The subtitle of 2017’s V&A exhibition of classic plywood furniture tells a whole story in a few words: Material of the Modern World. It sums up with elegant brevity the appeal of the 20th-century work by Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer and Charles and Ray Eames, whose experiments in the 1920s and ’30s with glued-together layers of wood veneer were nothing short of radical. The V&A show was timely, if not overdue: the results of their bending, moulding and manipulating are now highly prized by aesthetes and serious collectors.
“Plywood has been discreetly used in European furniture making since the 18th century,” explains Bruce Addison, modern design specialist at Bonhams. “However, it was not until the second quarter of the 20th century that the possibilities were fully explored. Finnish architect Alvar Aalto was a pioneer – notably for his Paimio chairs, designed for a tuberculosis sanatorium in the early 1930s.” The scrolling bentwood armchair, intended to help sitters breathe easily, has become his most famous piece, and vintage examples are hot property. When Bonhams sold one in 2004, it fetched almost £9,000; another at Christie’s New York in 2012 realised $32,500, more than double its estimate.
“Aalto, along with Swedish architect Bruno Mathsson, was fundamental to the modernist movement,” says David Tatham, co-owner of vintage Scandinavian-design specialist The Modern Warehouse. “They created a softer look than their Bauhaus contemporaries, who were using tubular steel. Early prewar examples with the rarer Karelian birch tops are the most desirable.” Tatham regularly stocks Mathsson’s Eva and Pernilla chairs, with their curvy bent-plywood frames and woven canvas seats (which sell for between £1,000 and £2,500), and Aalto’s classic Stool 60 for Artek, priced between £200 and £1,000. He also recently sold a rare teak shelving unit by Dutch designer Wilhelm Lutjens for £2,000 (Amsterdam vintage plywood specialist WonderWood currently has one for €2,250) and has an Aalto for Artek desk and bank of drawers for £2,250.
Perhaps the most famous proponents of plywood, however, are the Eameses, whose moulded LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) and DCW (Dining Chair Wood) are perennially sought after. WonderWood currently has a set of four of the latter from its first production run in 1946-7 for €7,000. But for many aficionados, the crème de la plywood crème are the pieces created by Breuer for the Isokon brand in the 1930s. “I have almost more [Isokon furniture] than I can fit into our home,” says Magnus Englund, co-founder of London’s Skandium design store and director of the Isokon Gallery Trust, who lives in the Isokon apartment building in Hampstead. “I also have many pieces by Venesta, the plywood company that Isokon founder Jack Pritchard worked for between 1925 and 1936. They’ve all taken on a lovely honey colour over time, but it’s not to everyone’s taste; lots of people think it looks like Ikea furniture, partly because it’s so modern looking. But the prewar stuff is seriously collectable.” A 1935-6 Breuer Isokon Long chair sold for £7,500 at Sotheby’s in 2017.
Englund shares his passion for original Isokon pieces with one of his neighbours, stockbroker Paul Fellerman. “My collection started nine years ago, when I moved into the building,” says Fellerman. “My first purchases were an Isokon Short chair, which has lovely organic curves, and the smallest of Breuer’s nesting tables, which I’ve now replaced with a full set of three. I am constantly impressed by the ingenuity of the design and construction.” Today his home features two vintage Isokon stools alongside two modern ones (Isokon Plus continues to produce many of the original designs), as well as a modern copy of the 1960s Bottleship drinks cabinet/magazine rack and the supremely simple Dinner Wagon, designed by Gerald Summers – a 1935 version of which is available through London dealer Peter Petrou for £22,000.
While many of the designs favour clean, modern lines, plywood has a charmingly naïve quality that also lends itself to whimsy, as with the precursor to Isokon’s Bottleship, the curvy Penguin Donkey bookcase-cum-magazine rack, designed by EgoniRiss (an early 1939 edition fetched £11,250 at Christie’s in 2011). Equally playful is Robin Day’s Childsply chair, which wasn’t put into production until 1999 in a run of just 30 pieces – one of which is currently available for £950 at modernist store Two Columbia Road, alongside another plywood classic – a 1965 Verner Panton S chair (£6,500) for Thonet. One of plywood’s most child-friendly designs, the Eames Elephant stool, designed in 1945, was also one of the most technically challenging, with its tight compound curves, and the piece didn’t go into production until 2007, when a limited edition of 2,000 was produced by Vitra. Modern Vintage has one for €4,995.
London design store TwentyTwentyOne continues to sell a new version for £1,170, but also deals in vintage plywood, with recent pieces including an early Eames LCW, which sold for £3,200. It currently has one of Day’s 700 armchairs (a variation on his Festival Hall design – £2,750), an Allegro chair (£3,500) by Scottish architect Basil Spence and an Alvar Alto Sanatorium table from 1932 for £2,500.
“The demand is for leading names and also early examples of iconic designs,” says TwentyTwentyOne co-founder Simon Alderson. “Although lots of these pieces are still in production, vintage plywood has an appealing patina and soul.” He adds that despite high prices, it’s still a good time to invest. “The market has matured and design awareness grown, but the climb in prices remains slow and steady. Compared to some French postwar designs, the genre remains incredibly good value.”