Plywood: Material of the Modern World

This exhibition opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 15 July 2017. ‘Featuring groundbreaking pieces by Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer and Charles and Ray Eames, alongside an incredible range of objects from planes to skateboards, this exhibition tells the story of how this often-overlooked material made the modern world.’

On display from UEA Archives are printed designs showing plywood profiles for railway carriages. These were produced by Estonian furniture maker A.M. Luther Ltd, circa 193? They form part of the Pritchard Papers, an archive rich in the history and development of the use of plywood in furniture making.

Plywood in the Pritchard Papers

Jack Pritchard began producing plywood furniture from 1933. The first products were modular shelf units designed by Wells Coates and manufactured by Venesta (Pritchard’s then employer). Venesta was a useful introduction to the industry, with its factories in Estonia, Latvia and Finland. A couple of years later Pritchard set up Isokon Furniture Company. They marketed the designs of other companies such as Finmar and PEL, and with the arrival of European designers Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius expanded their own range of furniture with a particular emphasis on plywood. Marcel Breuer’s Long Chair was a resounding success and is still manufactured today by Isokon Plus.

Other noteworthy items include Egon Riss’ Penguin Donkey book-case and Bottleship, both re-designed after the War by Ernest Race; and Breuer’s nesting tables.

Pritchard not only worked with plywood but he also surrounded himself with it at home. He and his wife Molly built the iconic Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, London. A block of flats built for minimalist living, complete with built-in wardrobes, modular shelf units, nifty partitions, and a love of all things light and portable which facilitated an unencumbered lifestyle. Plywood did all of this. The Isokon flats are now grade I listed and include a gallery celebrating the buildings’ history, including the history of its members’ only Isobar restaurant.

A search for ‘plywood’ in the catalogue delivers over 200 results. It includes patents; details of the supply of furniture and raw products; customer orders; sales; correspondence; and Pritchard’s 1939 lecture ‘Design in Plywood’. Here he highlights the qualities of plywood, and the opportunities which arise when making full use of its “natural whippiness and springiness”, most evident in a new area of development involving the creation of built-up timber. He refers to Breuer’s Long Chair as being the greatest achievement in the use of plywood to date.

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Photographs: Pritchard Papers, University of East Anglia.

Pritchard Papers and online guide
Isokon Gallery
Marcel Breuer Digital Archive
Plywood exhibition at the V&A

If you would like to know more about the collection please contact


Exploring the Archives: a monthly update: May 2017

British Archive for Contemporary Writing (BACW)

  • Around 40 international agents (UEA ambassadors) visited the Archives in May to hear about some highlights including the Storehouse model, the Publishing module, the Unboxed project and the Literary Festival collection.
  • At UEA’s Learning and Teaching Day the BACW held a joint workshop with the East Anglian Film Archive (EAFA) ‘Digital Heritage: Equipping Students for the cultural and creative industries’.
  • Richard Beard (writer) was interviewed by Jos Smith (Director of BACW) at UEA’s Enterprise Centre. This was part of an all-day seminar for MA Creative Writing students. Beard spoke of the writing and publishing process and the rationale for placing his papers on loan in the Archive. Richard Beard Archive.

Three new blog posts have been published by our LDC (Literature, Drama & Creative Writing) students:

Permission requests for forthcoming publications by users of the archives have related to the suffragettes (Kenney Papers) and to the history of climate change (G.S. Callendar Archive).

John Hill Archive
We’ve been looking at agricultural land in Haddiscoe, Norfolk and how it looked in 1961 when it used to operate as a pea vining station.

Pritchard Papers
Researchers have been interested in the journalist and architectural critic Philip Morton Shand (grandfather of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall); and the archaeologist Gordon Childe (former tenant of Lawn Road Flats).

Roger Deakin
Research has concentrated on Deakin’s income and letters of refusal from agents and publishers.

Zuckerman Archive


Committee on Research & Development.

Researchers have been interested in:
• The use of dogs to detect metal explosives 1955-1970.
• The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and international scientific cooperation during the Cold War (SZ/IIASA).
• The Committee on the Management and Control of Research and Development. This is a valuable resource documenting the early articulation of Applied Science in the UK (SZ/MR).
• The Bombing Analysis Unit of the RAF (SZ/BAU).


Special Collections: 13 enquiries.

Sailing – The Theta Club (1944- )

A sparkling stretch of water dotted with sail-boats; a sense of calm purposeful activity of sailors enjoying the precious days of summer. This is the timeless back-drop against which a small yet successful Norfolk sailing holiday camp for youngsters launched itself around 70 years ago.

