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When Trends Converge

Designers in Europe and North America are finding more to love in the latest generation of decorative materials

By Kenn Busch, Photography by Kenn Busch
Sponsored by Material Intelligence

Designers in Europe and North America are finding more to love in the latest generation of decorative materials.

If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the great furniture exhibitions in Milan, Cologne, New York, Chicago and elsewhere in the last few years, you may have noticed a quiet revolution taking place in commercial furniture and interior design.

On the other hand, maybe you haven’t … maybe this revolution has been a little too quiet.

Designers of trend-setting commercial furniture are turning to new decorative materials that offer striking visuals, are engineered for durability, and dramatically reduce our reliance on dwindling supplies of natural resources.

We used to lump these materials under the generic term “laminates.” As you’ll see in the following article, however, these engineered decorative surfaces have come a long way from the materials some designers once considered something of a necessary evil.

To borrow a phrase from a popular automobile ad campaign, these aren’t your father’s laminates. In the last decade, companies that create the decors and textured surfaces for these materials have refined their technologies to the point that even the most experienced observers sometimes mistake them for the “real thing.”

The real thing, of course, is almost always a woodgrain. Aside from a period in the 1950s and ‘60s when laminates were famous for carrying fun, whimsical, Jet Age-inspired abstract designs and colors, most of what you see in current collections are woodgrains.

The reasons for this go beyond the material’s lower cost in relation to veneers or solid wood. In addition to rock-solid durability, laminates guarantee design and color consistency and allow designers to play with color and scale variations that nature just can’t deliver. They also give us the power to bring beautiful woods back from the dead, and to preserve those rare and exotic varieties on the brink of extinction.

The World Tilts Toward TFL

Thermally fused laminates (TFLs) are becoming the go-to material for contract design in global markets.

TFLs offer wear resistance on par with high-pressure laminates (HPLs) and carry the latest available prints and textures. Unlike HPL, where the decorative layer is bonded to layers of kraft paper, TFL's decor is bonded or fused directly to the MDF or particleboard substrate. Ultimately, this means the finished decorative panel is created in fewer processing steps.

Further, particleboard and MDF use wood fiber that would otherwise be landfilled or incinerated. Waste from lumber mills, plywood plants and furniture fabrication makes up about 90 percent of a typical particleboard panel, and 80 percent of a sheet of MDF.

A recent life-cycle inventory analysis (LCIA) asserts that these composite panels are actually “better than climate neutral” because wood is a carbon sink—it stores carbon as it grows, enough to offset the carbon footprint of panel production. This carbon doesn’t re-enter the atmosphere until the wood decays or is incinerated.

Add to this TFL's durability and range of design options, and you've got an ideal material for furniture and millwork for offices, healthcare, hospitality, retail and other contract interiors.



Decor printers—the companies that print the papers used to create laminates—have procured, prepared, scanned and reproduced in stunning fidelity these extremely rare woods.

This process has also given designers unlimited access to old-growth species via lumber reclaimed from centuries-old barns, warehouses and factory buildings. American chestnut, once widely used for structural beams and flooring, is now all but extinct … but its modern laminate doppelganger is beginning to turn heads in commercial applications, with every bit of its natural and distressed character intact.

Once captured, decor designs can be adapted for use on a variety of materials, from light-duty vertical surfaces to cash counters to carved architectural panels. You specify your chosen design, or complementary designs, in different materials suited perfectly for every application in your project. Most suppliers offer cross-references to other types of materials, taking the guesswork out of getting that perfect match.

European designers were the first to begin pushing the limits with these materials, driving producers to ever-higher levels of design fidelity and greater realism in texture. These advances have since migrated to North America, giving you access to the same materials and designs.

These pages offer a glimpse into the state of commercial design, as seen at Saloni in Milan, the IMM and Orgatec events in Cologne, and SICAM in Pordenone, Italy, with a focus on how these materials are being used and shown by the world's most innovative designers and producers.


Kenn Busch is a writer and photographer specializing in global materials coverage and education for architects and interior designers. He is based in Madison, Wis.


Learn more about global materials and design from the companies whose support made this article possible.


Print surfaces allow for the creation of virtually any design imaginable,” says Roland Sirois, senior vice president of surfaces at paper saturator Arclin. “We work with printers to constantly innovate to customers’ and markets’ moods and needs. Exotic woods, the latest maples, cherries and oaks, even non-wood patterns—there really is no limit to what we can create. That kind of flexibility is changing the face of everything from furniture and flooring to cabinetry, fixtures and retail interiors.

