The modest material of plywood gets the prestigious treatment of a dedicated exhibition this summer at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. From chairs by Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer and Charles and Ray Eames through to a 1960s British racing car with a plywood chassis, the versatile eclecticism of plywood is underscored.

Plywood has come a long way since its beginnings as a cheap, composite material suitable for mass production in the industrialisation of the 19th century. Having long been disparaged as inferior to solid timber, it became valued by mid-century modernists and today's thriving maker movement. It is plywood's adaptability, enabling designers to bend and modulate it easily, that makes it attractive, especially for curvilinear furniture, even though purists would still prefer solid oak for more rigid lines.

The exhibition highlights the three major developments of plywood manufacturing: the early 19th-century invention of the rotary veneer cutter, moulding techniques that inspired the 1930s modernist forms, and the CNC-cutting and digital manufacturing techniques today. As 3D-printing becomes more ubiquitous, plywood is heralded, according to the V&A, as the “material of the future”.

Plywood is shown to take many shapes and forms. Tick off the De Havilland Mosquito plane made with waterproof glue and used in World War II, a book with plywood covers printed in 1908 during Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition to Antarctica, a moulded canoe from 1917, plus hatboxes, tea chests and skateboards.

Outside in the John Madejski Garden is a cluster of ice-skating shelters by Patkau Architects. Made by bending flexible plywood sheets and attaching them to a timber frame, the sculptural forms were originally designed for sitting on a frozen river in Winnipeg, Canada.

Plywood's competition is left out, however. This can leave you with the impression that the exhibition is being supported by a plywood association. Indeed, – which makes innumerable plywood products – happens to be sponsoring the show.