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The Observer - Formica's back in fashion
:: The hard-wearing laminate banished in the 1980s is staging a revival, says Ros Weaver

After 90 years Formica, alongside its cousin Linoleum, is staging a comeback. I've always loved the stuff, even when it was deeply unfashionable. It reminds me of cafés on long teenage Saturday afternoons, fish and chips and bright, homely kitchens. The name is intriguing too. The word formica means 'ant' in Italian. But the Americans Herbert Faber and Daniel O'Conor, who developed the laminating technique in 1913, weren't entomologists. They were developing a substitute for mica, an expensive insulating material. A bit like calling Perspex 'Forglass'.

By the late 1920s, the Formica Corporation was producing a lithographed laminate it might have called Forwood, a precursor of the pretend wood flooring now more commonly associated with the term 'laminate'. In 1931, it patented the kind of colourful surfacing material that we have all, at some time, rested our elbows on. It was sleek, colourful and practically indestructible. Over the next three decades our murky homes emerged blinking into bright clean modernity.

In the 1980s, decorative laminates were consigned to naffdom and banished from the home, along with all the plastic paraphernalia of the 1960s and 70s. But Formica isn't plastic. It's made of paper. Layers of paper, impregnated with resin and fused at high temperature. Although there are other companies producing similar laminates, the brand name Formica, like Hoover, has become a generic term. It has kept a low profile over the past two decades, quietly bedecking shop counters and fast-food outlets the world over. But now it's marching proudly back into our homes and isn't content to stay in the kitchen.

Technological advances mean that 21st century laminates offer an almost limitless choice of designs and finishes. The Formica Corporation alone gives you a choice of more than 10,000 designs. The traditional high-pressure laminate is a 0.8mm thick sheet that can be stuck to MDF, chipboard or plywood with contact adhesive. For the best results it needs to be bonded by specialist companies which use special presses.

T2 makes retro-shaped notice boards (£35-£55) in muted 1950s colours with ceramic magnets sunk into the surface and stainless steel studs to grip your party invitations.

Furniture manufacturer James Burleigh makes a big made-to-measure Metre Colour table, with a Formica top in a choice of 100 different colours (£995 up to 2.4 metres long and £1,172 up to 3 metres). It's ideal for offices or kitchens full of children and is available from Purves & Purves. 'It's a great material,' says James. 'It's mostly used for toilet doors and laboratory fittings, but it's ideal for furniture.'

The Formica UK subsidiary in North Shields boasts a fabrication support unit that can give you technical help and advice on surfacing just about anything. Last year it helped design student Dan Ziglam to produce a chair in compact grade Formica using a thermo-forming technique. That's bending to you and me. 'They've got loads of technical knowledge and they didn't mind sharing it,' he says. He's now designer in residence at Northumbria University, but has yet to find a firm willing to make his chair.

Other Formica laminates include ColorCore, from £30 per square metre, sheets of solid colour that won't show scratches and can even be engraved. And DecoMetal, from £21.50-£96.00 per square metre, has a metal foil surface, ideal for futuristic kitchen splashbacks. Then there's Blackboard, £150 per square metre. It is metallic, so you can use magnets on it as well as letting the kids loose with chalk.

But by far the most exciting thing happening in the world of laminates is digital printing. In 2000, James Bullen designed the Bullen Pijja range for Formica Ltd using digital print technology. The range creates marvellous 3D effects. 'Padded Cell' looks like the kind of quilted vinyl you get on tacky headboards.

In Glasgow, interior designer Jan Milne has been working with digitally printed laminates for four years. She has her own range of laminates with stunning flower and fruit designs. She uses it on elegant aluminium chairs (from £190) and tables (from £350).

For DIY designers, London company Filer + Cox has come up with Scin, Surfaces Covering Interiors. It's a range of hard and soft surfacing materials which can be used on almost all interior surfaces. Formica is one of the materials they've chosen. 'Surfaces are just not given enough prominence,' says Annabelle Filer, 'We're trying to give people inspiration.' Prices start at £53.17 a sheet.

I'm going to be adventurous and design my own hallway panelling. Formica Impress will blow up your favourite snapshot and print it on 3 x 1.17 metre sheets. Prices start at £250.

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