Mid-century modern furniture (i) : particle-board

Mid-century modern encompassed the period from approximately 1933 to 1965, and influenced everything from furniture and graphic design, to industrial design and architecture. The mid-century furniture style is sometimes also known as Danish modern, and its defining characteristic is minimalist design. The scarcity of wood during WW2 encouraged the use of plywood, which could be easily veneered with teak, providing a cost effective base material for building furniture. By the 1950s, the use of particleboard had begun to make inroads.

Now I have never liked chipboard, or particle board if you like. It is the work of the devil – yet it is hard to escape (I don’t despise it as much as MDF). The carcasses of my kitchen cabinets are particleboard, as are the Ikea closets in the bedrooms. I do understand it, particleboard is cheaper to make, somewhat environmentally friendly (as wood waste can be used), and has dimensional stability – i.e. doesn’t suffer the same wood movement of solid wood (or plywood, unless using something like Baltic ply). Particleboard is the oldest composite panel (not including plywood).  A commercial machine to make the particle board was invented by German inventor Max Himmelheber, (patented in 1932) who went on to mass produce a particleboard called Homogenholz, which means homogenous wood. Part of the rationale for the invention was to increase the amount of material which could be effectively used from trees, which at the time was only about 40%.

The worlds first particleboard factory was Torfit Werke AG in Bremen, Germany, producing 10 tons/day in 1941. This “Pek-Pressholz“, or pressed wood, had a density between 800-1100 kg/m³. About the same time (1942), Swiss inventor Dr. Fred Fahrni invented a product using the commercial name NOVOPAN. Again the impetus was the utilization of waste wood. Novocain was light and compact, and made of three layers – a middle layer of coarse chips and outside layers of thin laminar chip material. Production began in Klingnau, Switzerland in 1946.


“Wood finally tamed!”

We now may consider particleboard to be a low-quality material, but in the 1940s and 1950s, particleboard was considered a designer material. Likely a good proportion of furniture built during this period used particleboard. The dimensional stability has allowed for longer lasting pieces. It is impossible to know what wood the particle-board is actually made of, but likely a good portion of it is pine from Scandinavian forests. Here is a picture of particleboard veneered with teak on a vintage piece of furniture.



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