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Above: Ad image from campaign “Conozca del todo a Formica” (“Get to know all of Formica”), 1973.
In 2013, Formica – the brightly coloured, wipe-clean laminate that changed the look of kitchen and bathroom surfaces in the 20th century – celebrates its centenary. Hard wearing, resistant to heat, easy to clean and available in a range of colours and patterns, the Formica laminate surface revolutionised the aesthetic of the modern home. “It’s Formica time, and the livin’ is easy,” as the advertising promised.
But were it not for the work of two American engineers searching for a new material to use as an electrical insulator, the zingy surfaces and happy housewives that epitomised Formica advertising during the 1950s and 60s might never have been. The history of this influential product dates back to 1913, when engineers Daniel J. O’Conor and Herbert A. Faber filed a patent for a material made from layers of fabric that had been laminated in resin, flattened and cured to produce a strong, lightweight and insulating product. Previously employed at Westinghouse Electric Company based in Cincinnati, the pair proposed this new material as an alternative for the mineral, mica – then a common insulator used in household products – and named their company The Formica Insulation Company.
The business’s early days were spent on defence contracts and manufacturing car parts for the likes of Chevrolet and Buick, before the product gradually evolved, transitioning from its fabric and laminate beginnings to a paper material bound by layers of a new resin called melamine. In 1927, the company discovered how to use rotogravure printing to introduce decorative features (such as woodgrain) onto the material that remained visible beneath a protective opaque surface layer – something that would later help cement Formica’s place in domestic interiors the world over.
At the end of the 1940s, the company changed its name to The Formica Company to reflect its shift from industrial to both commercial and domestic applications. The product emerged on the European market in 1946 and, the following year, the British De La Rue Company began importing the laminate surface into Australia from its Newcastle-Upon-Tyne facility. Formica burst onto the Australian market amid the post-war boom, providing consumers with a modern and cost-effective surface that was practical, low-maintenance and offered a contemporary aesthetic. The bright colours and bold patterns of Formica’s decorative laminates wrapped the interior surfaces of homes, schools, restaurants and hospitals. One of the first designs to appear in Australia was ‘Skylark’, originally designed by Brooks Stevens and later recoloured by Raymond Loewy Associates and re-issued as ‘Boomerang’. One advertisement that appeared in Australian Women’s Weekly in 1960 declared: “It’s new! It’s different! It’s Skylark! …Smart homeowners will love it.”
During the 1960s, the company began producing wood-effect laminates. ‘Teak 417’, launched in 1960, was to become one of Formica’s most widely used laminates – applied to kitchen counters and furniture, the product remained in production until the late 1990s. The decade also saw the opening of Formica’s Thornleigh factory in the north-western suburbs of Sydney, a facility that continued to operate until 1998, when the factory closed and production for the Australasian region was moved to the Papakura plant in New Zealand.
The 1970s heralded the introduction of Formica’s ‘Freeform’ laminate, which could be moulded to create smooth, rounded edges to kitchen counters, while the ubiquitous presence of Formica’s flecked and speckled surface reached its peak during the early 1990s with the launch of the ‘Pepper’ series.
And though for many, this household name is synonymous with brash kitchen countertops of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the company continues to evolve. To coincide with its 100th year, Formica has launched a new range, produced in collaboration with design studio, Pentagram. The anniversary collection celebrates the evolution of the brand: Dotscreen and Halftone’s retro colour palette recalls the 1950s – with names such as Aqua, Tangelo, Citrus and Mint – and celebrates Formica’s role in introducing colour to the contemporary home, while Ellipse and Endless explore the advanced printing technology now used by the brand with a complex and intricate pattern that only repeats every 500-700 sheets.
Formica Australia is now part of The Laminex Group.