Flexible Wood Innovation: 12 Design Questions & Answers



It’s not really that hard to come up with new interior design by drawing curved walls and ceilings on computer screen.

The hard part is figuring out how to do it on an architectural scale.

The problem is two-fold: many building materials are structural but not flexible, or flexible but not structural.

In the following interview, Kirsten Dirksen asked Kenichi Sato, the founder of PLY PROJECT, a series of questions (partly edited) about how flexible wood was innovated from simple plywood.

Kirsten Dirksen is the founder of Faircompanies Productions featuring sustainable ways of living and design. She publishes articles weekly at www.faircompanies.com since 2007.

We’ll be covering:

•  Plywood as Engineered Wood
•  Plywood as Flexible Material
•  Design Development
•  Making of Design Principles

We’ll also be introducing the a series of flexible wood products.

Now let’s get started!


Plywood as Engineered Wood




“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)


Q: Why are you so interested in plywood? Do you see it still as a design material of the future?
A: Plywood has always impressed me as a remarkable synthesis of technology and a biomaterial. Plywood re-engineers a tree into an isotopic material: it is materially-efficient since using the technology of peeled veneer yields some 6 to 10 times more usable material from a log compared to sawing it 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 1950’s ”We have no right to waste our strength on worn-out tackle, we must scrap and re-equip”.


Q: What makes plywood such a sustainable material?
A: As I said above, plywood is an efficient presentation of solid wood. With plywood, gone are issues of anisotropy and the idiosyncrasy of inherent movement. It has unrealized potential still for our society. Plywood can be celebrated in our time as a material with its own aesthetic and structural potential. It can even be taken outside its former traditions: as itself, or as a component of say, an articulated structure. Plywood can be made to be a flexural surface: hard things become soft things.


Q: How did you start out designing with plywood? What is your de-sign process?
A: I like to work with materials and my hands. I favor experimentation, of gaining material insight through experiments, mock-ups, prototypes and generally trying things out. To me, design is a process of thinking by doing. Design is linked to doing, to working with materials so that possibilities open up and deficiencies became evident through physical tangibility. Design and making were structured to be an ongoing, creative dialogue.


Plywood as Flexible Material



“Layering and separation: in these systematic changes there is change in the bulk properties: how light penetrates; what occurs on loading. Each form responds in some degree to another: hard things become soft things… Bundled twigs become energy, making together a huge flame.”
– Yuichiro Kojiro (1965)


Q: How did you come up flexible wood from plywood? What is your design inspiration?
A: Plywood has been something of a playground for material reasoning. Plywood is hard and stiff – what if I were to slice it, layer it, laminate and separate it? What would happen if I took plywood, and changed its material scale, re-constructed it so that it could torsion and flex. When I made these systematic changes to this old material, there emerged new bulk properties. The hard, planar surface of plywood becomes soft and deformable.


Q: What is the material character of this flexible wood you’ve invented?
A: It is a sandwich structure composed of layers of plywood and foam. The individual behavior and properties of each now combine or sum to provide a balanced, springy material that behaves as a single new entity. It is here that plywood becomes a fabric-like structure that creates new tactile experiences. Sit on it, this new material is resilient, and to a degree, comfortable: it makes you free. It tolerates our individual postures, but it gently encourages us to try new ones.


Q: What motivated you to design flexible wood from plywood?
A: The flexible wood product was not the outcome of research to create flexible wood rather it arrived as the outcome of experimentation and material investigation of changing the experience of seating furniture. I was interested in the idea of furniture becoming a part of architecture.


Q: Tell me something about the furniture designs you’ve created?
A: The first furniture was an ottoman, then a low back chair, a high back chair and a chaise lounge, although I was not trying to create new furniture with flexible wood surface simply for the sake of it being new. Furniture design to me was about extension of material innovation. My design focus in furniture was about engineered 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 meet the core design needs of furniture.


Design Development




“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…It could be said that when we design a chair we make a society and a city in the small. Certainly this has never been more obvious than in this century…’the Miesian city is implicit in the Mies chair’.”
– Peter Smithson (1986)


Q: Tell me how you worked with this new flexible wood across the scales from furniture to architecture?
A: My early explorations were in seating and specifically issues around comfort and conformability to the human form. The flexible wood, although related to plywood, is a material that expresses very different properties when we move from the abstract state of plywood as a sheet material. This new flexible wood first became a chair’s working surface, and later was applied to the “materialization” of architectural spaces as screens and modular installations.