Keen sailors, Jack and Molly Pritchard

Keen sailors, Jack and Molly Pritchard

The Theta Club was the brain-child of entrepreneur John Craven (Jack) Pritchard (1899-1992).

Its purpose was “to encourage, through holiday camps for young people, the art and practice of sailing including the maintenance and care of boats.”

Importance was placed on providing high efficiency sailing craft with convenient and comfortable living conditions. The embryonic club consisted of friends of Jeremy Pritchard (Jack’s son) and children of the friends of Jack Pritchard.

Objectives, plans and facilities, Nov.1944

Objectives, plans and facilities, Nov.1944

The earliest document among the papers held is dated November 1944. It details the objectives of the camp, its plans and aims, facilities, revenue and expenses. Plans (all by 1946) included:
– A wherry for 10-15 people
– Moorings
– Three 25ft hard chine sloops with sleeping for two and auxiliary sleeping for two others
– Three 12ft hard chine unsinkable high efficiency craft primarily for young people to learn sailing by themselves.

A former member has added her recollections to the papers. Ann Venables tells us that the first informal gathering took place at Thurne on the Norfolk Broads in the summer of 1945 (or 1946). Here Jack tried out his principles on this small band of friends who lived either in boats or in Jack and Molly’s cottage. The first meeting was so successful that arrangements were made for an Easter camp and by the following summer an additional week for infants (under thirteens) had been added, the Theta Club was truly born.

Thurne, Norfolk

Thurne, Norfolk

By 1947 there was a real Club House – The Ark – a converted landing craft with 12 bunks and a cooking and eating area. Boats were either hired or owned by the club and included half-deckers and small yachts. Expert tuition was provided under Jack’s guidance, there was cooking, catering, socialising and a lot of singing.

“Each week was organized in such a way that everyone was part of a working-party one day in the week. They catered, cooked and cleaned and didn’t sail at all on that day. This seemed to work well and no-one was poisoned.”

Venables recalls a lovely yacht called Nyanza, a lug-sail rigged half-decker called Albatross, and fun boats – little prams called Tiddlers.

The occasional papers from 1944-1963 include correspondence, news of summer events, minutes of the club’s Annual general meetings and the club’s 1951 constitution.

The Theta Club in Thurne, Norfolk is still active today.

UEA Archives holds the wider collection of design and architectural papers of Jack Pritchard. The Theta Club, being just one of Jack and Molly’s interests, comprises one file within the Pritchard Papers.

The Archive picture gallery: #4 Isokon Furniture Company

Yellow marketing leaflet of furniture company

Marketing leaflet. Pritchard Papers, UEA

Isokon Furniture Company was established in 1935 by Jack Pritchard (1899-1992).  Early designers included Walter Gropius (architect and founder of the Bauhaus School), Marcel Breuer (architect and designer of the long chair) and Egon Riss (Penguin donkey bookcase). With an emphasis on plywood, the company focussed on lightweight modular furniture, promoting comfort and minimalism.

Small bookcase

Penguin donkey bookcase mark 1, designed by Egon Riss and Jack Pritchard 1939.

Pritchard’s progressive ideas on urban living were further realised in the fitted and serviced flats he built in Lawn Road, Hampstead. These iconic pieces from the 1930s are still being handmade by Isokon Plus™ today.

Pritchard Papers

The Archive picture gallery: #3 Lawn Road Flats

Lawn Road Flats, Hamptead, London circa  1950. Photograph by John Maltby, copyright Pyrok Ltd.

Lawn Road Flats, Hamptead, London circa 1950. Photograph by John Maltby © Pyrok Ltd.

Lawn Road Flats, designed by Wells Coates and commissioned by John Craven (Jack) Pritchard opened in 1934 representing a key landmark in British social and architectural history. The serviced flats provided a residence to leading lights from the Bauhaus fleeing Nazi Germany, Walter Gropius (architect), Marcel Breuer (designer) and Moholy-Nagy (graphic designer). Artists and writers included Agatha Christie, Henry Moore and Kenneth and Diana Rowntree. The grade 1 listed building in Hampstead London is now known as The Isokon Building. It was beautifully restored by Avanti Architects in 2004 and now includes The Isokon Gallery which was opened to mark the 80th anniversary on 9 July 2014.

The Archives holds detailed papers on the flats and its tenants. From missing laundry complaints (Agatha Christie’s knickers to be specific) to the menus and rules of the Isobar Half Hundred dining club.

More seriously in this collection are papers relating to prominent designers and architects from the 1930s, wartime activities including the assistance of prominent European émigrés, papers of Political and Economic Planning (PEP) and the Furniture Development Council.

For detailed guides to the papers or to visit the Archives see Pritchard Papers and Isokon Trust