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Slicker | Material


As mass produced industrial materials became readily available in the 20th century, they began to replace handcrafted varieties. Early modernists eager to promote this machine-age aesthetic soon rejected designs that indicated any presence of a craftsman's hand.

History of Plastic Laminate. Design historian Jeffery Miekle states that plastic laminate "most directly embodied the machine-age aesthetic of the era, and its search for controlled certainty." As a result, the material appeared in a variety of different environments. Miekle explains: "Such places as automats, chain stores, theaters, and nightclubs offered artificial precision in flawless surfaces of smooth Formica laminate, deep mirrors of jade green or jet black deceptively reflecting a futuristic "polished orderly essential" that remained a dream in the real world of the 1930s."1

By the 1930s, plastic laminate began appearing in prestigious interiors. "Gray pearlized Formica graced the liner H.M.S. Queen Mary, while green morocco Formica soothed visitors to the new Library of Congress annex." The coverage of these projects in design magazines exposed the new material to the public, and "proclaimed the utopian significance of plastic."2

Spurred by this early momentum, the development of plastics exploded after World War II. In the 1950s, plastic grew “more rapidly than most other American industries and [expanded] at an astonishing rate."3

Plastic laminate became a ubiquitous interior element, cladding the surfaces of residential kitchens, roadside diner interiors, bathroom countertops, and even corporate boardrooms.

While the 20th century is often referred to as the Machine Age it could just as appropriately be considered the Age of Plastic. Originally, plastic served mainly as an insulating material for a variety of electronic and mechanical applications. Its origins as a surfacing material date to 1907 with the development of the first all synthetic plastic by the chemist, Leo H. Baekeland. Prior to Baekeland's discovery, plastic occurred in the form of celluloid, a compound of nitrocellulose and camphor. Since 1869, celluloid served as a substitute for ivory, tortoiseshell, and horn. Due to its responsiveness to heat, molded celluloid was used to fabricate consumer products such as combs. Molded celluloid, however, did not possess the dimensional stability required for industrial applications. Baekeland continued to explore the potential of the material, experimenting with such Formica laminate forerunners as “polished Bakalite fiberboard,” “Bakalized pulpboard,” and “Bakalite floor tiles.”4

In 1910, Dr. C.E. Skinner, an engineer at Westinghouse, read an article by Baekeland explaining the process involved in hardening paper through impregnation. Soon thereafter, Westinghouse began purchasing Baekeland's liquid resin, called Bakelite. Working under Skinner, the researcher Daniel J. O'Conor applied liquid Bakelite to layered kraft paper to form rigid laminated sheets. The process included the passing of continuous ribbons of paper through a bath of liquid Bakelite, and then into and through a drying chamber before being cut into dry, resin-impregnated sheets. Stacked in layers and compressed between the heated plates of a flat-bed hydraulic press, where final cutting of the synthetic resin occurred, the former paper sheets emerged as a single rigid laminated sheet with the chemical and electrical properties of Bakelite, ready to be cut to the required shapes.5 O'Conor left Westinghouse with another employee, Herbert A. Faber, and in 1913 the two founded The Formica Insulation Company of Cincinnati. For many years, the young company experienced hardships due to the fierce competition from Westinghouse and later with the emergence of other companies after the expiration of Bakelite patents in 1926 and 1927.6

Formica eventually began to separate itself from its competitors, especially when it became the preferred material for the outer casing of radios. In this form, Formica quickly began to appear in practically every American household, "[rising] from its submerged status as an industrial material into the highly visible realm of consumer goods."7

Formica laminate for interior surfacing did not come into widespread use until after 1938, when the company began working with a new plastic, melamine. Prior to melamine, laminates consisted of phenol-impregnated layers. Later, Formica began impregnating the top layer with urea instead of phenol in order to obtain a greater variety of surface colors. However, the labor-intensive process involved in producing urea-formaldehyde Formica drove up cost and made the laminate unaffordable to the general public. The price of Formica laminate decreased significantly once the company substituted the urea-formaldehyde top layer with melamine. The more durable melamine made the curing process more efficient and less costly overall.8

Only a year after switching to melamine, Formica began selling laminated sheets to furniture makers for the production of “dinette” table tops. Formica became preferable to the traditional "white porcelain-enameled steel whose finishes marred too easily. The durable, non-porous surfaces of Formica laminate became ideal for the production of dinettes because the surfaces required minimal maintenance, a simple "wipe of a damp cloth to render them as good as new."9

Savvy advertising campaigns by Formica quickly expanded into the residential market, especially suited for residences built during the postwar housing boom. Formica acquired a giant press capable of producing sheets measuring 36-inches by 96-inches for kitchen countertops. A report appearing in Fortune magazine in 1951 announced that Formica led the industry "in the scramble to satisfy the urgent demand for decorative plastic table tops and kitchen sinks."10

For the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, New York, Formica designed a house with an interior entirely sheathed in plastic laminate. The "durable beauty" of the house, with its "bevy of crayon-proof, easy-cleaning, easy-living surfaces" presented the public with a total design fabricated from a single material. The interior composition attempted to secure Formica's place within suburbia, as well as demonstrate the company's commitment to the development of the material for architectural applications.11

Fiberglass and Other Epoxies. Contemporary interior designers continue to employ plastic to create flawless, continuous surfaces. Often such treatments take on a glossy, slick finish that further exaggerates the seamlessness of the material.

