Category: Article:

Mid-Century Laminates in the Home
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Maybe laminate kitchen countertops aren?t so bad after all. Just maybe a mid-century vintage kitchen looks down right cute?so thinks laminates authority Grace Jeffers of inside design,, who recently came to Dallas during Preservation Dallas? mid-century modern week to talk about the restoration she did on the Wilson House.

The first time Jeffers entered Wilson House in Temple, Texas was to witness a crew ripping out kitchen cabinets from the 1959 ranch style home built by Ralph Wilson, who founded Wilsonart in 1956. Only, Jeffers ?pretty much flipped out.?

?I had this moment, when you?re the only one who understands what?s going on in this room,? Jeffers said. ?There?s something really important going on in here, and I have to do something about it.? Immediately, she told the men to stop, and she convinced Wilsonart to buy the house from Wilson?s widow, who was gutting it for sale. Then, Jeffers persuaded Wilsonart to let her restore the house.

?Having just written my thesis on laminates, I knew that a lot of the details in this house were six years earlier than what I had known them to be developed,? Jeffers said. ?And in 20th century history, six years is a huge amount of time. ? For instance, in the 50?s, the all-laminate clad cabinets were unheard of. Another detail that is remarkably early is the crest formed edge?the eddy wrapped around the corner. ?That edge is actually seamed. I know that was absolutely bizarre. First of all, its not done that way now, and secondly, it was so early. Post forming didn?t become common until, really, the early 70?s.?

?It was my suspicion that a lot of these ideas were sort of premiered in this house, or this house was one of the only places still in existence that really showed this kind of pioneer thinking,? Jeffers said. ?So, I started calling this house the origins of the everyday. Today, we think of laminates as a joke in every cheap apartment, big complexes?all laminate clad countertops. You go to Home Depot, and there are stacks of them. These design details had to start somewhere, and this house was one of the places where they started.?

But are laminates that hokey-pokey? ?That?s not how plastics were perceived for most of the century,? Jeffers said. ?Plastics were more expensive than anything else. They were exciting, new, chemical, and expensive.? The difference over the years is that laminates have remained unchanged in cost while costs of other materials, like tile, have soared.

Because granite is so popular today, Wilsonart now offers a MesaGranite? laminate with the look of granite but selling at a fraction of the cost. Another savings is less maintenance?the laminate counterpart requires less upkeep because it doesn?t need periodic sealing to prevent staining that authentic granite requires. Wilsonart is also appealing to customers looking for alternative metal surfaces by offering Metalaminates?, a collection of foil-faced laminates with metallic looks like satin brushed stainless, gold, and iron, as well a pearl matte silver and champagne soft copper.

But, suppose you want to restore your old laminate. Wilsonart provides a digital printing process that can re-create almost any pattern. And Jeffers, herself, saved the masters to many 1950?s patterns that were being thrown out. These she keeps safely tucked away in her home in New York.

Laminates were first invented in 1906 and perfected in 1913, according to Jeffers. In 1913, the founders of Formica Corporation, Dan O? Conner and Herbert Faber, developed their first laminated plastic?not for decoration?but as electrical insulation. Decorative laminates didn?t appear until 1927. By mid-century, laminate surfaces had become the rage.

?More than form or color, design in the 50?s was an exploration of new materials,? Jeffers said. ?This was a celebration of tile?a celebration of laminates?of vinyl. There was this kind of revelry in the chemical?a joy of what man can make, which to me is more authentic. We live in a man-made world. Why shouldn?t we live with man-made products and really enjoy them. So, I think there is something pure about a lot of mid-century structure.?

The Formica World?s Fair House at the 1964-65 New York World?s Fair featured an all?Formica house with laminate products on all surfaces?interior, furniture, even the exterior, which is the one laminated surface that doesn?t hold up well, according to Jeffers. In the wake of the Formica World?s Fair House came another Formica House?on Mercer Drive in Dallas?designed by architect Jack Wilson. Only, Wilson specified that while using Formica products for many surfaces, he wanted to design a house to suite his tastes. And in this house, he used other materials such as the brick tile floors in the library, solid brick floors in the living room, wood and plaster walls, and color plastic windowpanes, according to the current homeowners, Gene and Vickie Freeland.

?I think we lucked out,? said Vickie who with her husband has restored sections of the home. They replaced the shower because of surface water damage, and they added interior wood-trimmed glass doors to the dining room and kitchen. But they still enjoy the original Formica counter tops in the bath and kitchen. And of course, the highlight is their one-of-a-kind?orange Formica vent-a-hood hanging pristine above the stove. Also above the kitchen is a combination skylight/electric light fixture covered with decorative plastic panels. All together, the curving lines in the vent-a-hood, the wood trim, and wood beams accent the sleek antique art-deco furniture and art hanging in the house.

This home offers other unusual, non-Formica features, such as a combination indoor/outdoor fireplace, one side facing the living room and the other side to the porch, and hidden entrances and storage hideaways in rough hewed wood paneling. Add in various steps between different room elevations and there?s a sense of ruggedness and discovery in the single story structure, all of which complement the exterior?a heavily wooded lot irregularly squeezed between a steep-banked creek and a hillside railroad track. Seven sliding glass doors allow plenty of opportunities to see and be near the outside although, better yet is a walk around the grassy wood lot.

?Magazines have no reason to tell us to keep old kitchens,? Jeffers said. Instead, current trends emphasize creating two period looks, either the early 20th century arts and crafts or the sleek, completely new/modern kitchen. ?People are interested in convenience in the kitchen and want the latest espresso makers, food processors. Sometimes they want their kitchens, in general, to match these appliances. In a way, it doesn?t make sense because the appliances are going to be outdated in five years anyway. So, you might as well put your espresso makers in a cabinet in your vintage kitchen.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
For more information, see the about page
For my favorite music go here

Home - Email Webmaster - About - Links - Privacy Policy
1 1 1 hello