Okay, maybe laminate was not originally the height of fashion. But that is because when Herbert Ferber and Daniel O’Connor invented it in 1913, high pressure laminate was intended to serve as an electrical insulator. In fact, it was created to be a replacement for mica, a silicate mineral that has excellent insulating properties, but was also quite rare and expensive at the time. And so Formica (get it? A substitute for mica?) was developed.
It wasn’t until 1927, when someone had the bright idea to lithograph images onto sheets of laminate, that the decorative potential of the material was discovered. Shortly after, a clear melamine layer was added, giving the material legendary durability and ease of maintenance.
Laminates have always been made by pressing several layers of material under heat and pressure. HPL is made with several sheets of phenolic- resin impregnated kraft paper (similar to brown bag paper) that are topped with a melamine resin impregnated décor paper. The fused layers become HPL, which can be affixed to a particleboard or MDF substrate. That original laminate has evolved into several variations over time. Compact laminate is made by fusing lots of layers of resin-impregnated kraft paper, which results in a self-supporting material that requires no substrate. Thermally fused melamine (TFM) is a decorative laminate made by fusing a resin-impregnated décor layer directly to a substrate with no kraft layer. Because laminates carry the aesthetic of whatever décor paper is used on top, they can meet virtually any design objective and a wide range of performance demands.
Modern laminates reflect a waxing Euromodern sensibility. Compact laminate, like Abet Laminati’s Stratificato, creates thin, clean lines for kitchen countertops and back splashes. Currently, dark, horizontal striated woodgrain designs are used to add warmth to modern flat panel cabinet door fronts.
Accents of custom print, whimsical geometric patterns and tactile details showcase the refinement of materials’ technology over time; including advances in resin formulation, performance enhancing overlays, textured embossing techniques and sophisticated décor paper printing technologies. But what is interesting about laminate in general, is that since its inception, it has always been a fashion statement. Even when it wasn’t in vogue, laminate was involved in the conversation of materials and style. The engineered nature of the material makes it perennially relevant.
1930s THROUGH 1960s
Pre-World War II HPL found a happy home in bars and diners. HPL, then the latest and the greatest, was even used in that symbol of status and style the RMS Queen Mary, which sailed primarily the North Atlantic from 1936-1967.
When the Art Deco movement, born in Paris in the 1920s, flourished internationally from the 1930s until the World War II era, HPL was in high demand because it could emulate the look of lacquer at a fraction of the cost.
During this time HPL’s resin cousin Bakelite was also sought after for a wide variety of design applications.
After World War II the baby boom was followed by a housing wave, and HPL began covering counter tops and kitchen tables on both sides of the Atlantic.
As cheerful optimism seeped back into civilian life, new colors and designs were introduced. Patterns like Formica’s Boomerang and Skylark exemplified the ultra-modern, wipe-down, status quo luxury of the post-war western world. Going beyond kitchens and soda fountains, HPL was also specified for commercial applications, retail, hospitals, schools, airports and restaurants all utilized HPL. As prosperity spread, so did HPL. It was a brave new world, and that was reflected in bright colors and exotic patterns of the material. Pushing past suburban and out into the world of futuristic Googie style, HPL carried designs from reserved to wacky. But regardless of the irreverence of the aesthetic, the performance of the material made it an undeniable asset to the design world.
While no doubt twenty years from now teenagers will be hairspraying big bangs and wearing shoulder pads, the period between the 1970s and 1990s was a point in fashion that most contemporary people would like to forget. If HPL had feelings, it would feel that way too. During that timeframe laminates were being dogged in the domestic market. The term “cracked Formica” showed up in magazines, giving the impression that the material was worn out and past its prime. But just as a fashion anthropologist could likely find some justification for why leisure suits existed, there are reasons why laminates were falling out of favor during this period.
One of the biggest obstacles faced by all engineered materials, but particularly laminates, is the engineering itself, or rather, the value engineering. Laminates are amazing in part because they can carry off any aesthetic.
When the only laminate was HPL, a designer could be pretty darn sure the material would be durable enough for nearly any project. But not every application calls for such a highperformance material. And so all sorts of laminate variations with different levels of durability were developed to lower costs. All laminates carry a decorative layer, so they could potentially all look the same, but there is a big difference in performance between a material engineered for flooring and one engineered for cabinet interiors. It is no surprise that during this time designers, particularly those driven by price, often specified the wrong laminate for the job.
Materials technology advances quickly, but information technology moves at the speed of light.
There now exists a mutually beneficial feedback loop between laminate manufacturers and the design world that is constantly evolving. Not only are design professionals increasingly well versed in the technical specs of engineered materials, they help to drive the technology. Specifier demand is the impetus for some of the most exciting advances in engineered materials. The versatile co-creativity of the decorative surfacing world will undoubtedly help keep HPL on top of the world of fashion moving forward.
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