PLYWOOD: THE UNLIKELY MODERN ICON
"this is life, it's about space light and colour"
Durable, malleable, and cheap to produce, plywood seems the most unlikely of components to work its way into Modernist design in Britain in the 1930s. Now taken for granted as an inexpensive material, plywood was a modern wonder in the inter-war period. Advanced manufacturing methods meant that wood could be cut into thin sheets which were then bonded together to create a much stronger and more versatile material. It was swiftly commandeered for a range of purposes, from aircraft and industrial production, to homeware and furniture design. At the height of its popularity, many of the most celebrated names of the Modern epoch who worked with wood in Europe and America, such as Alvar Aalto and Gerrit Rietveld, were devising radical new products to fulfil the burgeoning new market for organic, elegant designs, fit for the modern home.
In Britain, the competition between designers to create ever more progressive objects using plywood was high. Furniture design was often crude and ill-considered in the wake of The First World War. The emergence of the new Modern Style in British design can be credited in large to a small number of highly progressive European avant-garde designers, originating from Germany’s famous Bauhaus.
Marcel Breuer was amongst a handful of Bauhaus designers who emigrated to London from Germany in 1936. One of the first commissions he received was from the former Director of the Bauhaus, Water Gropius, to Jack Pritchard of the Isokon Furniture Company. As a part time consultant for Venesta, a distributor for Estonian plywood, Pritchard asked if Breuer would translate some of his iconic aluminium designs, which had been met with success on the continent, into plywood, as he was keen to showcase its suitability for the latest modernist designs. The ply version of his aluminium chaise, the ‘Isokon Long Chair’, went on to become an icon of 20th century furniture design. Breuer then became intent on producing new, progressive pieces, without any precedent. Originally, the Isokon Dining Chair was to be a truly minimalistic design, employing as few pieces as possible. It’s development however was not easy, and the final design involved nine constructional elements. Despite designing other stacking chair variants, this is the only chair by Breuer that went into production. Very few were produced, and only a handful have survived, including two that are currently held in the V&A collection.
Although Breuer had precocious talents, the British furniture designer Gerald Summers never suffered Breuer’s tribulations in the production of his work. The creative leaps in form that are evident in so much of his output were not the result of design fancy, instead owing their existence to Summers’ acute knowledge and interrogation of the constructional process.
Summers explored plywood’s untapped potential, and his pragmatic, yet highly inventive approach, meant that he was able to create furniture that was functional, space-saving and affordable, yet entirely radical in its form. He saw beauty in the quotidian and created many ingenious re-interpretations of ordinary items, including cake trays, towel rails, bookends, and magazine stands. His designs are a marriage between sculpture and utility.
Our works come from a period when Summers most emphatically demonstrated the capabilities of plywood in bold ways, creating gravity-defying forms that were previously impossible to craft. The use of a new plywood variant called aeroplane ply, specifically designed in the aircraft industry to allow for greater pliancy, elevates his designs above their base utilitarian functions; the bravura of Summers’ tight arcs and angles would not have been possible without it.
Summers’ furniture is nowadays hugely revered and sought after by collectors and international museums. Much of his work perished in the Blitz, and a great deal was, no doubt, discarded as being too austere. Post-war British society, starved of colour, decoration and gaiety, used the blank canvas of peace in Europe to hungrily create the world afresh. His designs are represented in renowned museums around the world, including the V&A, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art.
We thank Steven Dunn for his attribution of the Mirror to Gerald Summers. The work appears in the volume Gerald Summers: Furniture for the Concrete Age by Dunn / Mantz (2012).
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