Hong Kong architect duo part of an international wave to make plywood cool

The once-maligned material can be robust, beautiful and sustainable, say Dennis Cheung and Nick Gu – and Australian and New Zealand cabinetmakers agree

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2016, 5:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2016, 5:36pm

What does it take to assemble the flat-pack furniture Ikea sells every year? More than 2.5 billion small wooden dowels and more than 50 million Allen keys, according to the company. But no one said it would be easy – hence the numerous YouTube likes for frustrated DIY-ers’ instructional videos.

Two enterprising Hong Kong architects plan not only to disrupt the world’s biggest furniture brand with their idea for flat-pack designer furniture bereft of any nails or screws, but they’re doing so with the underdog of materials: plywood.

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Back in 1946, Charles and Ray Eames rocked the design world with their moulded plywood chair, which is still much copied and was even hailed by Time magazine as the best design of the 20th century (ahead of the locomotive, which placed second).

Pliable under heat and pressure, as the Eames’ experiments revealed, glued-together sheets of engineered wood have been used for everything from boat-building to housing construction and high-end furniture. But not all plywoods are created equal, and therein lies the bad rap that has somehow tarred the material as being “inferior”.

Not so, cry its present-day supporters, including architects Dennis Cheung Hoi-kwan and Nick Gu Lik-hang. After returning to Hong Kong following their masters’ studies in the US (Cheung at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Gu at Harvard University) the pair established their own design studio, Upscaling Operations, in 2014.

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Aside from their interior design projects, the 29-year-olds wanted to do more with the plywoods and veneers they worked on in graduate school. They knew that plywood was considered locally to be a mundane product. “We wanted to transform it into an elegantly crafted furniture piece, which could be much different from previous perceptions,” Cheung says.

According to the architects, it is a combination of the type of wood, its thickness and the number of layers that make the difference between an inferior and quality product. Cheap ply furniture has only three layers, and is not durable. Multiple layers overlapping in alternate cross-grain directions produce a robust material that will not warp and shrink as solid timber does, they say, and is more resistant to heat and humidity.

Apart from its aesthetic and functional value, the partners believe plywood is a sustainable choice. As an engineered material, it is resource efficient because there’s little waste. And the manufacturing process meets the formaldehyde emission standards under the California Code of Regulations.

Their first product, ButterPly, for which they are seeking backing through a Kickstarter campaign (which ends on September 15), is a desk of expandable height made of furniture-grade birch plywood. In a choice of sizes, it can be used as a stand-up or sit-down work desk, or low or medium-height coffee table. The raw material is plantation timber from Russia, and the manufacturing is done in Shandong province.

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The design squarely takes aim at the biggest-selling furniture maker in the world.

“We all buy a lot of furniture from Ikea, and as a flat-pack it’s good and the price is competitive – but it’s actually quite hard to assemble yourself,” Cheung says. “We wanted to make the assembly much easier and faster – kind of like one-minute Ikea, with a designer aesthetic.”

The architects looked to traditional Japanese and Chinese wood joinery, which involves no nails or screws, but dovetails together into carved pockets under the craftsman’s sculpting. They interpreted this in a contemporary way, adding ergonomic curving on the edges, and inserting flexible modular organisers for holding keys, pens or a mobile phone, for example, and the ButterPly was born.

The partners, who have set a Kickstarter target of US$35,000, hope to start distributing the desks, which cost from US$79 to US$389, in early December. In addition to Hong Kong and the mainland, the product is to be shipped initially to customers in the US, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. “We’re also receiving inquiries from Canada and Australia, which we think might be markets even bigger than Asia,” Gu says. The partners also plan to expand the range to a suite of designer furniture pieces based on the ButterPly system that are low cost and multifunctional.

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Another in the current breed of plywood enthusiasts pioneers is Felix Furniture, a bespoke producer based in Melbourne, Australia, and established in 2014. Founders Antonia Morrongiello, an interior designer, and Ian Anderson, a Scottish-born cabinet maker, believe there is no substitute for the design aesthetic of the plywood edge.

“It’s a maker’s mark of ours to design the corners,” Anderson says. “Our ply is made from between 18 and 25 layers of veneer, and we mitre the corners at 45-degree angles, revealing the wood in beautiful layers.”

The duo design and make a range of sideboards, buffets, side tables and bench seats using either birch plywood, which is pale white and sourced from eastern Europe, or honey-toned hoop pine plywood, from Queensland plantations. Their designs range from refined to industrial to retro, with an overall angular shape they describe as mid-century modern.

“One problem we have faced is telling people we make plywood furniture – they jump to the conclusion plywood is used on a construction site,” Anderson says. “We have to explain that this isn’t run-of-the-mill plywood – it’s pretty high-end stuff. It’s not going to be a beaten-up piece of furniture if you buy it; it’s going to be finished well, and will last a long time.”

It can be more expensive than some solid woods, “but you get what you pay for”, Anderson says.

For those still unconvinced, he points out that all materials his company uses are sustainably sourced from plywood plantations; and the pieces will “last a lifetime without twisting and warping over time”.

Plywood can be used for kitchens, and while Will Slack, owner/designer of Make Furniture, a birch plywood custom kitchen specialist in New Zealand, considers it to be an “honest and authentic” choice, he concedes that it does have limitations.

“Plywood is an excellent material for the cabinetry – it’s solid and long-lasting, has a better carbon footprint than MDF, and our plywood is Forest Stewardship Council certified,” Slack says. “But we wouldn’t use it for bench tops because we think there are better options. And in a large expanse – such as a pantry door – ply will move over time.”

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Knowing its limits, the company, run by Slack and his wife Libby, uses the material judiciously, combining it with other materials such as stainless steel, Caesarstone, solid timber and their personal favourite, modern-day lino – a natural and hard-wearing material made from wood pulp resin and linseed oil, available in a range of colours.

The Scandinavian vibe of their designs is completed by a lack of handles (small holes are cut for finger-pulls instead). “It looks flush and minimal, no-fuss, and clean, and you can pick up the accent colour on the floor or back of a bookshelf. That’s what this [look] is all about,” Libby says.