Flexible Wood Aesthetics: A Study in the Intimacy of Materiality

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We have invented the first ever, flexible and responsive plywood.

It looks and acts like a fabric, but is made from a sheet of plywood. Laminated with plywood and foam, machine-slit for flexibility, you’ve never felt a flexible wood surface like this before.

There are a number of examples of claimants to being flexible wood out there. However several of them could be considered fragile and don’t have enough structural integrity to be considered as building materials.

Although it took few years of research and development, we finally found the perfect recipe for this new flexible wood surface of ours. Here, hard plywood becomes a soft and flexible thing.

So to help you understand what our ideas are, we’ll be covering:

•  Material Experience
•  Sensory Experience
•  Material Reasoning
•  Making of Design Principles

We’ll also be showing part of our research and development of this material.

Now let’s get started!

 

Material Experience

 

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“Every object made by man is the embodiment of what is at once thinkable and possible. Something that someone was able to both think of and physically create. Every object made by man is situated at an intersection of lines of development of thought – models, cultural structures, forms of knowledge – with lines of technological development – availability of materials, transformation techniques, forecasting and control systems…This intersection between what is thinkable and what is possible, which we refer to as design, is neither simple nor straightforward. There is no broad, free-ranging Thinkable that has only to squeeze into the boundaries of the Possible, because the very awareness of those boundaries is a basic element of what can be thought of.”
– Ezio Manzini (1989)

 

How do you “invent” or “re-invent” a material? How do you take something like plywood and derive a new quality of experiential and functional possibility from it? How to transform it?
Nature creates from the same tool box, the same principles of organization, and the same fundamental material building blocks a plethora of combinations. The subject we are looking at here, plywood, is always form-shifting and has conceptually renewed itself as needed in material practice through time. It has been able to metamorphose itself into a stiff shear web, a hard 3-D shell, a flexing chair back and, as we would like to demonstrate presently in this paper, plywood can also be manipulated, coaxed, tricked into becoming soft; to become structurally and tactilely more at one with the qualities of a fabric. There is something that is possibly inherently Japanese in this invented membrane.
A new materiality is created by turning the material habit of a simple, modest thing like plywood upside down causing it emerge with a different order of utility, function and beauty.

 

Plywood as engineered wood

The origin of solid wood as the responsive structural material to frame a tree, for example. This confers upon it structural properties and inherent variables that are both necessary and often beautiful in themselves, but difficult to contend with in an industrial operation. The derived material plywood, epitomizes the ‘triumph’ of the revolutions of industrialism and mechanization, and yet, it still retaining the essential adaptive characteristics of its organic origins. This modest, flat-sheet material is the outcome of industrialization’s “mechanization encountering the organic” (Sigfried Giedion). It is ancient, but as measured by its demonstrated multivalent potential, plywood is perhaps as new as tomorrow. Early and mid-twentieth century modernists such as Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen knitted together with greater or less success, plywood production-line methods and a measure of sensitive design and the human body. With its credentials as an industrial product, plywood negated at some level the “coziness” of traditional woodwork and could thus be a modern material that promised effortless linkage of expression and construction.

 

Like Alvar Aalto

In some small measure, the instigation of our work came from the inspiration by one of these modernists, namely Alvar Aalto. Firstly, the organic articulation beginning to be expressed in his plywood/tubular steel Hybrid armchair of 1931 – touted by Aalto as the world’s first ‘soft’ wooden chair – and secondly, his Paimio (Model 41) armchair from the same year. The latter, with its visually thin, resilient, continuous plywood seat and back creates a folded floating plane, with the working surface of the chair unfurling from either end and slung within the supporting, closed laminated frame.

 

Healing experience

Materials direct furniture design and through design history there is seen diverse ways of finding material efficiency (and thus economy) setting the adoption of one style form over another. Likewise, through the history of furniture runs the thread of the intimate and determinant relationship between technology and society. For example the Paimio armchair above, was for the new Paimio Sanatorium completed in 1932 and reflected the high incidence of pulmonary tuberculosis in Finland prior to World War II. Yet, chair and hospital also reflect the limited technological options available and the largely palliative means available at the time to cure and rehabilitate victims of this disease. This armchair of Alvar Aalto was about life: about breathing and healing. It was a chair designed to passively support, even augment, the vital sense and function of our body’s activities. It was a sensitive and original response to need…..it was even a pledge of integrity between the designer and the ill patient, this vulnerable “horizontal human being”.

