Formica, the wipe-clean wonder surface that conquered the world, is 100 years old. Oliver Wainwright reports.

It has lined the interiors of everything from greasy spoon cafes to luxury cruise liners, from hospital wards to train cabins, bringing a fusion of wipe-clean practicality and sleek modern style. And now Formica is celebrating its 100th birthday.

The brave new seamless surface of the future is officially an antique. While it may now be synonymous with the retro glamour of 1950s compact kitchens and roadside diners, the origins of the miracle material are much more mundane.

Invented in Cincinnati in 1913 by engineers Daniel O'Conor and Herbert Faber, Formica laminate was designed to be an electrical insulator, to serve as a replacement for the silicate mineral mica - hence “for mica”. (The fact that formica was a pre-existing Latin word for a type of ant seems to have hampered the brand little.) Formica originally consisted of layers of fabric bound together with resin; later, it was made with thick pieces of paper laminated with melamine. This tougher substance could resist heat and abrasion, while the paper opened up a wealth of possibilities for printing colours and patterns, which proved key to its success.

Although colourful countertops went on to become a ubiquitous feature of household interiors, early uses of this tough new laminate were mainly industrial. The product initially served as engine parts for cars made by Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac in the 1930s. Business boomed during the second world war with the development of Pregwood, a kind of plastic-impregnated wood that was used for propellers and bomb parts. As was the case with much design of the 20th century, such wartime innovations soon filtered into the mainstream. Formica became a cheap substitute for lacquer, its popularity fuelled by art deco's insistence on sleek black surfaces.

The material made its debut in the UK in the swish interiors of the Queen Mary, the cruise ship built in Glasgow in 1934. But it was in the optimistic post-war world of the 1940s and 50s that Formica came into its own as a cheap and cheerful surface. It exuded the popular streamline styling of the day, with an endless catalogue of exotic patterns, bright colours and woodgrain effects.

Peace and prosperity ushered in an era of explosive construction across America, with new suburbs popping up overnight, each brimming with bright breakfast bars and dazzling dinettes. As laminate fever spread, imagination was the only limit.

American style soon spread around the world, beamed into drab living rooms via TV. Formica factories marched across Europe. A major centre was established in the Pyrenees town of Quillan, where the laminate was produced for 50 years: an “incredible industrial love story between a local city and a worldwide company”, as the strangely compelling 2008 documentary L'Amour Formica puts it. The glamour may have worn off, Formica becoming a byword for tired, cracked tabletops from the 1970s onwards.

But it appears our love of laminate may be returning: young designers are experimenting with new ways of working with laminate, rediscovering its innovative potential - including the decorative possibilities of intricate, laser-cut veneers.

“Formica products have touched every aspect of our lives,” says Mark Adamson, CEO of Formica's parent company, Fletcher Building, “surfacing millions of spaces in which we gather, work, learn, heal, shop, eat and play.” In Milano, one can't help hoping.

Guardian News Service

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