Q: Tell me about how you’ve developed the flexible wood products so far.
A: Here is the evolution of how flexible wood surface become utilized in our built environment:
The 40 in long flexible wood surface became a low back chair.
The 80 in long flexible wood surface became a chaise lounge chair form.
The 40 ft long flexible wood surface became a space partition…and so forth: it can grow and blend into our daily life.
Finally, it was set free and became a freeform element combining wall and ceiling sound structures. The great thing about this material is that its design principles can be adapted to consideration of new materials. For example, re-designed using acoustic foam, it became a hybrid acoustic panel for balancing a wide range of frequencies.


Q: What is a benefit of using flexible wood surfaces in acoustics?
A: Generally speaking, acoustic panels are great at absorbing mid-high range frequencies. But they aren’t very good at handling the lower (bass) frequencies. What if we have flexible acoustic panels that allow us to design any curved surface, acting as broadband absorbers like a bass traps? With flexible acoustic panels, we can design and obtain better balanced room acoustics.


Q: Tell me about the flexible wood products your company have introduced.
A: Our products are being flexible, the material is lightweight and structurally self-supporting. Across the scales from furniture to architecture, we are currently offering acoustic products as 3D acoustic tiles (WAVY® Modular), as a freestanding space partition (FLEX Partition) and as a hybrid acoustic panel (WAVY® Acoustic) for acoustic treatment. These products become a generator to create a “Soundscape”.


Q: Tell me about the idea of a “Soundscape” created with these flexible wood surfaces?
A: As I sought to make the invisibility of the sound around us ‘visible’ through the curves of these materials in interior architecture, we become a little more aware of what the acoustics of a room meant, for example, in our built environment. Thus the idea of a “Soundscape” is that it is part of architecture and as well it is an acoustic environment: it is an experiential unity of visual and acoustic space. It is functional and beautiful at the same time.


Making of Design Principles




“…sensibility, the intimate felt knowledge of things – by definition mental receptivity, ready discernment, as of truth – is probably one of the most important human traits available to the artist. Without this the artist becomes skilled, authoritative, eclectic but not truly creative because it is the discernment of truth not previously discovered that proves the creativity of an action. Sensibility as well as reason is part of human intelligence and needs educative attention as do the more respected mental powers of comprehension, analysis, deduction, and so forth.”
– Gordon Peers (1909-1988)


Q: Is flexible wood surface a design system?
A: We are quite excited about the idea of these flexible wood surfaces have a role as a designed system. Beyond the flexible surfaces there are fastenings, mounts, stand-offs, supports, trim details…and the whole wrapped around contributing to a better, sustainable world. As a product/material, it is both conceptually and pragmatically a system or organic element capable of creating new sensory interaction and experience.


Q: Is there a satisfaction that comes from being able to create something yourself from start to finish?
A: The short answer is “yes,” there is enormous satisfaction. Most design books are about the finished product. They don’t always go into the design process and so we miss the really great stories. I find satisfaction lies not in any specifics of the object, but from knowing that I had made it, that I had changed some small corner of the universe.


Q: Do you think plywood, particularly this flexible wood, is a material that will allow more people to become crafters?
A: It is unclear that how the flexible wood material or its concept will impact on, or be impacted on by more informal design “action spaces”. It will be very much about seeing what happens out there and seeing how it will “hook up” or “plug into” the energetic and/or symbiotic flows that exist in these action spaces. This, as a sort of “open sourcing”, is really quite exciting since the flexible wood surface will now be acted upon by people who will be simultaneously both designers, architects and consumers.


Q: What about digital fabrication? Does that apply to what you do? What do you think about the rollout of digital fabrication into the future?
A: We originally developed and prototyped our flexible wood surface materials through analog processes. Initially its production was made by similar low-tech fabrication processes by laboriously cutting it on a bandsaw. To produce it commercially I adopted appropriate digital fabrications or machine capabilities. However, it is still craftsmanship, it is work that does not 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.


Further reading

If you’d like to understand more about flexible wood surface, we suggest to check these articles below:

Soundscape: Flexible Wood Wants to Become Architecture
Learn more >

Curved: Wood Ceiling Like Alvar Aalto
Learn more >

Hybrid Acoustic Panels: Room Acoustics for Music
Learn more >


Final thoughts

I’m not sure why I become so much obsessed about this material, but I hope you in turn find design inspiration in innovating with this flexible plywood as the chance arises.

It all looks so complicated now. However, when looking back at every step of material reasoning, the design process and research development has a logic derived from plywood.

What I did is very simple: to transform hard plywood surfaces into soft and flexible things.


Over to you

We’d love to hear your thoughts on:

•  what you like to create with flexible wood surface.
•  what design project you are working on plywood.
•  general thoughts on flexible wood innovation.

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

In the mean time… keep going with your design projects!