The Berlage

Session Room K

When Fake Is Better than Real: Laminates and The Modern Interior

Alexandra Lange

What is luxury? Is it rosewood and leather, silk and lacquer, marble and gold leaf? Or is it the freedom from the cost of installing, then maintaining those fine natural materials? Is luxury the off-limits living room and the war against fingerprints, or the anything-goes feeling of a house where wet feet, even wet bathing suits are fine. From its first adoption by American designers in the 1930s, Formica's decorative plastic laminates were sold as inexpensive and hard-wearing but also fashionable and fun. Like vinyl, fiberglass and melamine, introduced to the home market during the same era, laminates offered modernity with an old-fashioned touch of class. Sequin, introduced in 1952, scattered irregular gold flecks across a colored ground. My grandmother's countertops, installed in the early 1970s, were in one of the most popular colors: aqua.This talk will survey the high points of the marriage of plastic laminates and design, from Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall in the 1930s; to Brooks Stevens's iconic Boomerang pattern, seen on dinette sets across the United States; to a World's Fair house of the future; to Ettore Sottsass's totemic Superboxes, which suggested that all you need in your home is a bed and a laminate closet. Whether it looks realer than real wood, or as fake as supersize neon bacteria, laminate does not deserve its current reputation, beige and utilitarian, consigned to the kitchenettes of cheap motels. We do, however, have to contend with its environmental cost. Once upon a time, it meant glamor. 

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic whose essays, reviews, and features have appeared in design journals, New York magazine, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Curbed, Design Observer, Dezeen, and many other publications. She received a PhD in twentieth-century architecture history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She is the author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities, the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism, and co-author of Design Research: The Story that Brought Modern Living to American Homes. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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