The use of composite materials and plywood in furniture design

Paimio Chair by A. Aalto
Paimio Chair by A. Aalto

In the mid-fifties, the making of furniture began to take industrial form and so it became necessary to increase production while containing costs and maintaining a good level of quality. The production process had to be simplified and supporting materials, such as plywood and veneered materials, with others that were less costly. 

It was out of this need that fibre board came increasingly to take the place of these former in the construction of the load bearing and infill materials especially in the production of containing pieces where large surfaces are more easily obtained using panels with no grain. 

The industrialisation of individual components favoured the spread of modular furniture, either as individual finished pieces or as the vertical or horizontal parts such as jambs, drawers and shelves etc, designed on a modular grid to permit production of variable sizes in each of the three dimensions. 

Modular pieces means that containers could be set against walls or used to divide up spaces. In sixties Germany Herberth Hirche designed the “inter-wall” system of industrially produced elements able to make up individual containers such as wardrobes, bookcases and living room furniture etc., wall cupboards and cupboards able to take the place of traditional masonry. 

In Italy ICF’s production saw a succession of new projects aimed at providing the market with a whole range of different furnishing ideas. The “Programma E6” wardrobe systems by Marco Zanuso (from Elam 1966), the “CUB 8” wall system designed by Mangiarotti (Poltronova 1968) and the “A1” system by Luigi Massoni (prod. Boffi 1970).  

All merit special mention as does the supporting uprights system “Oikos” designed in 1973 by Antonia Astori (Driade). 

Standing out in modular furniture are the “Cubicolo” series designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1967 and the “Bric” series of Enzo Mari and Atonia Astori (Driade 1978). 

At the end of the seventies the Cassina company introduced into its “I Maestri” collection the modular “Casiers Standard” range designed in 1925 by Le Corbusier; these were revived in plane hardboard panel form. 

In the latter half of the seventies “OSB” (oriented structural board) was added to the family of particle boards available. This was of American origin (from around 1976) and consisted of large thin chips made into strands and laid in opposed lengthways and crosswise bands (as with plywood) with the outer faces characterised by a texture that depended on the dimensions of the wooden pieces and the type of wood. 

This type of panelling can be manufactured with diverse mechanical characteristics enabling it to be employed in different fields, including building, site work, and furnishings. 

“OBS” was to characterise some production for decades to come. Fibreboard panels, known in Italy as faesite or masonite, are used in the internal parts of furnishings like drawer bottoms, in chair backs, as support for other materials such as sheared sections, plastic laminates etc. 

They have never had an important role in determining new ways of producing furniture. We have to wait until the coming of the nineteen seventies, and the new MDF (Medium-density fibreboard) panelling to see a real change. 

The manufacture and distribution of MDF panels in Italy began at the end of the seventies. This type of panel was to take the place of laminboard, blockboard and solid wood in the production of furniture and furnishings. 

Since the eighties it has taken the place of particle board in lacquered furniture. MDF can be milled, shaped and polished without first being finished off with other materials, thus simplifying the production process.

Plywood has been in use for a number of decades in the making of furniture acting as containers with a supporting “framework” and in the making of structural planes in wood veneers. 

In the second half of the nineteen forties and during the fifties the study of curved plywood developed to its use mainly in seating and often in combination with metal or solid wood supporting structures. 

Particularly worthy of mention are the tables designed by Carlo Mollino and the designs produced by Roberto Mango, Eugenio Gerli and Mario Cristiani, Eugenia Alberti, di Achille and Piergiacomo Castiglioni.

An important role was played by the company Carlo Ratti of Lissone, which presented a chair in 1953 that had a single curved plywood element that made up the seat and back supported by two tubular sections that were formed the four legs. 

The curved plywood work of the Ratti company was used for guitars, sewing machine cases, television cabinets and so forth. Charles Eames’ designs using curved plywood led in 1940 to the armchair project where he succeeded in bending the plywood in two opposing directions at once to give a shell shape. 

The project was developed with Eero Saarinen. The chair known as “The Ant” was designed by the Dane Arne Jacobsen (F. Hansens 1951) and has become a landmark in curved plywood chair design. 

The seat and back are a single piece sustained by three metal legs fastened to the body by a swelling at the point of union with a ply disk at the centre, with supporting rubber pads inserted between the body and the legs (taken from the “suspension” joints already used by Eames).

Particular interest in the use of laminated wood in Italy was shown at the Milan exhibition of 1960 called “New Designs for Italian furniture”. 

Particularly worthy of mention is the “Cavour” armchair designed by Vittorio Gregotti, Lodovico Meneghetti and Giotto Stoppino and the dismantling armchair designed by Antonio Scoccimarro, both being objects whose supporting structures were of laminated wood. 

There are other sporadic occasions where this material appears at the forefront of interest, with, for example, the “Scacciapensieri” armchair designed in 1976 by De pas, D’Urbino and Lomazzi. 

A. Aalto’s studies in the thirties of the curvature of wood were to lead to the use of laminated wood in furnishings from the thirties onwards, to become particularly widespread in the Scandinavian countries and those of central-southern Europe. 

Noteworthy in its influence was the laminated wood armchair of 1936 made for the Bocconi University of Milan by Giuseppe Pagano. 

In Denmark in 1951 Peter Hvidt and O. Molgaard Nielsen applied the use of laminated wood in combination with the construction technique of the tennis racket to a dismantling armchair produced by the F. Hansen company; re-issued in 1960 and emphasising the expressive and technical potential of laminated wood. 

A. Aalto’s work on the dry bending of solid wood found a particular moment of synthesis in the stool from Artek in 1954. The characteristic “fan” leg permitted a double curve and a new way of bringing together the vertical elements with the horizontal surfaces.

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Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.