A clever composite made of layers of fine wood glued together, plywood has been used since Egyptian times. Although its easy-to-mold forms were widely put to use in the early 20th century to make boats, furniture, houses and even planes – such as Amelia Earhart’s famous trans-Atlantic Lockheed Vega 5B – it was only after World War II that experimental furniture designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Alvar and Aino Aalto recognized that in plywood they had a material that, when it was steamed, could be molded into curvaceous shapes. By the 1950s, Eames chairs, with their molded plywood seats, had become synonymous with midcentury modernism and the Aaltos’ curvaceous walls had changed public perceptions of plywood in architecture. Today, our love affair with plywood has been reignited, as designers once again appreciate the beautiful forms, from skateboards to chandeliers, that can be made from this most humble of materials. Product designers such as Lozi have started to create elegant plywood pieces for the home, from lamps to planters, and furniture-makers such as Branca Lisboa have taken inspiration from natural shapes such as sea-shells to construct super-modern seats created with “bones” of steamed ply. It’s even being used to create the curvaceous walls of cutting-edge stands at art shows such as Art Basel, Miami. Why the return to fashion? Not only does plywood’s simple honesty fit well with the pared-back aesthetic of the 21st century, but the marriage of form and function in such sculptural pieces as the 1939 Isokon Penguin Donkey bookshelf (pictured here) is irresistible to those living in small homes – even to aesthetes who might never before have considered buying a mass-produced, inexpensive veneered composite.