Wall Panels in the Age of Plastics

More on Marlite and other early laminates for walls.
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More on Marlite and other early laminates for walls.
wall laminate

The Texas home of Wilsonart founder Ralph Wilson, built in 1959, is a shrine to wall laminates in many colors.

We think of plastic laminates as a dated countertop material now, but before patterns like Starburst and Boomerang went big in the 1950s, the real push for plastic was for its use on walls, tables, wainscots, even doors and baseboards.

Far cheaper than ceramic tile yet akin in appearance to rare and costly structural glass, plastic-laminate wall panels appeared at the dawn of the age of plastics, well before the material permeated every aspect of modern life.

Under brand names that include Marlite (marlite.com), Micarta (by Westinghouse), and most memorably Formica (formica.com), the first decorative laminate sheet goods were available by 1927. They were made from layers of kraft paper soaked in synthetic resins and then cured under heat and pressure. By the early 1930s, decorative thermoplastics were used as finishes in such high-end settings as Radio City Music Hall in New York.

An advertisement for Marlite wall paneling from 1939.

An advertisement for Marlite wall paneling from 1939.

In kitchens and baths, plastic-laminate sheet goods were installed with chrome or steel connectors between panels, adding to the streamlined Art Deco appeal. Nearly 50 colors, from lemon yellow to nearly black, and to wood lookalikes including zebra wood and figured ribbon mahogany, appear in a Formica catalog from 1938.

As the Art Deco survivor shown on the previous pages indicates, these wall panels were quite the rage in kitchens and bathrooms in the 1930s and ’40s. Colors often paralleled the blacks, whites, pastels, and jewel tones of opaque structural glass popping up on commercial façades of the same era under brand names like Vitrolite and Carrara.

melamine tea cups

An advertisement for Marlite wall paneling from 1939.

These early laminates could warp, discolor, and absorb water, however. They were greatly improved by the addition of melamine in 1938, the year of the colorful Formica catalog. Melamine resins not only produced a laminate much more resistant to abrasion, heat, and moisture, but also opened up a new world of color and pattern. The products were easy to cut, fit, and install, so homeowners could do their own makeovers.

Still used as a surface finish, melamine is most famously a constituent of Melmac, the highly collectable dinnerware of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. (For more on this delightful and durable dishware, sold under many brand names, see melmaccentral.com.)

By 1948, the first polyester laminates came into wide use. Made with low pressure, these laminates were flexible and bendable, perfect for curving applications. They’re still seen everywhere from commercial diners to retro Fifties kitchens.