Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic
Nov 30, 2018

When Fake Is Better Than Real: Laminates and the Modern Interior

What is luxury? Is it rosewood and leather, silk and lacquer, marble and gold leaf? Or is it the freedom from the cost of installing, then maintaining those fine natural materials? Is luxury the off-limits living room and the war against fingerprints, or the anything-goes feeling of a house where wet feet, even wet bathing suits are fine. From its first adoption by American designers in the 1930s, Formica’s decorative plastic laminates were sold as inexpensive and hard-wearing but also fashionable and fun. Like vinyl, fiberglass and melamine, introduced to the home market during the same era, laminates offered modernity with an old-fashioned touch of class. Sequin, introduced in 1952, scattered irregular gold flecks across a colored ground. My grandmother’s countertops, installed in the early 1970s, were in one of the most popular colors: aqua.

This talk will survey the high points of the marriage of plastic laminates and design, from Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall in the 1930s; to Brooks Stevens’s iconic Boomerang pattern, seen on dinette sets across the United States; to a World’s Fair house of the future; to Ettore Sottsass’s totemic Superboxes, which suggested that all you need in your home is a bed and a laminate closet. Whether it looks realer than real wood, or as fake as supersize neon bacteria, laminate does not deserve its current reputation, beige and utilitarian, consigned to the kitchenettes of cheap motels. We do, however, have to contend with its environmental cost. Once upon a time, it meant glamor.

12:45PM, The Berlage Center for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Urban Design, Delft University of Technology.

Originally published in The Berlage