Transmaterial Aesthetics: Experiments with Plywood



Every revolution in architecture has been preceded by a revolution in materials.

What is the next revolutionary material that will reshape the very nature of architecture?

What if we were to slice plywood, layer it, laminate and separate it?

Here, hard plywood transforms soft and flexible things.

This short article show our design process of transmaterial aesthetics.

Now let’s get started!


“What is missing from our dwellings today are the potential transactions between body, imagination, and environment.” (Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore). This observation leads on to the idea that the parameters in design are not only form and function, but having also a sensitivity to address the potential of haptic qualities that a design can advantageously access through our “atlas of senses.” (Kenya Hara)


Body-conscious design

We began our investigation with the idea of how the potential of trans-materiality might be grown to become a broadening of our experience of sitting say, in a chair – in the mind, the absoluteness of the boundary between the body and the chair might be far from clear: “with a chair we extend our sense of territory beyond our skin…” (Peter Smithson). Over fifty years ago, the pioneer psychological anthropologist, A. Irving Hallowell argued, “Any inner-outer dichotomy, with the human skin as boundary, is psychologically irrelevant.” Do we wear a chair? “We live our clothes as though they were alive. Your trousers do the walking. They are integrated into the body’s memory” (Roger-Pol Droit).



Materials, on the other hand, embody the values and characteristics of their fabrication processes: their potential emerges from the details of their shaping, refining and transformation. We touch plywood, it is hard, unequivocal, stiff – what if we were to slice it, layer it, laminate and separate it? What would happen if we took plywood, perfect in its solidity, and changed its material scale, reconstituted it so that it could torsion and flex. When we made these systematic changes to this old material, there emerged new bulk properties; or was it the revelation of a previously hidden inner soul? The hard, planar surface of plywood we have so privileged in the past became soft and deformable. A new compliance is brought about: the boundary of the material is no longer simply a surface to be engaged with or to be experienced, it is a thicker, deeper, even an elastic material – it is one that responds to, absorbs and dissipates deformations of the hand or body.


Material reasoning

In our search of the potential for there to be psychological layering in trans-materiality, plywood became something of a playground for material reasoning. As in its use by mid-century modern explorers of chair design such as Alvar Aalto, plywood proved a conceptually productive substrate on which to develop and explore ideas through observation and experiment. It was here, amongst these stories that our “FLEX” was born.


Flexible wood

The “FLEX” is a composite structure composed of systematically CNC-slit layers of plywood and foam. Controlled, simple cuts re-scale it to be flexible. It is resilient, and to a generous degree, comfortable: “as buoyant as a spring cushion.” (Alvar Aalto, Armchair #41) Each element in “FLEX” distributes the impost of load by passing it on: resisting by mutual stages to attenuate, exhaust and finally accommodate the applied energy. The this material with its logical simple cuts is not only a material transformed, but it also offers a material whereby the haptic qualities of seating surfaces might be explored. There is potential here that this new trans-material can create a psychological engagement for us to “act through” – Martin Heidegger – in our built environment.


Further reading

If you’d like to read the full article about trans-material, be sure to check our recent publication:

Flexible Wood Aesthetics: A Study in the Intimacy of Materiality
Learn more >