What are Laminates, and how did they come to be?
You already know what laminates are or have at least come across them at some point or another for re-doing the decor for a home or office space. Not just that, you’ve probably seen it a lot more times than you know or paid attention to it, but laminates are almost everywhere. They’ve become a go-to option for home and office furnishings, have multiple benefits and features and are sometimes more cost-effective than real wood. But what are these furnishing sheets that we have come to call laminates? When did they come about, and what are they made of?
As it is with most things that have gotten better with the advent of technology and innovation, laminates have a somewhat similar story. Having been around and in use since the early 1900s, plastic laminates were first produced and introduced to insulate industrial products by prominent engineers Herbert A. Faber and Daniel J. O’Connor. They were part of a team of renowned scientists who specialized in insulation materials and used phenolic laminate resins that Leo Baekeland, a Belgian chemist, developed.
How were phenolic laminate resins made?
The first-ever “plastic” that was produced was purely synthetic and came to be called Bakelite. Bakelite is said to have been prepared using a fair mix of phenol and formaldehyde and had multiple other features that made it stand out as a leading laminate product. The material that was formed from the mix was resistant to water, electricity, and heat and had unparalleled properties that would soon replace hard rubber and shellac for insulating purposes in industries. One of Baekeland’s experiments with the product had to do with impregnating paper with these bakelite resins and compressing it under a high-pressure environment called thermosetting. Soon enough, seeing that their experiments were getting them somewhere, they started using heavier canvases with Bakelite resins and, soon enough, patented the first-ever flat laminate sheet. The sheet was named “Formica” for meaning ‘in place of’ and mica referring to what’s used as insulation material.
Thus came about the first-ever laminate known to man - Formica. Soon enough and after seeing the success of their experiment, the engineers left the company and formed their own company in 1913 called Formica Insulating Company.
Realizing how well the material worked, by 1914, the company started to use a press machine to produce flat, smooth and even laminate sheets. These sheets were being used in radio sets, naval vessels and shops, commercial shipping, and to insulate parts of big machines like ships. Seeing that plastic laminates had much potential owing to their smoothness and uniformity, it made for the perfect exterior for radios. By 1921 the material was formally introduced and integrated into the production and manufacturing of home and ship radios. But the tryst with laminates was only just beginning. There was much in store regarding the range of options, customizability and creativity.
Decorative Laminates -
As it is with most innovation, one thing led to another. Faber and O’ Connor found out that if they added decorative paper to the printing lithography process (printing from a treated flat surface to repulse the ink except for the required printing parts), they could come up with creative and decorative laminates that simulated different materials and patterns on wood, marble, glass and more. By 1927, colours were already being played with and seeing the versatility of a material like the laminate. The market was thrown wide open to more innovation inspired by base laminates.
Laminates today -
With more machinery and manufacturing improvements, plastic laminates are now produced to be resistant to cigarette burns, are scratch-resistant, tough and more durable with a wide range of options that will make any space or product more attractive and long-lasting than it originally was. Though it was a slow and steady rise in popularity of laminates, once they were in, there was no going out of fashion. Laminates became a more economical option as they came with more benefits to become the go-to option for interior decor and furniture.
Today, laminates come in a wide range of colours, textures, types and finishes based on the type of material that is being laminated. Laminates are created by juxtaposing multiple layers together to create a new material that is much stronger, more stable with sound insulation and a range of attractive designs.
The types of laminates available today range from matter-finish, gloss-finish, textured, metallic, acrylic-finish laminates to PVC laminates.
There is also a whole range of laminates manufactured to be abrasion-resistant, water-absorbent, anti-bacterial, anti-slip, anti-stain and come in colours, patterns and textures that are aesthetically pleasing.