What less exciting title than Plywood: Material of the Modern World. A journey through the industrial age and manufacturing in the present of this humble material. An exhibition that represents the evolution of modernism, an exhibition located in the world’s leading museum of art and design. My expectation around the exhibition was high but the reality is less than the expectation, it was a disappointment.
Due to its scattered focus, Plywood was likely difficult to bring off and was hardly acquaint to the public and institution itself. Therefore, the Porter Gallery was chosen to display the Plywood. Surprisingly, the size of the Porter Gallery is a third of the main exhibition although it is attractive, dark, and free space. However, 200 years of Plywood’s varieties, evolving and manufacturing process, as well as the energetic work of the curators, was encompassed in. The entrance was grandiose with the title and the route was clearly defined, but although it was intelligently design, it was tough to put all the pieces of work in the Porter Gallery such as the Large exhibits that was placed, hanging on the ceiling.
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Despite compassing each exhibit, plywood’s development through the years was incremental, the display arrangement was to exhibit the evolution of plywood and its different uses. Chairs and furniture are the things that you are expected to see, but there were great moments such as the “car, cut-away to show construction, designed in 1937 by Bertrand Goldberg”, the red part of the cutaway was made from plywood as due to its emphasis properties, it was easy to repair and quieter on the road due to better suspension. An unexpected pleasure was the immaculate surfboard in the 1960s which was the first ever surf and skateboards. But my favourite is the Mirror Dinghy that was hanging and match colourfully above with the walls, enhancing the role of plywood in boat-building.
However, there were moments of nostalgia such the pieces from modernist architects such as Alvar Aalto and Ray Eames. There was an assemblage of Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto pieces, and later a selection of chairs from the 1940s that were displayed alongside their famous DCM chair and US Navy’s leg splint by Charles and Ray Eames in 1945. Later, the Japanese experience of Plywood during the war such as the Sori Yanagi’s butterfly stool from 1954. Of course, these reinventions of plywood’s modernism were used for the needs but attractive on its own. The way they were displayed was effective as it’s telling. What I mean is that although it’s the only one moment where the space provided was sufficient and used effectively to understand a story were tease out and where my eyes were reluctant to leave as the aesthetics were firmly situated on front.
The quality of each individual exhibits is where the exhibition falls as it was too overwhelming. The projects mentioned above was difficult to be understood and was confusing. Lack of information. How was it able to explain and understand all the projects that were mentioned above? And of course, about the professionalism, all in a single room? Plywood’s biggest hits were frenetic and eclectic as it was a struggle to connect each piece of work to each other. It was annoying as each individual piece were amazing and intriguing but were fully not exploited as I feel that there was a huge potential engagement that could have been done but instead Plywood was quickly proffered.
From the 1840s, Plywood’s growth manufacturing quickly emerged as an industrial material moulded for furniture. Other challenges were that unfortunately, the few intensive resulting chair and tram benches were lacking such as the permanence of solid wood.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the largest manufacturer of Plywood was acquired by Singer, a manufacturing plywood production, as it was producing three million of the sewing-machine covers alone. Russia became the world’s biggest exporter of plywood with the waterproofed boards, the moulded plywood suitcases, and clutch bags. These waterproof boards were mostly used to make tea chest due to its durability and were mostly shipped in Britain. Around 60,000 were shipped each month.
The 1939 New York World’s fair, Alvar Aalto “symphony in wood”, the shipbuilding town in Vallejo, California and the renaissance of plywood have all been informally comeuppance. But what were they thinking, I feel that the V&A has underestimated their audience and had disfavoured the curators which were maybe resulted the exhibition is in the Porter Gallery? Plywood would have been given enough space in an ideal world to make it more impressive and spectacle. The eye-catching applications such as the aviation, the Mirror Dinghy, the racing, and the intensive selective range of plywood furniture that were emerged in the last century were all there around but didn’t have a better understanding of each exhibit. The only missing bit was the riotous piece that would enliven the exhibition, but the only explanation was the lack of space and due to that brutal excisions was the solution.
However, you must give credit to the curators, although with the limited space, they provide love and ignore the failures and achieve what they had in the process. The racing cars exhibits were satisfying to come firmly to the fore.
At the end of the day, Plywood is versatile and today it more popular than ever, however, I felt that Plywood: Material of the Modern World failed to show why Plywood is an important material in the modern world. Nonetheless, compared to the permanent exhibits outside, Plywood did not achieve its potential. Ask the curators or any architect and I am sure to say that every project is important, built or un built, big or small but most of the pieces did not receive proper attention and important design insights.