 

Tactile experience

Yet, apart from need, materials can come to serve function alone and our object world becomes reduced to dull commodities. Furniture can become a mute backdrop and accessory for our lives. Thus, rather than just have chairs, why not have a chair extend our sense of territory beyond our skin? Why is comfort confused with the absence of sensation? Could not there be a sense of empowerment, amusement, comfort and, in parallel with Paimio, even a sense of life? In looking at furniture, we would argue against the tyranny of the formalist tradition that restricts aesthetic appreciation to only visual forms. Whilst perhaps easiest to rationalize around our engagement with furniture, there are good arguments for believing that, importantly, the tactile sense set amongst all the other senses vitally contributes to all our aesthetic experiences.

 

Bodily identification

Furniture, but the chair in particular is the articulation of the threshold between nature and culture. How, then could we subvert the absoluteness of the boundary between the body and the other, how might it be made less clear? Could a chair be an interactive part of our haptic cognitive world……might it become part of our experiential world rather than just be a material boundary?

 

Sensory Experience

 

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“The act of making territory starts with our clothes – with their style, with our gestures and postures when we wear them. With a chair we extend our sense of territory beyond our skin. With a chair we first impose ourselves on blind space.”
– Peter Smithson (1986)

 

Subject and object telescope together: inside and outside collapse into one another. We never recover from the pleasure of the touch of the skin. The skin is the oldest and most sensitive of our organs. It is a powerful, although often unconscious, means by which we understand the world. Juhani Pallasmaa proposes that touch is the unconsciousness of vision. Touching objects in everyday life may well not only produce physical sensations, but recall and generate ideas. Seated in a chair there is a somatic world-view of our being: a silent knowledge of posture, movement, emotion, self-concept and values: “seeing is believing” is subverted by a fuller, layered consciousness.

 

Material behavior

Previous work had shown that paired and stacked, shaped beech wood slats created a spring that when collectively installed as the seat of a chair or stool. They gave a “soft” or resilient, even compliant, upholstery-like quality to what was simply wood surfaces. It was asking a material to do something it was capable of doing, but about which we didn’t usually think of asking or pushing it to do. The resulting slatted, plywood-framed chairs and stools had a simple clarity, the ‘complexity’ of the engineering was hidden within the slats and the slats were now the very upholstery itself.

 

Material transformation

The re-exploration of this work commenced with the making and assembly of seating models using multiples of wooden slats with infills of foam of differing densities. This construction was extended to the creation of beam-like wood and foam multiple slat-structures or “pods”. These initial studies were a series of material-focused sketches of sensory and engineering experiences for further exploration and the triggering of “new” inventions. The “laminated beams” in the above sketches were simplified by cutting them from blocks of plywood. The blocks were slit face-to-face through their thickness to create a feather- or pressure-board like unit. Turned on edge, these individual structures or pods, when marshaled in a frame effectively created springy plywood cushions. This arrangement of the plywood leaves (like the earlier laminated beam study) gave a compliant reaction on loading, but the units now were far easier to fabricate and could be more readily “programmed” to take up the loads imposed upon them at various sites throughout the seat and back surfaces.

 

Material Reasoning

 

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“Layering and separation: in these systematic changes to the plywood there is motion, a change in the bulk properties: we see how the light penetrates to reveal structure and what changes occur on loading. Each form responds in some degree to another: hard things become soft things.”
– Yuichito Kojiro (1965)

 

Material qualities are always emergent and usually arrive from structure. For example, toughness or strength are emergent from complex and dynamic structural behavior. This might be subverted and hence exploited for flexibility. For example, the clever, precise cutouts and slots in the backs and seats of conventionally laminated or formed-plywood chairs can expand the conformability of a seating surface to the seated human body. Examples of this might be the Penguin or the Viola chairs by the designer Peter Opsvik.

 

Imaginary space

When you progressively change or modify the structure of something at some smaller and smaller scale, what emerges is a startlingly different suite of properties that draw away from those of the bulk material. At the same time, there are shifts in aesthetic values and psychological feedback. This has been a powerful concept in our research. A flight of imagination when sitting down in this chair might be to liken it to the act of sitting in a field of thickly growing grass. The first touch of the grass as we sit down is the connection: touch, response, and sensuality. The artifice of the mind sees two states: standing or seated. The senses present the movement of experience between the two states as being a solid and undivided whole.

