above, placing each firmly in its particular field while creating a thread between these very distinct spheres? And also weave in improvements in fabrication methods and changes in popular and professional perceptions – all in a single room? The result is a frenetic and eclectic blast of plywood’s greatest hits, performed by a nervous tribute band keen to ensure attentions don’t wander. Fashioned as a ‘series of incidents’, each segment struggles to connect to its neighbours. Individual items are intriguing, but the piqued interest is not exploited – the potential for expansive engagement is missed, and a new plywood wonder is quickly proffered.
There are other challenges. Plywood’s rapid emergence as an industrial material from the 1840s was, unexpectedly, not in the form of flat board, but as moulded components for furniture. Unfortunately, few of the resulting chair backs and tram benches survive, lacking, one supposes, the prestige and permanence of solid wood.
Similarly, one is cast into the arms of the exhibition’s catalogue to appreciate plywood’s uphill battle for commercial respectability in the 19th century, when veneer was adopted as a pejorative term for condescending to colonial subjects or sneering at the nouveaux riche. More is available towards the end of the century, when Singer became the largest manufacturer of plywood in the world: three million of its curved sewing-machine covers were produced in 1900 alone. There are also appealing curios such as moulded plywood suitcases and clutchbags by the Tallinn-based firm Luterma. Its standardised, water-proofed boards helped make Russia the world’s biggest exporter of plywood. These wares were largely employed to make tea chests, of which 60,000 were being shipped to Britain each month. Such was their reputation for durability, they even accompanied Scott on his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition in 1910.
Despite this exhaustive scope – Aalto’s ‘symphony in wood’ for the 1939 New York World’s Fair; the World War Two shipbuilding town of Carquinez Heights in Vallejo, California; and plywood’s current renaissance all get their dues – it’s hard not to feel that the V&A has underestimated its audience, and done its curators a disservice. In an ideal world, Plywood would have been given sufficient room to combine spectacle and substance, finding slots for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kaufmann Office, currently lurking in the V&A’s vaults; for walls of the colourful artwork that celebrated the plywood behemoths at the World’s Fairs; for a better understanding of the sheer range of plywood furniture that emerged in the last century; while still giving room to experimental, eye-catching applications in aviation, motor-racing, canoeing and the like. The most telling omission is an astonishingly ornate seven-ply rosewood sofa in V&A's own collection, a rare rococo survival by 1850s plywood pioneer John Henry Belter. The only explanation for failing to include this riotous piece, which would have enlivened the exhibition's early offerings immeasuably, can be a lack of space.
Given this severe limitation, brutal excisions were the only solution. But the show is a career-long labour of love, and the curators are its besotted parents, desperate to recite plywood’s every manifestation, ignoring failures and diminishing achievements in the process. Yet, after the age of the tea chest, plywood has been a bit-part player, except in the one sphere that the curators are coy about celebrating. Racing cars oust a full exploration of plywood’s role in modernist design, and the demands of contemporary exhibition-making are satisfied. In its own way, that’s a pretty regressive, Blue Peter-esque approach to your public.
In summary, Plywood: Material of the Modern World fails to show why its subject was just that – an important material for the modern world. Even in these straitened times, one looks to ‘the world’s leading museum of art and design’ for authority and substance. Sometimes, it must be a heavy burden to carry.
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London; © De Havilland Aircraft Museum; © Eames Office, LLC