This blog was written by Helen Peavitt, Curator of Domestic Technology
Formica is 100 this year. Best known as the laminate associated with the 1950s and 60s colour explosion in surface coverings, what’s probably less well known is that it was originally an insulation material for the electrical industry. Formica literally stands for ‘for mica’, as it was developed as a synthetic plastic substitute for expensive mineral mica. It was made by binding layers of cloth or paper together with a phenolic resin (originally Bakelite). Engineer Dan O’Conor filed for a patent for it in February 1913 and by May the Formica Products Company (set up by O’Conor and Harold Faber) was already taking orders.
Dark brown Formica was a success, buoyed up by its use for radio casings in the 1920s and 30s, giving the colour, feel and finish familiar to any collector of vintage radio sets. Soon it was furnishing interiors with the glossy, smooth, jet, brown and black style associated with the Deco 1930s.
Used wherever a tough, easy to clean surface was required, Formica was increasingly popular: found in public buildings, paneling the state rooms aboard the Cunard Queen Mary and the walls of Second World War prefab military barracks, used to toughen wooden airplane propellers and, with the growth of youth and café culture after the Second World War, on café tables and kitchen counters everywhere.
Formica’s popularity was challenged in the 1970s, in part by a growing preference for ‘honest’ real-wood finishes and historic designs. By the 1980s however, new ColorCore – Formica with solid colour all the way through – became popular with influential architects, designers and jewellery makers including Wendy Ramshaw.
Formica is currently in vogue. One reason for this is its ability to constantly reinvent itself, mimicking wood, stone and just about any colour and pattern. Finishes in the 2013 catalogue reflect current cultural preoccupations and colour trends. Retro-style designs include ‘Citrus halftone’ (released for Formica’s 100th anniversary ) and the enduringly popular Charcoal Boomerang, designed by Brooks Stevens as ‘Skylark’ for the optimistic 1950s and updated by industrial designer Raymond Loewy a few years later. Both indicate Formica’s ability to move with the times and, in its 100th year, celebrate its origins and heritage.