Formica, a laminated plastic material, was filed for a patent in the United States in 1913, and the company started in the same year. However, its early applications were quite different from the durable laminated sheets with decorative surfaces associated with wipe‐clean restaurant tabletops and interior decoration. Tough yet lightweight, at the beginning Formica proved to be a commercially attractive insulating material, well suited to applications in the rapidly growing electricity industry. A dramatic boost was given to the company in 1917 when the USA entered the First World War, with orders for radio insulators being placed by the Navy and the Signal Corps, in addition to demands for lightweight pulleys in Formica by aircraft manufacturers. In the early 1920s the company expanded and commenced production of automotive timing gears, selling significant quantities to Chevrolet, Studebaker, Buick, Pontiac, and others by the early 1930s.
The company had commenced production of laminates that imitated various veneers and these were first used on radio sets. However, with the advent of more efficient means of rotagravure printing processes initiated in 1927 Formica was able to produce a richer, more convincing series of wood‐grain or marble effect sheets that could be used to decorative effect on furniture and interior furnishings. The enormous range of potential applications for this decorative material was evident and a sales force was established to capture the interest of architects, furniture manufacturers, and designers. One of the most prestigious projects with which Formica was associated was in decorative wall surfaces in decorative wall surfaces in Cunard's Queen Mary ocean liner in 1937. It had earlier been widely used in Radio City Music Hall in the Rockefeller Center, New York. During the 1930s a range of technical improvements were made, increasing the range of available colours and designs, perhaps the most important being the introduction of the melamine resin in 1938.
With American involvement in the Second World War the company benefited from defence contracts, developing new insulating materials and alternative materials for the fabrication of aircraft propellers (Pregwood). In the post‐war period the company focused on potential markets for the decorative laminates in both the public and private sectors. In the seven years after the war, 6 million houses were built in the USA with 2 million having Formica countertops in their kitchens. The material was also increasingly widely adopted in bathrooms. In 1957 the Formica company was purchased by the industrially powerful American Cynamid Company, and in 1960 the plastics giant De La Rue and Cynamid formed the new Formica International Limited, significant developments that facilitated the proliferation of decorative laminates around the world. The company made great efforts to promote its potential for architecture and design, as in its Formica House seen at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Ten years later the company established a Design Advisory Board and in 1980 the company launched its Design Collection laminates, no longer seen as substitutes for other materials but as aesthetic ends in themselves. Important was the development of ColorCore, a new laminate in which the surface colour permeated right through the material, extending its potential uses for design, particularly furniture. Two prestigious and critically successful ColorCore design competitions were launched in the 1980s, the first of which, Surface and Ornament (1983), was open to designers, architects, and jewellers and subsequently toured the world. Designers involved included Robert Venturi, Stanley Tigerman, Arata Isozaki, and Frank Gehry. The second, Material Evidence, was a furniture competition involving designers used to working in wood and opened at the Renwick Gallery, Washington, prior to touring the United States. In the late 1980s further materials innovations were launched, including the 2000X solid surfaced countertop range. This was promoted through a design competition for architects and designers entitled From Table to Landscape. Following other innovations and updating of existing ranges, in 1996 the company launched Formica Flooring, a laminated product that proved extremely popular. In the same year 1,200 Authorized Formica Design Centres were opened in kitchen and bathroom retail outlets as a means of persuading consumers of the potential impact of Formica products.
Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.