All about the use of color by artists, scientists and psychologists.
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
A Century of Formica-Color came to the kitchen, and everywhere else
A century ago, two material scientists quit the manufacturing giant Westinghouse to develop a product their superiors didn’t quite appreciate, a new form of plastic laminate that could be used to insulate electronic components. The called it Formica, because they envisioned it as a substitute “for mica,” the mineral that was then typically used as an electrical insulator.
As a new history of the company, Formica Forever, explains the timing was perfect: the new wonder material came along just as a host of new industries were developing, all requiring sophisticated new electrical parts. Formica was used in airplanes, automobiles, ocean liners, and trains. It entered the home environment with the radio—all those transistors and wires and knobs required grounding, and Formica fit the bill.
Formica’s domestic revolution came about in the 1930s, first with the introduction of metal foil into the laminate, and later with the move to stronger melamine resins, which made for a tougher product that could be brightly colored or given faux wood patterning. Now you could find Formica everywhere, from the Queen Mary to Radio City Music Hall to the counter of the local diner to just about every suburban kitchen. It was the perfect material for the postwar building boom: inexpensive, durable, easy to clean, adaptable to just about any aesthetic. This was modernism for the masses, at its best.
In the intervening years, Formica has remained popular, though it has not always been quite so fashionable. Perhaps unfairly, there has been a stigma to Formica, it being a form of plastic, that throwaway substance that conjures poorly made objects of minimal value.
As we’ve come to celebrate the modern heritage of the mid-century, Formica once again seems like a respectable option, and not just for nostalgists. It still retains the virtues that made it appealing a half century ago, and in years before that. Granite counters are nice, but they don’t come in tangerine, and they don’t come cheap.