It has been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, the Chinese were using it 1,000 years ago and tsarist Russia made ample use of it. Despite that illustrious pedigree, in recent generations, plywood has acquired a somewhat commonplace reputation.
Essentially thin sheets of wood veneer glued together, the material is known for being inexpensive, flexible, durable and resistant to cracking. No wonder it's an Ikea favourite. It is made from many types of wood - birch, cedar, fir - and is used for everything from covering broken windows to forming the base of floors, walls and roofs. Recently, however, plywood has been coming into its own as a material for fine furniture, retaining all the virtues for which it is known while taking on a high-design element.
Last year, United States-based furniture designer Peter Hedstrom (pwhedstrom.com) created the sleek Bird chair from a combination of plywood, which is shaped by hand, and fibreglass, used to reinforce the back of the chair. Hedstrom says he is in the process of redesigning the Bird to make it even more aesthetically pleasing and easier to produce. The chair retails for US$2,000 and can be shipped internationally.
Bulgarian designer Petar Zaharinov (praktrik.com) bases his entire collection on puzzles, making pieces that can be assembled and disassembled relatively easily and using natural, ecologically sound materials. His VIIC chair - a chair for two - is made of seven pieces of birch-based plywood, which lock into place without glue, nails or other hardware. The VIIC is priced at US$150.
Dutch cousins Pieter and Thijs Bedaux (bedauxfurniture.nl) use plywood for Void (wood), a follow-up piece to Void (steel), which came out a few years ago. Void (wood) has a body wrapped in cut-out planes to withstand heavy loads, yet is architecturally clean in its design. The designers are accepting custom orders through their website.
It's not just chairs being given the plywood treatment. Dutch designer Erwin Zwiers (erwinzwiers.nl), a one-time maker of harpsichords, has taken thin strips of plywood and fashioned spiral-shaped tables and stools. He has also made an unusual plywood spiral ceiling lamp (Twisted Light), which features vintage red or black cord. Most of the pieces are still in preproduction, although the Twisted Light is available at Mint Shop in London (mintshop.co.uk).
Janina Loeve (janinaloeve.nl) last year launched the Tettonica line, which uses plywood to create surprisingly fluid shapes. A series of rings to create a table were milled from a single board then stacked and covered by a glass tabletop. A similar technique was used to make a stool, which is topped with a removable cushion. A set retails for about US$1,300 (although they can be purchased separately) and the pieces can be shipped worldwide.