Design Beyond the Surface

With a nearly endless list of design options, features, and benefits, vacuum-formed 3D panels can help elevate interiors to a whole new dimension.


It’s safe to say that we’re now living in the 3D era. From printers, televisions, and even pens, three-dimensional objects are being created in greater detail and efficiency, and are being utilized in more innovative ways than ever before. For commercial interiors, creating a design with a three-dimensional look has never been easier, thanks to the flexibility and character of laminates.

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The trend toward textures and geometries that can not only be perceived by the eye but also experienced by the hand continues to grow as designers seek to create spaces that complement interior architecture with greater visual impact. With ever-increasing realism, vacuum-formed 3D panel products, in particular, have literally helped to reshape interiors that go well beyond the typical two-dimensional surface. Advances in laminate technology provide high-end architectural solutions across a wide variety of markets, including corporate, hospitality, institutional, retail, and even marine environments.

These tactile products open up virtually endless design options for specifiers. Thanks to its many variations in structure, surface, pattern, and material, three-dimensional laminates (3DLs) have become a wildly popular solution for commercial interiors. These attractive, yet durable products offer specifiers tremendous design flexibility and are available in multiple sizes, suitable for walls, wainscoting, ceilings, backsplashes,
furniture, display fixtures, and other interior design applications.

Although 3D laminates aren’t new to the contract interiors market, fresh patterns and textures combined with customization options now available deliver an unprecedented level of aesthetic appeal and design advantages to market. When it’s time to give a project a three-dimensional look, 3D laminates offer the flexibility, performance, and aesthetic appeal needed to take design beyond the surface.

History & Manufacturing 101

Before delving into the numerous features, applications, and benefits of 3D surfacing products, it’s instructive to begin with a brief history of the evolution of laminates, as well as a basic explanation of the process of manufacturing vacuum-formed 3DLs. As design historian Grace Jeffers has noted1, “It surprises many people to learn that laminate, the material commonly found on kitchen counter tops, has been around for more than 100 years.” In the architectural and interior design trades, Jeffers explained that laminates are categorized as a “surfacing material” or a non-essential overlay, a material applied to achieve an aesthetic effect or to serve a durable function.

Initially, however, laminates didn’t have the aesthetic appeal when they were first introduced in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, who impregnated fibrous sheets with phenol-formaldehyde resin2. The first uses of decorative laminates in the 1920s were used in radio cabinets, and the dark color of the resin limited the product to dark colors because it colored dyes didn’t translate well and tended to rub off3.

Decorative laminates were made by impregnating large sheets of kraft paper with phenolic resin, which was then partially cured and cut to sheet lengths after coming out of the oven, which made the dry sheets somewhat stiff and brittle4. A decorative sheet (solid colored, wood-grained, or patterned), impregnated with melamine resin and cut to length in a similar manner to the phenolic core sheets, was laid on a polished stainless steel press plate5. Then several plies or layers of kraft paper impregnated with a phenolic resin were placed on top of the decorative layer, yielding products of varying thickness depending upon end-use requirements6. Next, a sheet of release paper that would not bond to the phenolic resin was placed on top of the phenolic kraft and following this a mirror image build-up of the assembly already on the press plate. Finally, another polished stainless steel press plate was placed on top of the pack assembly7.

Beginning in 1927, decorative laminated sheets using clear urea- and thiourea-formaldehyde were used for countertops, tables, bars, splash backs, interior paneling, doors, store fronts, and ornamental designs8. Because these resins were colorless, lighter-colored laminates, which were resistant to sunlight, were made possible; however, urea-formaldehyde resins tended to warp, absorbed water, and were less durable and more expensive than phenol resins9.

Following the invention of a new kind of resin, melamine, in 1938, laminate could be engineered with a top layer of colored paper10. Melamine bakes, or “flows,” to create a hard, clear, topcoat finish, which bonds and protects the “decorative” paper layer beneath11. “This important invention made the brightly colored laminates we associate with kitchen counter tops of the 1950s possible—and opened up a brand new world of design possibilities for American kitchens and bathrooms,” noted Jeffers.

The old lamination process was costly and labor-intensive, and required extensive handling of the individual sheets. Those sheets were extremely brittle and easily damaged. Breaking off even a small corner rendered the sheet unusable (and not repairable or recyclable).
Modern 3D laminate manufacturing, on the other hand, provides consistent quality, custom patterns, and branded color matching for the design community at smaller minimums and lower costs than historically available.

At the most basic level, specifiers can select from a wide variety of available three-dimensional patterns to choose from and then pair them with one of many finish options to create a unique panel or tile product. The extensive assortment of standard design and color combinations enables designers to meet both traditional and contemporary design requirements. Metal, wood grain, and patina looks can be easily achieved with striking realism but at a lower cost without sacrificing the three-dimensional look and feel of natural products. Additionally, some manufacturers offer the ability to produce custom sheets with logos and other brand-recognizable features built directly into the panels or tiles (more on customization options later on).

The manufacturing process begins with a raw thermoplastic material like PVC, PETG, HIPS, or ABS that provides the “base” of the finished product. The base material may also come in sheeted form for certain through-color finishes. Decorative foils in roll form provide the finish that gives the panel or tile product the desired metallic, patina, wood grain, or solid color looks. Special coatings can be added to the decorative foils for an invisible layer of protection (for patina finishes, for example), whereas protective masking is added when a coating might affect the finish. Solid through-color finishes typically don’t require protective coatings and are shipped as is12.

Next, the substrate is laminated and sheeted at the end of the production line where it is taken to a vacuum forming area. The sheet is heated and drawn into a cast former, and then shaped into the finished pattern using vacuum machinery. The uniform pressure from the vacuum process eliminates shifting and air pockets, creating perfectly smooth parts with consistent, predictable results. The back side of the finished sheet is also taken into account to ensure that there is enough surface area to bond the sheet.

The sheet is then cooled before undergoing a two-step cutting process (rough and final cuts). Finally, the sheet is inspected for quality control before packaged for shipping in either cartons or crates. The finished panels are extremely lightweight, and are flexible enough to be rolled for shipping, yet completely rigid when laminated. This makes the end product more cost effective to ship and easy to install.

Finished 3DL panels are typically about .030-inch thick and are fire retardant grade, passing ASTM E84 Class A Test Standard requirements. Despite their thin profile, vacuum-formed 3D laminates are also extremely durable (more on features and benefits below) and can withstand the demands of high-traffic environments.

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