Flexible and Bendable Plywood: 24 Design Questions & Answers




Bendable Plywood Innovation


It’s not really that difficult to create an exciting interior design by drawing a curved wall on your computer. The hard part is figuring out how to build that curved wall on an architecturally scaled project.

The problem is twofold: many building materials are structural but not flexible, or flexible but not structural.

What if we have a new building material in bendable plywood? And what if this bendable plywood allowed us to easily design and build a curved wall?

In this FAQ, you’ll learn how PlyProject designed and developed bendable plywood. We’ll be covering:

– Design of bendable plywood
– Plywood as a sustainable material
– Plywood furniture and interior architecture
– Production of bendable plywood

We’ll also be introducing a series of plywood furniture products.


Design of Bendable Plywood


Q: How did PlyProject come up with their ideas for bendable plywood?

A: Materials embody the values and characteristics of their fabrication processes, and their potential emerge from the details of their shaping, refining, and transformation. When you touch ordinary plywood, it feels hard and stiff. What if we were to slice it, layer it, and laminate and separate it? What would happen if we took plywood’s structure and changed its material scale, recomposing it so it could twist and flex? Making these changes to this traditional material resulted in new bulk properties. The hard, planar surface of plywood we’ve valued in the past has become soft and elastic.


Q: How is bendable plywood designed?

A: Design is in action. The latest digital fabrication technology offers new design opportunities to reevaluate engineered wood products. PlyProject transforms plywood’s physical characteristics for today’s flexible, and stylish contemporary lifestyle.


Q: What is the material character of bendable plywood?

A: Bendable plywood is a sandwich panel structure composed of layers of plywood and foam. The behavior and properties of each combine to provide a balanced, springy material that behaves as a single new entity. Plywood thus becomes a fabric-like structure that offers new visual and tactile experiences.


Q: What are the benefits of bendable plywood?

A: Bendable plywood is easily transportable and can be quickly rolled and unrolled for space-saving designs. Its fabric-like structure and appearance boosts psychological well-being on a human scale. On a larger scale, it’s an adaptable structure that creates new interlinked possibilities for interior architecture.


Q: What were the challenges of developing bendable plywood?

A: By combining the strength of plywood with foam and technical ingenuity, bendable plywood turns what was once stiff and heavy board into a stunningly soft and lightweight material. The challenge of creating bendable plywood was to find the right balance among the material properties of plywood and foam. Layering and separation offer many possible configuration for this new material. Adhesively bonded, the layered materials become a composite structure that combine the material properties of plywood and the springiness and softness of foam.


Q: Is bendable plywood a design system?

A: Yes. As a product and material, flexible walls and ceiling materials are conceptually and pragmatically a system or organic element capable of creating new sensory interactions and experiences. They work together with fastenings, mounts, standoffs, supports, and trim details.


Plywood as a Sustainable Material


Q: Is plywood a design material?

A: It’s time for plywood to be celebrated as a design material with its own aesthetic and structural potential. We take plywood beyond its traditional uses. Layering, separating, laminating, slicing and cutting, and sandwiching panels of plywood let it react and behave in new ways. Hard plywood transforms into a flexible material with new properties. By rediscovering and reinventing traditional plywood using digital fabrication technologies, we can transform plywood for new applications in our built environment.


Q: Is plywood a material for the future?

A: At PlyProject, we turned our notion plywood upside-down for future generations. We reevaluated engineered wood products such as plywood to improve and diversify their performance for interior designers and architects.


Q: Is plywood a sustainable material?

Plywood is an environmentally sustainable material that is the most efficient use of solid wood. Peeled veneer yields 6 to 10 times more usable material from a log compared to sawing the same log into solid sections. Plywood should not be considered as a simply substitute for solid timber or a core for better things. As Le Corbusier put it in the 1950s, “we have no right to waste our strength on worn-out tackle; we must scrap and re-equip.”


Q: What makes bendable plywood so sustainable?

A: A sure way to reduce the environmental impact of anything is to use less of it. But is bendable plywood durable? What happens when it has to be replaced/upgraded with new bio-based materials and water-based adhesive? It should not be part of a linear cradle-to-grave system, but instead part of a McDonough and Braungart “cradle-to-cradle” cycle. The product or its material components should have the ability to remain in use or be reintroduced in production (or biological) cycles. Whether reused, repurposed, recycled, or composted, bendable plywood is the most adaptable engineered wood.


Q: Why not use bio-based materials for bendable plywood?

A: Today, bio-based materials can be as problematic as any other material. Use of chemicals and fuel, nutrient runoff, and various traditional practices all have an impact on agricultural land use. Add in competition with food crops, and bio-materials become problematic when evaluating sustainable practices.


Q: How can bendable plywood be upgraded in the future?

A: We plan to use bio-based foam in future iterations of our bendable plywood whenever it becomes commercially available and makes sense economically.


Q: Is bendable plywood a recycled material?

A: Recycling is not always clear-cut; in the final analysis, recycling is simply down-cycling. As better life-cycle information on recycled materials and processes becomes available, we’re redefining the meaning of recycling.


Plywood Furniture and Interior Architecture


Q: Tell me something about how PlyProject’s plywood furniture got its start.