 

Making of Design Principles

 

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“My perception is [therefore] not a sum of visual, tactile and audible givens: I perceive in a total way with my whole being: I grasp a unique structure of the thing, a unique way of being, which speaks to all my senses at once.”
– Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964)

 

“…..the body loses self-awareness precisely at those moments when it could be most revealing; consequently, memory cannot retain what the body had not been aware of, allowing crucial gestures to slip away, though it endows them with a very special air, as the memory of a fainting spell can preserve only the curious sensations of losing and then regaining consciousness while the fainting itself, most intriguing to us, for it’s a state like no other, remains inaccessible, unknowable.”
– Péter Nádas (1997)

 

Even in the prototypal material and chair form, the compliancy and programmability of the slit plywood stacks noticeably better distributed the sitter’s body weight away from the base of the pelvis and its sensitive, pads of soft tissue. Further, in this chair we embraced the human back as a 3D structure and not as the lineal section imagined in chair design. The traditional strictures of the wooden chair were resolved to allow much more dynamic seating. Subtle, qualitative differences of sitting were readily experienced when sheets of paper, say, were inserted as bridges between the individual “pods” – or stacks and hence introduced in some degree, a sort of horizontal, integrated sharing of the applied load across the aggregation of supporting plywood leaves.

 

Plywood as flexible material

A step on from these material and structural studies of massed resilience, something emerged that could be labelled FLEX emerged as a greatly “simplified” composite springy material. It is a product whose almost textile-like qualities have the possibility of application to not only furniture but architecture as well. The hard, planar, work-a-day surfaces of plywood that we have so accepted and privileged in the past, here become soft and deformable. Here there is a surface to engage with, but it is thicker, deeper – it is one that absorbs and dissipates the elastic deformations from the hand or the body’s load.

 

Flexible wood as engineered wood

FLEX is both product and process. As a product it is manifestly a man-made material. Its appearance and engineering behavior are dependent in a large part on the fundamental material properties of the bonded wood veneers of the plywood. Digital mediated manufacture seems a given for FLEX in facilitating the seeming infinity of possibility of slit widths and patterns that might be adopted for structural and/or aesthetic ends. Limits can be pushed for greater engineering and functional performance overall, or limited to discrete areas identified as load-bearing. For example, in seating furniture – through either a decrease of slit periodicity and/or the lamination of some additional appropriate material to the tension face of FLEX in the design. Conversely, increased flexibility and thus conformability are a consequence of tightening the slit pattern.

 

Flexible wood as architecture

In its applications to architecture, its performance as a material has been tied to its acoustic potential. Concern now is with the broader issues of modularity, the means and methods of its production, mounting and attachment, and such things as would make this material a self-sustaining architectural element. In its development, it is the baggage of architecture meeting the abstract processes of design. And, since we are talking of a material that is derived from wood, in architecture more so than in furniture, it is going to be subject to a range of interpretations and misinterpretations. Further, to liken it to a fabric is to propose thinking of it in the multivalent ways through which the language of “fabric” might be employed in architecture – not so much as through metaphor, but through technique, performance, and significance: it is the juggling of matter with rhetoric.

 

Toward materialisation

We are in an age that sees the exponential growth of new material technologies: one where physics, chemistry, engineering, information and nanotechnologies blind and distract with their potential for a huge number of different futures for manufacturing. Yet, in a world ever more tightly constricted for resources, new discoveries might lie closer to hand hidden in already familiar and sustainably sourced materials. Discoveries are about imagining difference: using our imagination to set up paradoxes so that we might see the extraordinary behind the mask of the ordinary. If we ask the right questions, all materials are potentially new and what distinguishes materials of the imagination is that the technical function is made part of the material itself. It is almost not about the material anymore, but it’s about the deeper understanding of the physical world of a material through the inner forces that are acting within it.

 

“What have we not yet perceived in the commonplace materials that surround us?”
– Marco Steinberg (2002)

 

Final thoughts

A company representative once asked me, “Does it work for acoustics?” As you might now know after reading this article, I had originally invented this flexible wood surface, namely FLEX, as a soft and responsive seating material in furniture.

Although it took few years of material research and development, I finally found the right recipe of this flexible material being specially for room acoustics: WAVY was born.

We are quite excited about the idea of these flexible wood surfaces having a role as a designed system, because we’ll be able to redesign and adapt it into consideration of new materials as an evolution of flexible wood aesthetics.

 

Over to you

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the above: plus,

•  what furniture you like to create with flexible wood surface.
•  what architectural elements you like to create with flexible wood surface.
•  general thoughts on flexible wood.

And of course if you have any questions, then please leave us a comment by email: press@plyproject.com

In the mean time…daydream of touching flexible and responsive plywood just as you would as if it were a woven material.