For the Carlos Miele flagship store (2003), the designers, Asymptote, relied on poured epoxy and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to create an environment that appears as if in a free-flowing, liquid state.

Rei Kawakubo and Takao Kawasaki created an equally slick interior for the Comme des Garcons Boutique (2001) in Paris. Kawakubo covered walls and ceiling with a continuous skin of highly polished red fiberglass. The fiberglass reflects the displayed merchandise and the images of shoppers.12 Pools of light ripple across its surface making it appear rain-slicked.13

end notes

  1. 1) Jeffrey L. Meikle, “Plastics,” Formica & Design, ed. Susan Grant Lewin (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 42.
  2. 2) Meikle, “Plastics,” 40, 47.
  3. 3) Steven Holt, “The Formica History: It Isn’t What You Think,” Formica & Design, ed. Susan Grant Lewin (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 29.
  4. 4) Meikle, “Plastics,” 42-43.
  5. 5) Meikle, “Plastics,” 44.
  6. 6) Holt, “The Formica History,” 27.
  7. 7) Meikle, “Plastics,” 45.
  8. 8) Meikle, “Plastics,” 49-50.
  9. 9) Meikle, “Plastics,” 50-51.
  10. 10) Meikle, “Plastics,” 51-53.
  11. 11) Holt, “The Formica History,” 31-32.
  12. 12) “Rei Kawakubo Outfits Her Comme des Garçons Shop in Paris with a Splash of Red,” Interior Design (Oct. 2001); Philip Jodidio, Architecture Now! 2 (Koln: Taschen, 2001), 289, 291.
  13. 13) Evidence for the archetypical use and the chronological sequence of Slicker as a material was developed from the following sources: 1970 Sassoon Los Angeles Salon [1978] Gwathmey Siegel, Architects; Central City, CA in Anonymous, "Sassoon Strategy," Interior Design 50, no. 12 (Dec. 1978): 129; PhotoCrd: Norman McGrath / 1990 Conference Center, Banking Facility [1992] Gensler; Miami, FL in Monica Geran, "Gensler and Associates," Interior Design 63, no. 15 (Nov. 1992): 103; PhotoCrd: Nick Merrick/Hedrich Blessing; Rodman and Renshaw Headquarters, Chicago Sears Tower [1996] Lieber Architects; Chicago, IL in M. Lindsay Bierman, "Chicago Style," Interior Design 67, no. 14 (Nov. 1996): 147; PhotoCrd: Marco Lorenzetti, Korab/Hedrich Blessing; Comme des Garcons Shop [1999] Rei Kawakubo; Paris, France in Aric Chen, "Comme Again," Interior Design 72, no. 12 (Oct. 2001): 207; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel; Comme des Garcons Boutique [1999] Rei Kawakubo; Paris, France in Philip Jodidio, Architecture Now! Vol. 2 (Kohn: Taschen, 2001), 289; PhotoCrd: Tod Eberle / 2000 Mind Zone, Millennium Dome [2000] Zaha Hadid; Greenwich, England in Deyan Sudjic, "Analysis: Getting Inside Zaha Hadid's Mind Zone," Architectural Record 188, no. 3 (Mar. 2000): 122; PhotoCrd: Christian Richters; Conde Nast Cafeteria [2000] Frank Gehry; New York City in Suzanne Stephens, "Frank Gehry Conjures Conde Nast Cafeteria," Architectural Record 188, no. 6 (June 2000): 116; PhotoCrd: Eduard Hueber; Comme des Garcons Boutique [2001] Rei Kawakubo; Paris, France in Philip Jodidio, Architecture Now! Vol. 2 (Kohn: Taschen, 2001), 289; La Prairie Cosmetics Headquarters [2001] D'Aquino Monaco; Montreux, Switzerland in Abby Bussel, "La Prairie Style," Interior Design 72, no. 2 (Feb. 2001): 151; PhotoCrd: Paul Warchol; Carlos Miele Flagship Store [2003] Asymptote; New York City in Sarah Amelar, "Asymptote Weds High-Tech Fabrication," Architectural Record 191, no. 9 (Sep. 2003): 145; PhotoCrd: Paul Warchol; Louis Vuitton Store [2003] Eric Carlson and David McNulty, Louis Vuitton Departement d'Architecture; Tokyo, Japan in John Alderman, "Louis Vuitton's Trunk Show," Interior Design 74, no. 4 (Apr. 2003): 173; PhotoCrd: Jimmy Cohrssen; The Skyscraper Museum [2004] SOM; New York City in Suzanne Stephens, "Transforming a Horizontal Space, SOM . . .," Architectural Record 192, no. 9 (Sep. 2004): 123; PhotoCrd: Anonymous; Dior Homme Boutique [2004] Architecture & Associates; Tokyo, Japan in Ian Phillips, "Cities of Light," Interior Design 75, no. 4 (Apr. 2004): 166; PhotoCrd: Jimmy Cohrssen; The Modern Restaurant, MOMA [2005] Bentel & Bentel; New York City in Suzanne Stephens, "The Modern," Architectural Record 193, no. 9 (Sep. 2005): 126.

bibliographic citations

1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed month & date, year).

2) O'Brien, Elizabeth. “Material Archetypes: Contemporary Interior Design and Theory Study.” M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2006, 86-94.