Honestly beautiful: Three architects talk about plywood

Laminex recently launched two new plywood laminates, and also supplies a full range of natural plywood, so we asked Claire Scorpo, Stuart Vokes and Rachel Catt to tell us why they love designing with ply.

Plywood was a preferred material for mid-century Modernist architects and designers, but then fell out of favour in subsequent decades. More recently, however, it’s come back with a vengeance. Plywood’s distinctive woodgrain and striped edging are being seen in everything from bespoke furniture to commercial interiors. Here, architects Claire Scorpo, Stuart Vokes and Rachel Catt share their thoughts on why it’s popular again, and how they have used it in their own projects.

Claire Scorpo from Agius Scorpo Architects

We often use plywood for internal linings and for joinery, because it’s a material with integrity. For walls and ceilings, we’ll specify C/D grade because it’s beautifully featured with varied grain and knots. We like the way the plywood surface reads as individual panels, which brings a more relatable sense of scale to interiors and makes visible the construction process. For applications where you can express the edges, it gives yet another layer of depth to the palette without adding another material.

The grain detail and tone of plywood brings warmth to living areas in Agius Scorpo Architects’ St Kilda East renovation. Photograph by Tom Ross.

We like to be efficient in the way we design, so being able to use plywood to both line walls and as a feature material is important. It maintains the focus is on the volumes and the spaces we’re creating, rather than individual elements and details. One example is a renovation of ours in Thornbury, which had a low budget. Lining the walls and the ceiling in ply gave so much to the project that we could design the joinery quite simply in white Laminex, making it very cost effective. Conversely, at our St Kilda East renovation, we used plywood for much of the joinery. It allowed us to create very simple joinery details, such as circular cut-outs for door pulls. It was a very efficient way to bring warmth to the spaces.

Using plywood as a feature material allowed the architects to design simple joinery details. Photograph by Tom Ross.

I imagine this may be one of the reasons plywood has had a resurgence. It’s a simple, honest material, that is incredibly adaptable. A basic building material that still has the warmth of natural timber.

Stuart Vokes from Vokes and Peters

The first time I used plywood extensively was in a house I designed as a first-year graduate. I enjoyed that plywood could be both finish and lining, and also contribute to the bracing of a building. And that you could paint it or clear finish it, depending on the effect you wanted. At the time, it felt like something worth reviving, and now it’s become quite prevalent as a surface material.

We used it more recently on our Triangle House, a renovation of a house that had been built in the manner of the Sydney School, that kind of nuts-and-berries mid-century Modernism, with a pointy roof, raking weatherboards, and lots of knotty pine and dark-stained timber inside. In thinking how to extend it, we came back to that Modernist ideal of plywood as the material that you can make everything out of – a floor, a wall, a ceiling, joinery, furniture. We found it really beautiful that you could craft a room like this, in a singular way.

At Vokes & Peters’ Triangle House in Brisbane, plywood was chosen for interior wall cladding in response to the Modernist heritage of the original old home. Photograph by Christopher Frederick Jones.

We’d previously designed a prototype for a modular house that was to be prefinished in the factory and trucked to site. Using plywood with articulated joints instead of plasterboard meant that it would survive the trip down the highway and arrive looking the same. The plywood was left unpainted up to a datum at around two metres, with the walls and ceiling above painted white. So you got this beautiful ceiling of white that you could put light fittings onto, but at the level of occupation, where there’d be people and furniture and bookshelves and art, it was all warm, honey-coloured timber. Being surrounded by plywood made it feel almost like a treehouse, playful and joyful.

Rachel Catt from Williams Burton Leopardi

Most of our work leans towards a high-end finish, so while we often use plywood for its structural properties, it’s not very often that it’s on show without a painted or stained finish. However, for the Loft on Seventh project, a collection of 12 three-storey terraces in Adelaide’s newly redeveloped Bowden precinct, we based our design on a concept of “elegant frugality”, where we used more economical materials and showed them off for their own practical beauty.

Natural plywood features prominently in Williams Burton Leopardi’s Loft on Seventh residences, in a revitalised inner-Adelaide suburb of Bowden. Photograph by Christopher Morrison.

Corrugated polycarbonate was used with chainmesh as screening – allowing plants to grow up the chainmesh and letting dappled light through the soft opaque polycarb. Plywood, which we often use as a substrate for timber flooring and bracing in walls, was used as the flooring, the stairs, for joinery, sliding doors and low wall cladding. The softness of the ply, its texture and pattern was put on show and used to give warmth to the interior. In combination with painted brick, steel, weathered timber and the chainmesh/polycarbonate, the ply helped this very modern development ground down into and highlight the beauty of the historic industrial area in which it sits.

Plywood was used as floor covering, for steps and for bench seating, to create a seamless effect between levels in the residences. Photograph by Christopher Morrison.

It’s the honesty and integrity of plywood that we loved for this project – no frills, just honest beauty. The woodgrain detail and timber tones give a real sense of the tree that it’s been cut from, which introduces tremendous warmth to an interior, but also a kind of informality that suggests a feeling of fun and youthfulness.

To order a sample of Laminex Raw Birchply or Smoked Birchply, Click here. To explore the range of natural plywoods supplied by Laminex, click here.