“From an industry standpoint, it’s been exciting to watch the evolution of the marriage between technology and design. Increasingly intricate designs and textures combine with our high-performance resins to make TFL surfaces both highly realistic and incredibly durable. They’ll stand up to scratching, moisture, light and staining. Plus, they provide a tremendous environmental benefit, as they expertly replicate wood grains, protecting endangered and slow growth trees.

“TFL really is the perfect alternative to traditional solid woods and veneers. It is attainable, flexible, durable and environmentally sustainable.”

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Interprint Inc.

Not all trends are global,” says Peter Garlington, design manager for decor printer Interprint Inc. “A good design that has the capacity to become global can originate anywhere.”

“We see designers striving to recapture their own unique design heritage and redefine it, not unlike the local food or slow food movements. The broader trends, designs that resonate throughout the world, are just good global design, ‘pure’ design. Apple is a good example of a company that markets pure design.

“Many American designers study and work abroad before returning to the States to explore how to apply their ideas to classic American design. So even though the internet and the media have shrunk the globe, there will always be regional differences that drive local design. We work closely with designers to help them create the colors and visual structures that will appeal to their markets.”

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Kings Mountain International

Without a doubt, the most popular finish at the moment is a linear matte-gloss texture, inspired by natural tree bark,” says Martin Endert, design manager for press plate manufacturer Kings Mountain International. “This kind of finish has a beautiful natural feel, and is a great finish for a wide variety of wood species. The matte gloss contrast shows perfectly on a dark or espresso-colored wood.

“Colors are trending toward a bleached appearance, which is enhanced by a matte surface finish. The resulting ‘dry’ natural veneer feel of the surface is so realistic that you literally feel like you have sawdust on your fingertips.

“In general, textures are engineered to be compatible with their applications. Some are relatively flat for table tops, others show a deep mix of valleys and peaks in gorgeous contrast; some of these textures are evenly distributed, almost like a wallpaper, where the shiny area has the same width as the matte area, and others have a more natural, uneven spacing.”

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Schattdecor U.S.
It’s interesting how global trends often have a lineage that you can follow back to certain places and points in time,” says Mark Smith, senior design manager for decor printer Schattdecor Inc.

“Last year at the Milan fair we saw a lot of fumed woods, where ammonia gas reacts with the natural tannin in the wood to darken and weather it, much like a patina on metal. Fumed woods started with the American arts and crafts movement and create some great colors, which we and our Germany-based designers are adapting for laminates.

“And the ‘Mad Men’ style that we saw at NeoCon last year—the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic—actually comes from Bauhaus designers that left Germany and came to America during the war. That’s leading to a softer look for office furniture, and extending into healthcare and hospitality.

“So we’re watching the rustic look of fumed woods trending in retail design; at the same time the softer Mid-Century designs are being specified elsewhere in commercial. It’s fascinating to see these trends evolve—it’s our job to adapt them for laminates in different markets around the world.”

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SESA Italy
The role texture plays in finished materials goes far beyond how a surface feels,” says Marco Santori, CEO of the Milan-based press mould manufacturer SESA. “Of course, designers can specify woodgrain ticking and gloss variations that are perfectly aligned with the woodgrain print, or a soft veneer feel.

“Texture also plays a role in your subconscious perception of a surface. If you catch the light hitting a surface out of the corner of your eye, and the texture and gloss-matte variations ‘feel’ like they belong with that wood print, you might not think anything more than, ‘That is a beautiful reception desk.’ But if the glare reveals a generic ‘laminate’ surface, at a subliminal level your brain can’t help but stumble over the disconnect between the texture and the print. With the newest generations of decorative surfaces, we’ve removed that disconnect.”

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Suddekor LLC
We’re finding that reclaimed woods are still a huge trend in contract design,” says Marcel Albert, director of design at Suddekor LLC. “American chestnut, in particular, is receiving a lot of interest.

“American chestnut trees are pretty much gone from the planet, thanks to blight, but in the 18th and 19th centuries it was widely used for the massive beams in barns and factories in the Northeast. Lots of that historical chestnut has been reclaimed and can be found in lumber yards, but it’s very, very expensive.

“Our sourcing expert, Edward Way, is also a high-end furniture maker, and knows his woods. He’s purchased some of the best samples he could find, cut and sanded them to enhance the grain, and captured them on our 4 by 5-foot scanning bed. With careful creation of the separations we’re able to recreate the detail, color play and emotion of this wood in the printing process. Now, everyone has access to this amazing, very rare wood.”

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For more information on TFL and other decorative surfaces, please visit