The History of Formica

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Formica Sunrise Collection

1953 Formica Sunrise Collection brochure

Founded in 1913 after two men created an innovative new product to insulate electrical wiring, Formica Corporation went on to become a leader in countertops and tabletops in the American diner.

Daniel O’Conor and Herbert Faber both worked at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, PA – O’Connor as an engineer and Faber as a sales manager – when they created a laminate type substance. The unique substance was made from cloth that had been coated with resin. Westinghouse paid the men the standard $1 for their patent. Soon after, O’Connor and Faber decided to venture out on their own, enlisting lawyer/banker John G. Tomlin as an investor. Tomlin invested $7,500 and became a silent partner.

Prior to Formica’s discovery, electrical wiring was insulated using mica, a naturally occurring mineral. This new laminate was a substitute insulator that could be used as an alternative “for mica”, hence the name “Formica”.

The company had began operations on May 2, 1913. By September it was under contract for electrical parts for several electric companies.

Formica Colors Sunrise Collection

Colors from the Formica Sunrise Collection (1953)

The Formica Corporation wasn’t without its obstacles. When General Bakelite opted to sell resin for sheet insulation exclusively to Westinghouse, Formica switched to Redmanol – a similar competitive resin. This allowed the company to move forward by fulfilling the needs of car manufacturers. In the ’20s, Formica’s phenolic-laminated fabric for gears played an important role in automotive timing. By 1932 the company produced some 6,000 gear blanks a day.

It was in 1927, though, when Formica took its first step that would lead people to associate the term “Formica” with decorative products. Formica Insulation Company obtained a patent on an opaque barrier sheet that could use rotogravure printing to make marble or wood-grain designed laminate. Rotogravure is a popular printing process used in flexible packaging production. It uses a cylinder to print on thin film and is still used today in the printing of many magazines and postcards. The innovation opened a whole new window to kitchen and bathroom design.

Formica engineers continued to research and develop new applications. Formica was introduced in diners – it was used on countertops and tables. It was also used on the walls of ocean liners and trains. Engineers developed a cigarette-proof surface that was used in the construction of Radio City Music Hall that opened in New York City in 1932. And, completed in 1934, the ocean liner The Queen Mary sported wood-grain laminates.

The beginning of major change…

In 1938 American Cyanamid developed melamine thermosetting resin. The new substance resisted heat, abrasion and moisture better than other resins and could also be used to create many more colors. Formica soon was the sole buyer of the melamine, which it used extensively in the production of new laminates.

Like many US companies, Formica also contributed to the war effort. During WWII, the company manufactured airplane propellers that were made from plastic-impregnated wood, or “Pregwood”.

Formica boomerang design

The boomerang design was popular in 1950s diners. It’s now a popular choice for diner booths and dinette sets installed for home use.

While Formica’s largest, single order was from the US Government to make a bomb component called “burster tubes”, the company’s most profitable time came during the postwar building boom. Formica developed laminated kitchen countertops for residential use and in the early 1950s, one in three newly constructed homes had their countertops installed.

> View Colors & Palettes from the ’50s

In 1956, Formica Corporation was acquired by American Cyanamid. The main reason was to have close a captive buyer for Cyanmid’s melamine. But an anti-trust action by the US Department of Justice forced Formica, operating as a subsidiary, to by a good share of melamine from other manufacturers. Through the years, Cyanmid spent time and money protecting the term “Formica” from becoming generic (competitors had already tried using the name for similar product lines).

In the mid-’80s, a management buyout of Formica led the company to branch out into solid surfacing, flooring and metal laminates. The company changed hands again in 2007, and is now a subsidiary of the Fletcher Building group. It is now commonly called Formica Group.

Sample Formica Laminates

Sample Formica Laminates (Sunrise Collection)

Well-known, but oft confused…

The Formica brand is so well known that people generally refer to all laminated countertops and furniture as “formica”, despite the manufacturer and process. Today, most laminates are made using a similar process, and other companies have recently introduced styles Formica Group has discontinued (like many boomerang designs – though word is these will be re-introduced in 2013). But, back then, Formica products were truly unique.

It’s worth nothing that Formica Corporation (or, Formica Group) has introduced other types of countertop products over the years, including solid surfacing, which isn’t a laminate. It’s more akin to Corian. Formica’s original laminate, along with existing colors and patterns, can be found here.

The brochure sections shown with this post are from the Sunrise collection. The brochure was designed by Raymond Loewy Associates for Formica in 1953. The colors and patterns shown appear to have been the line up through 1960, at which time they were updated to reflect 1960s decorating styles.

Last updated: May 21, 2009
Filed under: Retro Design, Retro Library, Vintage Vending Archives Tagged with: 1950s Decor, laminates, retro colors, vintage catalogs