A: We’ve always been interested in making plywood furniture part of interior architecture. Plywood furniture was not the result of research to create bendable plywood; rather, it was the result of experimentation and investigation into materials that could change the experience of seating furniture. The first plywood furniture was an ottoman, followed by a low-back chair, a high-back chair, and a chaise lounge. We were not trying to create new plywood furniture with bendable plywood simply because it was new. Plywood furniture to us was about the extension of material innovation. PlyProject’s design focus in furniture was about engineered wood aspects as miniatures of architecture — to have the chair become a vehicle to show off the technological and structural concerns within architecture rather than simply to meet the core design needs of plywood furniture.


Q: What is PlyProject’s design concept for furniture and interior architecture?

A: PlyProject challenges design’s preoccupation with predominantly visual outcomes to focus on a broader interaction between body, imagination, and environment. With flexible room dividers in the architectural space, for example, it’s about borders, boundaries, partitions, divisions, and linkages between private and public spaces. It’s about the sound and vision of architecture.


Q: How did PlyProject work with this new bendable plywood to form a bridge between furniture and interior architecture?

A: Materials usually drive furniture design. Bendable plywood ushers in new ways of working, new designs, and new economies of manufacture. Bendable plywood, although related to plywood, is a material that has very different properties when we move from the abstract as a sheet material to its micro-scaled realization as a chair’s working surface, or the “materialization” of architectural spaces as wooden screens or modular installations.


Q: What flexible plywood products has PlyProject designed?

A: Bendable plywood evolved to make the leap from interior architecture to furniture in our built environment. The 100 cm long bendable plywood became a low back chair, the 200 cm long bendable plywood became a chaise lounge chair form, the 400 cm long bendable plywood became a partition wall, and so forth. It grew and blended into our contemporary aesthetic. Finally, it became a freeform element incorporating walls and ceilings as acoustic elements.

The great thing about bendable plywood is that we can adapt its design characteristics for new applications. For example, by incorporating acoustic foam, it becomes a beautiful acoustical panel for balancing a wide range of frequencies.


Q: What are some other applications for PlyProject’s bendable plywood?

A: PlyProject products are functionally flexible because the material is lightweight and structurally self-supporting. Moving from furniture to interior architecture, we’re now offering acoustic products as flexible room dividers and acoustical panels for high-quality acoustics. PlyProject products are functional and beautiful at the same time.


Q: Why did PlyProject apply bendable plywood to acoustics uses?

A: Public environments are often plagued by high ambient noise levels that negatively impact work efficiency and life quality. A common problem in enclosed spaces is reverberation. We are the first company to introduce flexible and lightweight acoustical panels that are easy to install. Interior designers and architects can modify the acoustic environment and create a sound landscape by the unrolling the undulating bendable plywood.


Q: What is the benefit of using bendable plywood in acoustics?

A: Generally, acoustical panels are great at sound absorption for mid- to high-range frequencies, but they aren’t very good at handling the lower bass frequencies. What if we had wooden acoustic panels that allow us to design any desired curved wall, acting as broadband absorbers like a bass trap? We can take advantage of the flexibility of wooden acoustic panels in design to get better-balanced room acoustics.


Q: How does bendable plywood work as acoustical panels?

A: Bendable plywood is a structural and natural surface material that can be used as a sound absorber and/or sound diffuser. The combination of an acoustic foam core and slit plywood surface acts as a Helmholtz resonator. The mass-spring action of this resonator system create sound absorption for large amounts of sound energy.


Q: What do you mean by a “sound landscape” using bendable plywood?

A: As we sought to make the invisibility of surrounding sound “visible” through the curvature of bendable plywood in interior architecture, we became more aware of what the acoustics of a room meant in our built environment. A “sound landscape” is part of interior architecture as well an acoustic environment: it becomes the sound and vision of architecture. It is functional and beautiful at the same time.


Production of Bendable Plywood


Q: Do you think plywood, particularly this bendable plywood, will allow more people to become wood craftsmen?

A: It is unclear how bendable plywood will affect or be affected by more informal design “action spaces.” It will very much depend on seeing how it will “hook up” or “plug into” the energetic and/or symbiotic flows that exist in these action spaces. As a sort of “open sourcing,” this is quite exciting since bendable plywood will now be understood and incorporated by people who are interior designers, architects, consumers, or all three at once.


Q: How is bendable plywood produced?

A: We originally developed and prototyped our bendable plywood through analog processes. Initially, it was made using similar low-tech fabrication processes such as laboriously cutting it on a bandsaw. To produce it commercially, we adopted machine capabilities with digital fabrication technologies. However, this is still wood craftsmanship that doesn’t separate the work of the mind from the work of the hand. A digitally directed machine is simply a tool — it’s a very different tool, but still a tool.

Both design and wood craftmanship can make use of the latest digital fabrication technologies; they differ only in the level of perceived personal autonomy. As a historical and cultural phenomenon, wood craftmanship is likely to adjust more slowly to new conditions than other types of design and manufacturing.


Final thoughts


PlyProject creates an extraordinary building material from ordinary plywood, turning our perceptions of the material upside-down.

We hope you find design inspiration in innovating with this bendable plywood as the opportunity arises.

It may look high-tech, but when looking back at every step of the material’s development, the research and design process follows the original logic of plywood’s creation.

What we did is very simple: transform hard plywood into a flexible material.

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