The ‘Sensational’ Role of Texture in Surface Design

Touch can play an unexpectedly large role in how we feel about things.

06/01/2016 By Kenn Busch

What’s the first thing you do when you see an intriguing wall covering, table top, or upholstered chair?

You touch it, of course. You can’t help it. Your brain needs to know what it feels like.

Knowing how things feel–smooth, soft, warm, sticky, dusty–completes your perception of that item or material. This information, along with the visuals you captured, is catalogued in your mind so you can then say, “Yeah, I know what that is.”

As an architect or designer, yours is a sensorial world. You navigate, explore, and ultimately create through the experienced use of your senses. Given the opportunity (and the budgets), your goal is to create spaces that are, for lack of a better term, sensational.

Texture has a huge impact on our perceptions of the world around us and yet, compared to the other senses, there’s precious little research on this important channel of information.

What we do know is that, in the brain, touch and pressure are interpreted by the forward part of the parietal lobe, situated between the frontal lobe and the occipital lobe. The parietal lobe also manages taste and body awareness.

You may be surprised to know that the touch-and-pressure region is larger than the vision area of the occipital lobe, as well as the speech, concentration, planning, and problem-solving area of the frontal lobe. In fact, the only areas larger than touch-and-pressure are those that control motor control, body awareness (frontal lobe), coordination (cerebellum), and reading and language (the intersection of the parietal, temporal and occipital lobes).

This tells us that touch has obviously been very important in our evolution.
It’s the first sense we acquire ontogenetically—as we’re first developing as organisms—and plays a huge role in putting our world into context for the rest of our lives. As babies, the minute we have any control of our hands we’re grabbing everything we can reach (and eventually putting most of it in our mouths) to fully experience them.

We’re All Hungry For Touch

We’re born with hungry fingers, says Lisa White, head of Lifestyle & Interiors for WGSN, the global trend forecasting agency. She says in retail markets especially, there’s a trend toward tactility and temptation of touch—digitally-dazed consumers are looking for “real.”

“Materials play a big role in getting us away from the tablet or phone screen. We’re really getting tired of slick surfaces; our fingers are hungry for tactility. We used a lot of plywood in an exhibition recently because it’s so refreshing to be in contact with something like that!”

Research published by the National Institutes of Health says that not only do “shoppers more readily understand and form confident impressions about products with which they physically interact,” the materials used in the environment and packaging of a product influence perceptions: “[W]ater seems to taste better from a firm bottle than from a flimsy bottle.”

In other words, “haptically acquired information exerts a rather broad influence over cognition, in ways of which we are probably often unaware.”
Plainly put, touch is a very emotional thing.

What the Heck is ‘Haptics’?

“Haptics,” from the Greek word for touch, is the science of understanding of why you feel what you feel when you touch or hold something, and how those perceptions might be controlled or influenced. The phrase “haptic feedback” is used to describe how we interact with technology: the way your electronic devices let you know you are touching them with minute vibrations, or high-tech cars will vibrate your seat to alert you that you’re about to back into your neighbor’s mailbox.

Haptics as a term in the interior materials world began in Europe and crossed the Atlantic with the laminate flooring boom two decades ago.
When laminate flooring was first introduced in Europe, it offered many advantages over the “natural” materials it was replacing—higher durability, easier to keep clean, quick to install, easier on the environment, lower cost, etc.

But it had one serious disadvantage: Consumers noticed that the texture revealed in the glare of window or overhead lighting was visually out of sync with the printed wood or tile designs.

The standard laminate finish at the time, a pebbled or stippled surface, has a telltale look when the light hits it right. So, manufacturers began to study haptics and experiment with technology that controls textures.

These efforts eventually resonated with the rest of the laminate industry, and now we’re seeing more sophisticated textures appearing on materials destined for commercial and residential furniture and interiors.

The Technology of Texture in Laminates

Texture of some kind is applied to all laminate materials–high-pressure laminate (HPL) and thermally fused laminate (TFL)–most commonly by etched hardened stainless steel plates, or press moulds, up to 5 ft x 10 ft in size. These plates are used in the presses that heat and compress the layers of materials that become laminate. As the laminate materials are heated, they become soft enough to accept the embossed texture of a press mould plate.

HPL consists of a décor layer and several layers of brownish kraft paper fused together under heat and pressure in very large presses. The layers for each sheet are separated by the textured plates, which for HPL are engraved on both sides. The laminate sandwich below the plate faces up, the sandwich above faces down, so one plate applies texture to two sheets of HPL in each pressing cycle. A blank plate is placed on top of the down-facing laminate sandwich, and the paper-textured plate-paper-order repeats. Large HPL presses can produce several sheets of HPL in each cycle.

In TFL, where the décor layer is thermally fused in the factory directly to an MDF or particleboard substrate, panels are pressed one at a time in a through-feed press. Press plates for TFL are only engraved on one side.

These plates not only impart texture, they’re part of the mechanical pressing process, so they’re engineered to exact dimensions and thicknesses, and to have the thermal properties necessary for different pressing processes.

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