PLYWOOD: Material, Process, Form


of an Exhibition

by Steph Samera

Published on March 28, 2011, Modified on March 29, 2011

  • Description:

    Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the Museum’s founding director, with Philip Johnson as its first curator, established the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture and Design in 1932. From its inception the collection has been built on the premise that architecture and design are allied and interdependent arts and are key elements of modern culture. Providing an extensive overview of the field since the mid-nineteenth century, the collection covers major figures and movements, with particular strengths in Art Nouveau, the Vienna Secession, the Bauhaus, postwar Italian design, and American modernism. Informed by the Museum’s commitment to innovation, the collection continues to grow, with a focus on the diverse and ever-evolving forms, materials, and methods of contemporary architecture and design. Bringing together mass-produced industrial objects, graphic design, and architecture, the collection reflects both the unity and the variety of modern design. The architecture collection documents built structures through over 1,900 models, drawings, and fragments and includes some 18,000 drawings by the twentieth-century German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The design collection of approximately 3,600 objects ranges from tableware, appliances, and furniture to tools, textiles, cars, a microchip, and a 1945 Bell-47D1 helicopter. The graphic design collection includes over 4,300 examples of typography, posters, and other combinations of text and image.

    The Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries were organized by the curatorial staff of the Department of Architecture and Design under the direction of Terence Riley, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design. Mr. Riley organized installations relating to 1850–1935. Peter Reed, Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, organized installations relating to 1935–1960, and automotive and transportation design, including the installation of the Bell Helicopter. Paola Antonelli, Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, organized installations relating to 1960 to the present and the special installation of textiles.

    The Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries is host to a small exhibition named “Plywood: Material, Process, Form”. The Museum wall text for this exhibition describes plywood as follows:

    “Plywood,” explained Popular Science in 1948, “is a layercake of lumber and glue.” In the history of design, plywood is also an important modern material that has given 20th-century designers of everyday objects, furniture, and even architecture greater flexibility in shaping modern forms at an industrial scale. This installation features examples, drawn from MoMA’s collection, of modern designs that take advantage of the formal and aesthetic possibilities offered by plywood, from around 1930 through the 1950s. Archival photographs illuminate the process of design and manufacture in plywood. Iconic furniture by Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Arne Jacobsen appear alongside organic platters by Tapio Wirkkala (1951), Sori Yanagi’s Butterfly Stool (1956), an architectural model for a prefabricated house by Marcel Breuer (1943), and experimental designs for plywood in the aeronautics industry.

    A small collection of objects made of plywood and descriptions of each object’s uses covers one wall in the gallery space on the Third Floor. Fans of modern classic furniture will find small delights in this exhibition not to mention the popularity of the artists and designers featured in the exhibition like Charles and Ray Eames and Arne Jacobsen. The examples of plywood art are from the Museum’s collection, which showcases modern design from the 1930s through the 1950s. Photographs from the archive of the Museum are on display to further elaborate the process of the materials and the formation of plywood.

    I enjoy the fact that the Architecture and Design Department at MoMA shares a small exhibition explaining the diverse uses of plywood as furniture and in experiments in the aeronautical field. The curators only had to make a small effort but it was clear and concise in explaining the way plywood can be used in modern design.

    The Family Programs at The Museum of Modern Art has included a Family Activity Guide for ages 5+ and one of the activities on the worksheet is to write your own label. What would you name the object? How would you use this object? The handout also mentions how plywood was steamed and bent to fit the curves of the human body to make a comfortable chair. It was obscure yet helpful for the Family Programs and the Material Lab to coordinate a small instructional placard to develop interest in the young on modern design. This small but useful interactive even got me to think about other materials made out of plywood all around me and in the city. I appreciate smaller exhibitions like these and glad it will be on view throughout the rest of the year. It is also time for me to check out the Material Lab because like the name states there are plenty of materials and digital painting programs to make it one of the more popular interactive spaces at the Museum of Modern Art today.

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