Although it truly came to prominence in twentieth century design, it was in 1874 that molded plywood was first used as a furniture design material. Pioneered by an Austrian cabinet maker named Michael Thonet, the ability to bend wood neatly bypassed the need to saw multiple pieces and join them together – which is slower, more labour-intensive, and arguably produces a more cluttered result.
To understand why bent plywood was such an important material, it’s first useful to look at what plywood actually is. Simply put, plywood is a sandwich of three or more thin layers of wood, each with their grain at right angles to the one beneath, all of which are then laminated together with glue. This perpendicular, multi-layer alignment makes plywood exceedingly strong and resistant, while at the same time making it possible for the material to be bent into new shapes.
Michael Thonet both pioneered this technique, and used it to create simple, graceful furniture designs that belied their extreme structural strength – including his iconic 1859 coffee shop chair no. 14, which is still called the ‘chair of chairs’ today.
Using his ideas, a designer named Alvar Aalto went on to create a series of iconic pieces throughout the 1930s. The most famous of these, the Paimio Chair, is a symphony of flowing curves that are only made possible by the flexibility of the plywood in its construction. Another simpler, more functional piece – his Stool 60 – became the standard for stackable, beautiful mid-century furniture. The single bend in each of its legs deftly proves the technique’s advantage over traditional design techniques, which would have required two separate pieces to be sawed and then joined together.
At LUNE, we are proud to continue the use of this most ingenious of materials. Our LUNE Blanc and LUNE Noir chairs both sit atop a base made from molded Portuguese Oak – and while the technique and wood might not be identical to the plywood process pioneered by Michael Thonet, one thing is certain – our work would not have been possible without his.