Growing strong: Plywood makes a comeback

October 10, 1993|By Sharon Overton | Sharon Overton,Contributing Writer

The excitement in Jeff Shelley's voice nearly crackles over the telephone line.

Mr. Shelley, manager of an upscale home furnishings store, is using words like "stunning," "aesthetically pleasing" and "cutting edge" to describe a material that most people only associate with the cheapest possible furniture.

He is talking about plywood. But don't talk to him about the

word's negative connotations. "Plywood, schmywood," says Mr. Shelley, whose Atlanta store carries contemporary European furniture, including a cherry plywood bed with a curvaceous headboard that costs just under three grand. "I would rather have plywood than a solid piece of wood any day."

In Baltimore, Galen Jenkins, co-owner of the Leather Company, uses words like "fabulous" and "phenomenal" to describe his first line of plywood furniture, which arrived a few weeks ago. The Puzzle furniture by 3-D: Interiors, is "exquisite," he says. "You can't tell by looking at it that it's not hard wood, and it's very strong and inexpensive."

A growing number of European and American furniture designers are similarly enthusiastic. They are rediscovering plywood for its strength, versatility and some say environmental correctness. Rather than hide it, many are showing plywood off in all its utilitarian glory.

During the spring International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C., several designers displayed furniture made entirely of plywood, and many are expected back again for this fall's show. Pieces are left natural or dyed bright colors that allow the wood grain to show through. Layered edges often are exposed. Many pieces are made to be taken apart, shipped in flat boxes and reassembled, often without nails or screws.

Tim Maloney, a Winchester, Va., designer of "environmentally responsive" architecture, came up with the idea for his 18th Century Plywood furniture after designing a house that measures less than 500 square feet. Following Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian principals, Mr. Maloney wanted practical, inexpensive furniture for the house that could be stored easily when not in use.

His interpretations of Chippendale and Empire chairs caught the attention of buyers from Bloomingdale's by Mail, which will offer both styles in its summer catalog. The chairs are made of birch plywood stained blue or raspberry, come in five pieces that fit together with tabs and slots, and sell for about $200.

San Francisco designer David Kawecki also uses birch plywood for his "Puzzle" chair, which is reminiscent of an old-fashioned school desk dyed in Crayola colors. The chair and a matching tripod table can be assembled in minutes, says Patrice Davis, Mr. Kawecki's partner.

Both designers say plywood, which consists of thin layers of wood veneer glued together with grains running at right angles, is stronger, more stable and often less expensive than solid wood.

Some designers also claim that it is environmentally responsible, because abundant woods such as poplar typically are used for the core, while more desirable species such as cherry and mahogany are saved for exterior veneers.

"It's synergy," Mr. Maloney says. "It uses less to accomplish more."

In recent years, designers as diverse as Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck and Dakota Jackson have used plywood as an integral part of their furniture design. Dakota Jackson's "Vik-ter" chair, made of cherry laminates with a steel frame, borrows elements from the classic Eames chairs of 50 years ago.

Although laminated wood was used in furniture as early as the 18th century, plywood didn't become popular as a design material until the '30s and '40s, says David McFadden, curator for decorative arts at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design in New York.

Modern designers such as Finnish architect Alvar Aalto found in plywood a material that was more malleable than solid wood and "warmer" than metal. Aalto's cantilevered armchair was made of laminated supports with a curvaceous seat molded out of a single piece of thin birch plywood.

In the mid '40s, Charles and Ray Eames designed a series of molded plywood chairs that are among the best-known icons of modern design. The Eameses developed the technology for their chairs while working on plywood stretchers, leg splints and a glider nose cone for the U.S. military.

Their idea was to make a chair that would be relatively inexpensive but of high quality and would use the latest industrial materials. In later years, however, plywood became associated with cheap knock-offs and shoddy construction. Tastes turned to cozier interiors that called for real wood. Furniture manufacturers continued to use plywood but often hid it in secondary components or disguised it as solid wood.

With the recent revival of interest in modern design -- as well as the trend toward using environmentally sensitive products -- plywood once again is being touted as a designer's material, Mr. McFadden says.

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