Why ply is fly
Living room of Mornington Beach house by Clare Cousins Architecture and Interior Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath.
Who would have thought that the celebrated husband-and-wife design team of Charles and Ray Eames, renowned for creating a cool aesthetic out of simple molded plywood chairs in the late 40s and 50s, had previously used ply to create a lightweight and inexpensive leg splint for WWII sailors wounded in battle?
Plywood, used extensively as a dependable construction and utility material during the war, was considered unremarkable until mid-century designers, particularly furniture makers, experimented with it. Ply, many discovered, was not only readily available and cheap but conveyed the warmth of wood and came with a neat swirling grain pattern ripe for visual exploitation.
Still, it took some decades for plywood to gain the sophisticated treatment the product now receives by architects in non-structural applications. And certainly it's only been very recently that ply has evolved as a material worthy of being featured in every room of the house, not just as a quirky product suitable for lining studios and offices.
At the recent Australian Interior Design Awards 2013 (IDA), the winner of the Emerging Interior Design Practice award, South Australia's Genesin Studio, exclusively used plywood in a redesign of Adelaide fashion retailer L.A.X interiors.
Other highly regarded architects, either nominated as finalists in the IDA residential categories or as winners of numerous other architectural awards, exploited the various properties of ply as a ubiquitous design element in their submissions.
"Ply serves a number of functions simultaneously," says sustainable architect and creative boundary-pusher Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architecture in Brunswick, Melbourne. "It is structural bracing for a timber-framed building. It is a low-embodied energy material from a renewable resource. It is a carbon store."
One of Breathe's latest designs, Into The Woods, is a home and artist's studio set on a sloping bushy site in Eltham, on Melbourne's fringe. The exterior is clad in ironbark but inside, plywood walls and ceilings feature throughout.
"Each sheet has its own grain, its own character and quirks. Ply gives visual richness to the project," says McLeod.
Architect Clare Cousins has also used plywood in major living areas of the delightful self-contained timber pavilion added to a 1970s beach house in Mornington, Victoria.
"I love that ply can be used for flooring, walls, ceilings and joinery," she says of the design which is up for numerous awards. "We quite often use it on walls and ceilings laid vertically, staggered, pin fixed and left raw. It is cost effective, easy to work with and has distinctive visual warmth and grain."
In Sydney, Hannah Tribe of eponomously named architectural firm Tribe Studio Architects has recently used ply to feature in the renovation of her own home as well as many others. "Everyone is familiar with the kind of low grade, splintery, unfinished, knotty ply that is used for hoardings and covering up holes on site," she says. "But at the other end of the scale, ply can be faced in extremely beautiful timbers and finished richly."
In the multi-award winning Milner Shmukler House, in Rose Bay, Tribe's use of the humble hardworking material in virtually every room. "I love that ply can be a structure and a finish, she says. "Ply is stable, sustainable, comes in many different grades and can be really beautiful. For this house and others, we use lots of different timber veneers on the face, and often use a super-thin laminate layer on top for wet applications, like benchtops."
It seems award-winning interior designers and architects can't get enough of the simple aesthetic evident in the grain-streaked surface and blunt multi-layered edges of plywood sheets, which are essentially just thin layers of wood veneer bonded together.
Plywood, now lining the living rooms, forming the kitchen cabinetry, tiling the floor, and even used as bedheads and dados in some of Australia's most avant-garde homes, looks to have finally come of age.