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Plywood: Material, Process, Form

Museum of Modern Art, New York City
February 2, 2011–ongoing

So you think you know plywood? Although the show’s title promises an examination of this modern material, Plywood is mostly a display of mid-20th-century furniture. Bound by the stage-like installation in the Architecture and Design gallery, this show similarly lives on a single conceptual platform: like many exhibitions by the Architecture and Design department, it is a selection from MoMA’s extensive collection organized around a theme. Plywood is a good teaser, and a visit may feel like a wonderful reunion with well-known older friends to whom you have come to pay your respects.

Not much is new here, as several of these iconic furniture pieces can be seen at any Design Within Reach store. One of the few exceptions (and the smallest piece in the show) is a patent model for a one-piece plywood chair from 1873 by Isaac I. Cole. Who knew, or remembers, pre-Eames or pre-Saarinen plywood chairs? Yet it is the nonfurniture objects — such as a bow, a propeller, and a pair of skis — that speak of the flexibility of this material and its many possible applications. This is what makes plywood so fascinating.

The show lacks a binding agent — like the glue that holds together the many layers of wood veneer that make plywood — to meld the multiple readings that the title suggests. The unlabeled black-and-white photographs of other seminal plywood pieces and processes help but are not enough. We can only hope that this is a probe for a larger future exhibition that will delve more deeply into all the layers that make up this intriguing material and the designs it continues to inspire.

Image above: Lounge chair, 1934. Designer: Gerald Summers. Manufactured by Makers of Simple Furniture. Photo: Museum of Modern Art.