Kitchn Love Letters

A Love Letter to Formica, the Underdog of Countertops

published Mar 3, 2023
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Credit: Ivan Gener/Stocksy

Before the late 1980s arrival of the round wood table, still a fixture in my parents’ suburban kitchen, meals were eaten at an avocado-hued Formica dinette set that complemented the equally moody green refrigerator, dishwasher, and oven. My parents were thrilled when those tired appliances made way for new, gleaming versions, now backdropped by an uplifting yet mainstream yellow. As a budding maximalist and nostalgist, however, I was sad to see it all vanish, along with the swathes of dark dining room paneling.

Maybe it’s because some of my childhood unfolded in this time capsule that I’ve always been drawn in by vivid colors and retro decor. From merely an aesthetic perspective, the sight of Formica plunges me back into a past I experienced in snippets, one of homes transformed by furniture plucked from Sears catalogs and well-worn diner counters where the infinite slabs of pie placed atop them were the afternoon’s sole priority.

A soaring love for minimalist open kitchens awash in earthy textures and neutral tones relegated Formica to vintage kitsch status over the years, but more than a century later, the brand continues to evolve. Laminates are making a comeback, and I couldn’t be more pleased that once again they are (affordably) invigorating modern-day kitchens — including my own.

What is Formica?

Before it started mingling with chrome in diners and brightening the daily cooking rituals of post-war housewives, Formica was a decidedly unglamorous material that traces its roots all the way back to 1913. That’s when engineer Daniel J. O’Conor, after filing for a patent to make resin-coated fabric insulators at Westinghouse Electric as an alternative to mica, established the Formica Products Company with fellow engineer Herbert A. Faber and banker John G. Tomlin. They turned out motor components and radios with this laminate, which is now produced from Kraft paper and a decorative sheet pressed together under high heat.

By 1927, Formica (although the powerhouse brand is synonymous with the entire laminate category, there are other heavyweights on the market now, too, like Wilsonart) started veering away from industrial uses to make a joyful splash in interiors. An additional layer of metal foil in 1931 also rendered Formica cigarette-proof, so it was an especially alluring surface for tables in soda fountain and nightclub settings. Then the collection of patterns in dazzling colorways, like the iconic Skylark from 1950, rolled in. Later dubbed Boomerang, this collision of swirls that bears the imprint of industrial designer Brooks Stevens and the motifs that followed were intertwined with the revitalization of mid-century modern kitchens.  

What’s so great about Formica?

Depending on your personal version of a dream kitchen, granite, marble, quartz, butcher block, and even sleek concrete are all beautiful, tactile options for countertops. But for those who covet both high style (on a budget), and a low-maintenance lifestyle, Formica is an attractive and durable solution.

From an efficiency perspective, Formica is astonishingly high-performance. It can withstand heat up to 275 degrees without the need for a trivet, and is non-porous and stain-resistant. During the Formica heyday, there were often complaints about cracks, but now these laminate products are bolstered with EliteForm technology that helps them stand up against everyday wear and tear, and scratches. Made with FSC-certified wood and recycled paper, Formica, which can be installed via low-VOC adhesives (read: environmentally friendly), also has enticing sustainable properties. 

Today, Formica’s range of high-quality designs is so vast and realistic that from afar, one can’t even tell that it’s laminate instead of the natural stone or wood grain it’s trying to replicate. Flat edges and dark seams were once tell-tale signs that laminate was in place, but now there are several countertop edges available that mimic luxe materials and classic profiles. Formica’s 180fx Laminate series, for example, revolves around surfaces in pared-back shades of beige, gray, brown, and white that flaunt convincing vein and grain details that call to mind slabs of Calacatta marble, wide-planked walnut, and crisp watercolor steel. If, like me, it’s a glossy red you clamor for, Formica still produces a few old-school bold varieties.

Interior designers are also amplifying the versatility of Formica. In 2019, HGTV star Leanne Ford joined forces with Formica Corporation to launch a capsule collection of 14 pieces that she encouraged embracing beyond the kitchen, too, such as on headboards and home office shelving. Likewise, late last year, designers Noz Nozawa, Dan Mazzarini, and Vanessa Deleo were invited by the brand to reinterpret the curvilinear geometries and upholstered banquettes of yore in renderings for Formica-laden diners of the future. 

How do you clean Formica?

Unlike granite countertops, for example, which require the application of sealer at least once a year, Formica couldn’t be easier to maintain. All you need to wipe down messes is a microfiber cloth dampened with warm water (seams can potentially warp when penetrated by water, so avoid flooding), and a little dish soap, white vinegar, or mild all-purpose kitchen cleaner. Then simply use another clean, soft cloth to dry off all surfaces.