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.
Photographs: Pritchard Papers, University of East Anglia.
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