Plywood in Contemporary Furniture Design

Written by C Wolsey

Plywood is a versatile product that has many practical benefits. It comes in different forms, but they all have the same construction. Thin layers of sheet timber are stacked on top of each other with each layer’s grain running perpendicular to its neighbours. This arrangement makes the product strong and stable, and it is resistant to warping. The faces of each sheet look like solid wood, but the layered structure becomes apparent at the edges.

To conceal the edges, furniture makers have traditionally used techniques like banding and moulding. However, many modern furniture makers use the edges to showcase the exceptional quality of the underlying timber.

Plywood’s Design Versatility

Plywood’s popularity is largely a product of its flexibility and versatility. It can be used in structural elements, like partitions and ceilings, just as easily as it can be used in furniture. 

In fact, the layered nature of plywood often allows it to be used for purposes that other materials couldn’t replicate. It can be easily shaped with the help of a jigsaw or router, which makes it able to realise designs that would be beyond traditional solid-wood techniques.

Iconic Plywood Designs

Certain names stand apart for their pioneering use of plywood in furniture. Without the work of Charles and Ray Eames, or Alvar Aalto, it seems unlikely that the material would be quite as popular as it is today.

In the latter case, the use of plywood was largely borne of necessity. Birch was abundant in Alvar’s homeland of Finland, and, since the flexibility and suppleness of this timber lends it to plywood, but not to solid-wood pieces, it was a natural choice when Aalto came to design his iconic ‘Paimio’ armchair, which makes use of just a few sheets of ply. The chair came about in the 30s, and remains a classic of modern design.

Sustainability in Design

One of the major virtues of plywood is its sustainability and overall eco-friendliness. This is something that modern customers are highly sensitive to, and thus, furniture made with these concerns in mind is likely to resonate with modern attitudes. Look for zero-emissions plywood, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, for best results.


Plywood is a material that’s likely to be with us for many years to come. Its use in furniture is already widespread. It’s easy to manipulate, produces consistent results, and offers excellent performance in a range of applications. Invest in quality ply, moreover, and you could come up with a design that matches the work of Aalto and his peers.