Being whimsical does not pay off with laminating

The Associated Press
Friday March 16, 2001

In the wacky world of plastic laminates, river rocks never wash away, grass doesn’t need cutting, a heap of jellybeans never gets stale and a red-and-white checked picnic cloth doesn’t have to be laundered. 

Such frankly faux novelty patterns, along with metallic effects and unusual textures, can turn cabinet surfaces, counters and walls into conversation pieces. 

Through the use of digital photography, virtually any image – a logo, a photograph, lines of text – can be custom-printed onto a sheet of laminate. This conjures up thoughts of surfaces decorated with wedding invitations, children’s artwork, heirloom photographs and favorite pet portraits. 

Don’t be in a hurry to plan a room around little John or Jane’s latest art effort. At the moment, custom-designed patterns on laminates are available to large commercial clients rather than Mr. and Mrs. America and mainly employed in signs, point-of-purchase displays and restaurant and store interiors. 

“Our most popular installations are in hotels, retail displays, casinos and nightclubs – anywhere a designer wants to make an impact,” says Beverly Palmer, commercial marketing manager of Formica Corp. Cincinnati. 

As designers employ special effects in laminates and novelty laminate patterns in their own homes and for residential clients, the word is slowly trickling out. Furthermore, the number of patterns continues to grow. 

“There are two design trends,” says Grace Jeffers, design editor of Laminating Design & Technology Magazine, a trade publication in Fort Atkinson, Wis., and a consultant to Wilsonart. “One trend is for intriguing graphically bold patterns or effects, and the second trend is for dimensional textures. 

Among the more startling patterns, Jeffers singles out an iridescent pattern as well as a laminate that looks like troweled plaster (from Abet Laminate, an Italian company), those jelly beans and that picnic check (from Wilsonart), and a corrugated cardboard look (Formica). 

Formica introduced its DecoMetal this past summer with 48 patterns. Some unusual effects are created by combining two sheets of material. The top sheet is perforated to reveal a different material beneath. One pattern combines a perforated wood surface with a metal underlay exposed as small squares. 

At this point, it can be hard for a consumer to see samples of unusual patterns since they are rarely sampled by the big box retail outlets like Home Depot and Lowe’s.  

You might find some of these special patterns at showrooms of independent kitchen and bath dealers and in upscale home design centers. Another way to learn what’s new is to visit manufacturer Web sites or call their customer service numbers. 

Expect to pay a premium. Most of the unusual patterns are more expensive than standard patterns – about $5 per square foot instead of $1.25, Jeffers estimates. 

Perhaps more of the unusual is on the way. Already patterns are replacing solid colors in laminates. “At our design launch in April, Everything was some sort of pattern,” says Brenda White, public relations coordinator for Wilsonart International in Temple, Texas. “A pattern is more practical because you don’t notice stains or scratches.” 

When working with highly patterned laminates, there are some decorating dos and don’ts. “With the super-bold patterns, a little goes a long way,” Jeffers says.  

“It is a good idea to have a table or a few cabinet faces but not to plaster the pattern all over your kitchen cabinets.” 

When using laminates with highly reflective surfaces, Palmer says “if there is light shining directly onto the surface, you will see all the fingerprints and smudges. Duller finishes are more popular in residential use.” 

Those who like the newly fashionable look of stainless steel for a countertop won’t be happy with a laminate version for a surface that requires a workhorse material. They need an industrial sheet grade of metal attached with rivets. 

Another use for unusual laminates is as furniture. 

Gary Roberts of Cleveland is making desks, credenzas and pedestal filing cabinets surfaced with Formica’s Ligna laminates. The top surface of the laminate is actually a form of poplar embossed with a grain pattern duplicating various woods such as Birdseye maple. The pieces are made by hand and prices are fairly high – from $4,000 and up for a desk or a credenza. 

“When you tell people it’s a laminate, the perception is that it’s a cheap material. Actually, it’s a fairly expensive material that has a unique look. Formica’s pricing on this product is five to 10 times greater than what its lower products would cost,” says Roberts. “The laminates work well for furniture. They are as scratch-resistant as a wood veneer and they bring color and pattern to design.” says Roberts.