In the 1960s and 70s you would have been hard pressed to find a New Zealand household that was without the kitchen bench and table top staple, Formica. Cringe-worthy patterns and garish hues, which were the fashion of the times, are the memories many have of the laminated plastic material.
In the past the product was championed as a housewife’s heaven for its easy to clean and hard-wearing qualities. And it’s still a popular choice for kitchen surfaces, as well as in workspaces outside the home.
These days, Formica laminate has settled into a look that is easier on the eyes, while still retaining the durability and versatility it is known for.
In 2008 the design world took a collective gasp when 10 world-renowned architects put their artistic flair to the test using none other than Formica.
The international designers, which included Peter Eisenman, Jamie Velez and Massimo Vignelli, were given a brief to create a chair that was suitable for sitting, lying and playing on.
The project was to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Three editions of the chairs were made, and the first of these was sold at auction. An eye-catching effort by Zaha Hadid, who designed one of the world’s tallest buildings in Dubai, fetched US$260,000 under the hammer.
“This is Formica’s play set,” says Nigel Montgomery, of The Laminex Group, which manufactures Formica for the New Zealand market.
“Things like this give you the opportunity to stay at the forefront of creative design. People are blown away by it.”
Some of the architects’ creations featured coloured-through MDF with a layer of Formica laminate, while others used solid Formica with other materials, such as steel.
“You think of it as something you grew up with, and most people know it as a kitchen bench top,” says Nigel.
“But the world’s your oyster with this material. Put it every which way, curve it and bend it.”
While many of the designs are practical they retain a strong sense of style, such as Buzz Yudell’s Sunergy and Jamie Velez’s Dancing Line, which would be a tasteful addition to a lounge, conservatory, or even outdoors.
Massimo Vignelli’s three black and white CuboSeat chairs get a big tick for design, even from an absolute layman’s perspective, and are surprisingly comfortable.
Others, notably Hadid’s stunning Cirrus Seat and Bernard Tschumi’s Typogram Bench, would fit into the most upper crust of art museums, or in the swankiest celebrity abode.
“At night-time, it looks quite amazing,” says Nigel, of Hadid’s creative offering, which is his personal favourite of the group. “We had to have security because, essentially, they are artworks.
“Formica is a creative force when you put it in the hands of such creative people. It’s never gone out of style.”
FORMICA is a brand name for laminate. But, because it has become one of the most common and economical products for household use, the term has become generic.
It consists of several layers of plastic pressed together and comes in a huge range of colours, finishes and textures.
Formica was invented in 1912 by Daniel O’Conor and Herbert Faber, then working at Westinghouse. It was developed as a substitute for micarta in electrical insulators.
The mineral mica was commonly used at that time for electrical insulation. Because the new product was a substitute “for mica”, Faber coined the name Formica.
In 1913, they established the Formica Products Company which, from the late 1920s, developed its classic range of surfacing laminates. By the 1950s, Formica was a popular choice for table and bench tops, despite its garish colours.
Our Homes TODAY’s Marianne Kelly recalls the day when her parents layered Formica over the top of their timber dining table.
“My dad thought it was wonderful saying, ‘look we don’t even need a tablecloth’, as he whisked a dish rag over the surface.