Bending Wood to Will
Lucy Hammonds, curator of the Ply-ability exhibition at Hawkes Bay Museum & Art Gallery, talks about Garth Chester and other aspects of New Zealand's plywood heritage.
ProDesign: I didn’t realise that New Zealand had a strong history in plywood furniture design. Mostly, when you ask people who they think of when you say plywood furniture they immediately say Eames. Was Garth Chester New Zealand’s answer to Charles and Ray Eames?
Lucy Hammonds: I think that Chester and the Eames’ were designers working in completely different contexts; however it is fair to say that through the rising status of the Curvesse chair Chester has become connected to the idea of plywood design furniture in New Zealand’s history. The connection between Chester and the Eames’ plywood works is something we were interested in exploring in the exhibition as well, and we are using examples of Eames designs that Chester was involved with producing in New Zealand in the 1950s.
ProDesign: Curvesse is a wonderful piece of work. Did you have trouble sourcing pieces such as this for the exhibition? Do they survive in great abundance?
Lucy Hammonds: It wasn’t so much a question of finding one Curvesse, as it was about finding an exceptional example. It is thought that around 500 were produced, however finding an example in good, original condition was important. Other works by Chester are sometimes a challenge – it would have been wonderful to include the Chester child’s barber’s chair, similar to the one on exhibition at Auckland Museum, but another example of this has never been located. Other works have come from our collection, as well as from other museums and private collections and we hazve around seven in total. There are still Chester designs that we have images of which haven’t been located to date.
There are still examples of historic New Zealand design furniture to be found in attics and op-shops around the country. As interest grows, the demand for particular New Zealand-designed objects also develops and there is a smaller chance of stumbling across a Curvesse in a second-hand shop. We often work with private collectors and design enthusiasts to get an idea of what is out there, and rely a lot on their support to bring exhibitions like this together.
ProDesign: Do you know anything of the techniques Chester employed? Curvesse has quite a simple form, but when you start to envisage how it was constructed, it all of a sudden becomes rather complex…
Lucy Hammonds: Chester was a designer interested in manufacture, and he sought out information on how to build mechanised presses with which he could produce the Curvesse as a commercial enterprise. When he first became interested in working with bent plywood, Chester sought advice from a local firm that were making bent ply radio cabinets. From there he worked towards making his equipment on which to produce his furniture. There is evidence that the earlier Curvesse chairs were made by taking three sheets of three-ply, softening them in water, sandwiching them together with glue to make a sheet of nine-ply, and then pressing this into a mould for the eight hours the glue took to set. However, soon after design was made public Chester was advertising his ability to produce one chair every three minutes, which indicates that he had advanced to a faster heat-set process.
ProDesign: Why do you think plywood was such an attractive medium for Chester, and more recently for the later designers that have explored plywood’s design abilities?
Lucy Hammonds: For Chester I think that plywood captured his imagination as a designer. He was a forward-thinking person, and plywood was a material that was so closely connected with the advances of modernist furniture throughout the world. I imagine that the fact that plywood was inexpensive and readily available in New Zealand in the 40s would have added to its attraction. Also there was plenty of information available on how to bend plywood, allowing Chester to explore ideas he would have seen through images of international work.
In terms of New Zealand furniture designers over time, it seems that there are a range of different reasons why plywood keeps coming back into the conversation. Plywood was a popular material in local modernist architecture and naturally progressed into furniture and interior design; it was available and accessible to student designers as their numbers swelled in the 90s;
it's also a material that's being drawn into conversations about environmental impact and sustainability in New Zealand design.
ProDesign: Aside from the material aspect, are there any themes identifiable in the construction of the pieces?
Lucy Hammonds: I’ve used the material as a connecting motif in the exhibition – a way to highlight different themes in a wider story of New Zealand furniture design. It’s not an exhaustive survey, but more of a way of looking at the way plywood can represent or explore a moment of change in New Zealand design. For example, we have a focus in the 1990s of the presence of plywood in exploring a local vernacular in design, and in the present day how designers working in plywood can illustrate the impact of advances in digital technologies like CNC and laser cutting.
ProDesign: What’s the highlight of Ply-ability for you?
Lucy Hammonds: I am really enjoying Katy Wallace’s Floor Shelf (1998) — it’s a simple and succinct piece of design. I would also happily live with Tim Wigmore’s Hang Up (2006). However aside from covetousness, the highlight of a project like this is to be able to offer some context to contemporary practice, and to enliven historic design by connecting it to the present day. I also find that using my curatorial process as a way of beginning conversations, rather than simply presenting or interpreting objects, is also a rewarding part of the exercise.