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03/01/2013

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

 
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    A forest of TFL (thermally fused laminate) towers and cubes shows off the range of designs, colors, textures and gloss levels, shown at the SICAM materials exhibition in Pordenone, Italy. European designers have been choosing TFL for commercial furniture for years because of its design range, consistency and durability. View larger

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    This desking design uses relatively thin TFL decorative panels with MDF as a substrate. Note the woodgrain texture on the surfaces. This innovation debuted in Italy, and has since set a new global standard for TFL and related materials. Also note the edge treatment—a matching decorative material applied to the machined edges of the MDF substrate. This attention to detail, executed flawlessly, results in a well-designed and attractive office system, with a consistency of design and durability that could not be realized with wood veneers. View larger

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    This desking design uses relatively thin TFL decorative panels with MDF as a substrate. Note the woodgrain texture on the surfaces. This innovation debuted in Italy, and has since set a new global standard for TFL and related materials. Also note the edge treatment—a matching decorative material applied to the machined edges of the MDF substrate. This attention to detail, executed flawlessly, results in a well-designed and attractive office system, with a consistency of design and durability that could not be realized with wood veneers. View larger

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    Another example of a TFL surface on a commercial desk. While the woodgrain texture and printed decor aren’t designed to be “in register” (perfect alignment), the net impact is strong; the surface texture interacts with light to send subliminal visual cues to the viewer. Note the two-tone edge treatment tying the wood color to the rest of the materials used—in this case, a high-gloss laminate on the pedestal panel. View larger

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    This curved drawer front is surfaced with a decorative foil—a lighter-weight material that can carry the same designs as TFL and HPL, sometimes used for vertical surfaces in place of veneer. Foils are also capable of carrying subtle textures. On this piece, the foil is an exact match to the TFL top. View larger

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    An office suite in an exotic woodgrain, with panels simulating a leather writing surface. Both materials are actually TFL. The saw-cut marks in the woodgrain print design can be found in several different woodgrain patterns, and can even be felt in some texture designs. Here, however, designers chose a silky furniture finish. View larger

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    These designs for hotel interiors carry a striated matte/gloss texture variation on TFL that was originally introduced in Milan, and is now available throughout the world. View larger

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    These designs for hotel interiors carry a striated matte/gloss texture variation on TFL that was originally introduced in Milan, and is now available throughout the world. View larger

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    This conference table is topped by a full-size sheet of TFL. The woodgrain texture is more subtle than in previous examples, but no less important to the visual impact of the piece. View larger

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    On this desk, both the edge and TFL surface carry a linear woodgrain texture. In this case, the designer decided to punch up the edge with a white accent line. View larger

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    Several companies at Orgatec in Cologne showed concepts for managing acoustics in the workplace. One particularly effective design involved machining a pattern of small holes into TFL for wall panels or work-station dividers. This not only reduces sound reflection, but also adds another visual dimension. View larger

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    Several companies at Orgatec in Cologne showed concepts for managing acoustics in the workplace. One particularly effective design involved machining a pattern of small holes into TFL for wall panels or work-station dividers. This not only reduces sound reflection, but also adds another visual dimension. View larger

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    This design plays with the senses on several levels. The surface feels like raw wood with a heavy grain; the printed decor shows grain-lift, or “fuzzing.” The fidelity of this design begins with the scanning of the wood sample. The large flatbed scanners used by decor printers allow the sample to be lit from several different directions to control highlights and shadows of the character of the wood. The same wood sample is often scanned under several different lighting settings, so the decor designers can then layer and combine the scans to create the perfect finished decor. View larger

  • /Portals/3/images/magazine/2013/0313/I_0313_Web_Mtl_15.jpg

    This design plays with the senses on several levels. The surface feels like raw wood with a heavy grain; the printed decor shows grain-lift, or “fuzzing.” The fidelity of this design begins with the scanning of the wood sample. The large flatbed scanners used by decor printers allow the sample to be lit from several different directions to control highlights and shadows of the character of the wood. The same wood sample is often scanned under several different lighting settings, so the decor designers can then layer and combine the scans to create the perfect finished decor. View larger

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    The more elaborate exhibition stands are basically pop-up retail stores. In this case, TFL wall panels are shown throughout the stand—no doubt chosen in part for their ability to withstand the abuse inherent in exhibition shipping and setup. View larger

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    TFL designs in muted tones counterbalance bold textile colors. View larger

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    TFL designs in muted tones counterbalance bold textile colors. View larger

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    This image shows a two-dimensional print design. For projects in markets that have been trending toward weathered and distressed woods, laminates offer an unlimited supply for furniture, fixtures and walls—as well as lower materials costs, easier installation, greater durability and ease of maintenance. View larger

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    Here are two unique TFL surface designs, one mostly visual, the other textural. Concrete surfaces still show the woodgrain from planks used in the forms, and a hybrid organic texture turns a subtly colored panel into a whole new material. View larger

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    Concrete surfaces still show the woodgrain from planks used in the forms, and a hybrid organic texture turns a subtly colored panel into a whole new material. View larger

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    Decorative TFL panels can be specified up to 10 feet long, as is this open-office system shown in Cologne. The clear, long-grain oak plank design is found frequently in both commercial and residential furniture. The raised surfaces are also TFL, in plain white. This version of the material has been historically used for cabinet interiors, but here makes a nice offset to printed patterns. View larger

  • /Portals/3/images/magazine/2013/0313/I_0313_Web_Mtl_24.jpg

    Decorative TFL panels can be specified up to 10 feet long, as is this open-office system shown in Cologne. The clear, long-grain oak plank design is found frequently in both commercial and residential furniture. The raised surfaces are also TFL, in plain white. This version of the material has been historically used for cabinet interiors, but here makes a nice offset to printed patterns. View larger

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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