Fifty years ago, worktop surfacing in the home was revolutionised with the introduction of a new product from the US. The Formica kitchen became a must have and the name of the company became the generic name for laminate.
Today, although the product range has changed dramatically, Formica is still a strong market force in this country. However, as with every successful product, there are now numerous competitors.
Laminate, or HPL (high-pressure laminate) as it has come to be known, is no longer confined to the kitchen. Nor indeed to toilet cubicles, the other traditional favourite application for the material. It can now be used for a multitude of applications and, with the various manufacturers to choose from, there is a multitude of finishes available.
In the simplest terms, HPL is composed of layers of paper impregnated with resins which are then fused together under a high temperature and very high pressure. This produces a durable decorative surface material which can be used vertically and horizontally on worktops, panelling, furniture and the like. It can be curved or postformed and, in performance terms, is highly durable, non-porous, and heat- and stain-resistant.
Decorative laminates can be patterned or plain, and the finish textured or smooth. Solid core laminates can be used to produce that perfect edge. Customisation is also offered by many of the manufacturers (dependent on size of order) and there is even laminate flooring.
Competition within the industry is intense with companies constantly introducing new colour ranges, decors and technical information, in an attempt to stay one step ahead. The lion’s share of the UK market goes to Formica and Perstorp Warerite, each holding approximately a 40 per cent share. Behind these two giants come the smaller, more specialist companies such as French company Polyrey and Italian manufacturer Abet Laminati. All have in-house design teams, who stay in tune with current design trends and fashions, and sales forces geared up to supply the specifier with binders, CD-ROMs and sample swatches at a moments notice.
So, what is new in the world of surfacing? Although new technologies in the printing and paper industry are reflected in the current production of laminates, it is the new colours and the latest ranges that really differentiate one supplier from another. It is, therefore, no surprise to learn that most laminate companies have either in-house or external colour advisors to provide that extra design flair.
Formica’s European design manager, Ruth Hewett, confirms the company has recently formed a partnership with an external colour consultant “to be more colour confident”. And Polyrey has been using colour consultant Peclers for several years. The result of these collaborations is not dissimilar to trends in the flooring market, with the latest designs encompassing the neutrals and naturals while echoing the trends set by high street fashion – that of bolder colours and metallic effects. Witness the new European collection from Formica, and the Tendance collection from Polyrey.
But it is with the specialist products and creative applications where laminate really comes into its own. Italian manufacturer Abet Laminati has a history of interfacing with the world of design – the Sixties saw collaboration with the likes of Mario Bellini and Joe Colombo; the Eighties with design group Memphis; and in the Nineties, it was Ettore Sottsass and Alessandro
Mendini showing new furniture designs at the Design Gallery in Milan.
This design awareness results in an unusually exciting range with a distinctly Italian flair. Some of the company’s more unusual products are Tefor, a fully recycled and entirely recyclable laminate made from production trimmings; Fiber, which has a textural finish created by thousands of small fibres (the darker colours in this range are reminiscent of a Seventies hairy carpet); and Diafos, a translucent laminate introduced more than a decade ago. The latter was used recently for ceiling-hung screens in a French Connection showroom in London, designed by Susan Minter Design Consultancy. “We were looking for a material that would obscure but not cut the light out,” says Minter, who has taken 3mm Diafos laminate and mounted it on to panels. These can be reconfigured as required or taken away completely, to create different workspaces. “We used it like you would use glass”, says Minter, “but it is much lighter in weight. And unlike Perspex or plastic, there are no problems with static.”
Woodgrains and metallics, which incorporate a thin layer of wood veneers or metal in the surface, also have advantages over the real product, particularly for exhibition work and furniture production. They, too, are lighter weight, but also need less protection and are easier to maintain.
But laminates will always be associated with kitchens, and according to Formica, the current trend for the Fifties look is heralding a laminate revival. A very Nineties look has been achieved by design group Urban Salon for a Victorian conversion in north London. Generally, the apartment has been opened up with a new kitchen area added off the main living space. According to designer Andrew Onraet, with the kitchen cupboards on permanent view, it was decided to treat them as art rather than just kitchen panelling. Blues, greys and mushroom colours from the Abet range are used to make up the “artwork” with the deep blue carried through to the worktop.