When Trends Converge

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.

 

How?

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.


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