Magazines were full of images depicting homes and products constructed from Masonite and other wood composites including writing desks, ‘fire surrounds with wood and coal cupboards’, built in bunks, ironing and sewing centers...

Such were the daydreams of thousands of returned servicemen and women yearning to build a home and start a family. However, the earliest advertisements suggest that while the wood composites were appropriate for some building and furniture projects they were not for others. It seems there were some occasions when only solid wood would do...

‘The shock of the new’

The history of art and design in Western countries since the birth of the ‘modern age’ (industrial revolution, free-market capitalism, consumer-based society) has seen the theme of ‘avant-garde to mainstream’ played out endlessly.

Writing specifically about art, historian Robert Hughes described the public’s initial aversion to new ideas as ‘the shock of the new’. All new ideas take time to gain broad public acceptance. 

New ideas challenge the mainstream and are often initially rejected by those wary of change. New materials are also challenging. This century has seen the birth of many new materials that have gained public acceptance only after early-adopters have led the way.

For example, tubular steel had industrial applications prior to domestic ones. The first patent for the production of bent tubular steel was 1885; it was used in Fokker Spider aeroplanes in 1910 and furniture only from about 1925 (in the cantilever chairs of Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer).

The chromium finish of these bent tubular steel chairs went through a similar time lag. Although it was discovered in 1798, it was only used in furniture from 1925 onwards. Similarly, the casting of aluminum for industrial purposes began in the 1890s but took until 1939 before a designer, Hans Coray, used it in domestic furniture.

All of the above examples show a time lag. Some are longer than others but in all cases industrial or commercial use predates the manufacture of objects for domestic use. For example, new chair designs are witnessed in cafes, restaurants and commercial buildings prior to being seen in the suburban home. 

Australian receptiveness to composite woods – World War II as a case study

New wood composite materials were developed in the leading international design and manufacturing countries (USA, Britain and the leading countries of Europe and Scandinavia) from as early as 1900. They were in competition with solid timber, asbestos-based concretes and fibrous plaster.

Particleboard was first born in about 1900 while Masonite was launched in the USA in 1925. Despite this early beginning, widespread advertisements for Masonite in popular Australian home magazines occur much later  – around WWII.

Significantly, this was a time of materials shortages locally. But for the rations on solid woods it is arguable wood composites would never have entered domestic use this early.

Eventually many social, economic and political factors conspired to make composites acceptable to the general public: a scarcity of traditional materials; returned servicemen and women with a lack of money; a need for fast building outcomes; a desire to create a new world.

‘When we got back from the war we wanted three things: a house, a car and a good education for our kids.’ Typically, returned servicemen and women had little money and so had no alternative than to attempt to build homes themselves. Architect and design historian Robin Boyd estimated that by 1951 one in every three new houses was being built by its owner.

It was in this climate that new wood composites such as Masonite, particleboard, plywood, Treetex and Caneite enjoyed increased acceptance.

Home handymen were supported and encouraged by hardware stores supplying new products. The widespread availability of power tools began at this time and also played a role in the popularization of the new composites. Masonite and Primecote, for example, were difficult to cut with traditional hand tools.

Magazines had advertisements and articles about building cheaply, while newspapers such as The Age newspaper in Melbourne provided information for the owner-builder through their Small Homes Service.

Public bodies such as local councils put out public information, while design bodies such as Royal Australian Institute of Architects and the various manifestations of the Design Institute of Australia showed public exhibitions at which new materials generally and public information about architecture and design were available.

Many servicemen and women were also infused with a desire to create a new world after the horrors of war. Many had been abroad and so had exposure to new ideas. These new ‘wonderboards’ were advertised as being ‘modern’ and had many advantages over traditional solid timbers. 

Lessons learned from the WWII experience.

There were four reasons why new wood composites were increasingly accepted in Australia after WWII: a scarcity of traditional materials; returned soldiers with little money; a need for fast building outcomes and a desire to create a new world.

The most striking image of public acceptance of Masonite, for example, as an appropriate domestic finish and not a purely utilitarian product, shows it depicted in a 1944 issue of Australian Home Beautiful.

Lining a luxurious feminine bedroom it is redolent of the mahogany paneling of expensive art deco restaurant interiors. This is a far cry from its earlier utilitarian uses as an underlay for carpets or for building the backyard chook-shed.

Advertising in popular magazines, exhibitions and trade shows all helped spread the word on the new products. The advertisements in several home, architectural and trade magazines surveyed reveal new wood composites were embraced by the commercial and public sectors before the domestic and private ones.

It was through such forums that new plastics were also being made accessible to the Australian public and perhaps this receptiveness to plastics made the public more willing to accept composite woods.

The situation in 2002 

The situation in 2002 is very different from the WWII era, but the development and successful marketing of any new composite wood would have to respond to the new social, economic and political challenges this country faces. Environmental concerns mean wood is an increasingly problematic material.

There is less of it as land is cleared for farming and building cities and less of it as wood is harvested for furniture, paper and other products. Wood is also problematic as a material in that there will surely be a consumer backlash against using certain types of it. An example of this is the current backlash against using rainforest timber.

Yet wood has many qualities in its favour – it has long been man’s most versatile building medium, it has various ‘human’ connotations of ‘warmth’ and ‘growth’, and it can be sustainably harvested. Wood composites clearly have the potential to minimize the negative aspects of the timber industry as it has been, and take it into a better future. 

If the commercial success of composites such as Masonite and particle board can be attributed to the fact they were appropriate for the social conditions ushered in by WWII, then the success of launching new wood composites in the future will lie with recognizing and responding to the new social, economic and political challenges ahead. 

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