Talk of the Formica table

CHARLES ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 24/02/2013
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NEAT AS A PIN: A 50s kitchen featuring a Formica table.

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TUNING IN: Historic Formica promotional material.

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You couldn’t get away with it nowadays, of course. But these were days of advertising virtuosi tucked away in rooms with views, sucking down the smooth, satisfying taste of tobacco, sipping scotch on the rocks and dreaming big ideas. 

It was an age where waterproof surfaces were a sign of middle-class sublimity. 

They were times of happy wives (how they smiled!) – happiest in the kitchen, making dinner for the family of 2.1 children, or doing their hair in the bathroom. Joy! Wonder! It was where the ability to simply wipe something down was a sign that you had reached some semblance of domestic bliss.

‘‘Who spanks the children at your house?’’ asks a Formica ad, circa 1960. A young blonde girl in a pretty red dress stands over a kitchen top with hands above her head, as a jar of some sort of breakfast condiment smashes on the mustard-yellow finishing. 

“The hairbrush, razor strap and switch don’t get much of a workout in homes that have Formica surfaces,’’ the ad declares.

Because this surface shrugs off all kinds of messes – fruit acids and boiling water, for example. Even alcohol. (Kids have accidents with alcohol?) ‘‘Even the most elaborate childhood messes.’’

A damp cloth is all you need. Breathe easy. No need to beat the child.

Times have changed and the madmen now have to make do with less text, less stereotyping, fewer boozy children and less domestic tyranny.

But for a generation or two, a kitchen consisted of a chrome-clad table topped in pastel-coloured marble-patterned laminate – thick pieces of kraft paper impregnated with melamine, heated and pressed together into a product able to resist abrasion. 

Formica has been around for 100 years. An anniversary will be celebrated this Thursday, when the Laminex Group launches “Formica Forever”, kicking off a year-long celebration of the product that topped those tables.

Tables, says Colin Weatherall, that were places of great memories – family conference centres where you talked through the events of the day. They were important. Weatherall has been a Formica man for more than 30 years – working his way up through the company to become technical services manager.

“If you cut my veins it would bleed red laminate,’’ he says. ‘‘I have been good to the brand and the brand has been good to me.”The stuff lined cafes, cruise liners, hospital wards and train cabins. And for 50 years it was manufactured in New Zealand – for a time the largest per-capita consumer of the product in the world.

In the late years of World War II, and the 1950s, the company, now owned by Fletcher Building, exported its product to New Zealand. The demand grew to such a  point that in 1960 a plant was set up in Papakura. It operated until 2008. Formica, says Weatherall, became a name like Nugget or Electrolux – one that was used for all brands of laminate.

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The patent for the material dates back to 1913. Two engineers had designed it as an electrical insulator to replace the traditional silicate mineral ‘‘mica’’. It was, quite literally, “Formica”. It was also the Latin word for a type of wood ant. Trademark issues were non existent.

The material began its life at industrial sites – serving as engine parts for cars made by Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac in the 1930s. During the war, Formica developed ‘‘Pregwood’’ – plastic-impregnated wood used for propellers and bomb parts.

And then, when the war ended and the world returned, people wanted more. They wanted shiny surface tops – beautiful, sparkling and new. Formica rolled out endless patterns to grace the world of cafes, diners and restaurants across America, and then New Zealand. They sported patterns like Spindrift, Skylark, Mayflower and Softglow. Dual-syllable words that rolled off the tongue and conjured up images of spindrifts, skylarks, mayflowers and softglows.

Demand was so high that customers sometimes had to take whatever was on offer. If you couldn’t get a black topping, you would be given blue, says Weatherall. If they didn’t have white, you would be given black.

Times change. Fashions change. But give it long enough and they come back. If you head to the trendy parts of town, where vintage stores sell 1960s throwbacks and customers long for a nostalgia never experienced, you might find one of those old tables.

Weatherall is surprised by the trend, and expresses his incredulity. ‘‘Bugger me dead, we’re back into high-level glosses.’’

These days the material is thin and can be shaped into almost anything. The ads have lost their novelty. They have sleeked into smooth studio photography showcases, appealing to the creature within us that longs for large kitchen-bench space. Just somewhere, anywhere, to put the juicer, the food processor and the Nespresso. Great for dinner parties. They use dark colours and shapes to show off real quality-looking stuff. Get a large bench space with a real quality bench, one that will let you throw a killer dinner party and achieve some semblance of domestic bliss.

But Weatherall, who retires soon, says it is still the same product. One hundred years on, it’s still durable, heat resistant and easily cleaned with the wipe of a damp cloth.

- Sunday Magazine

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