“This housewife is a ‘FORMICA’ kitchen enthusiast – but aren’t we all? Won’t you feel life is good when you own a kitchen where all the surfaces are jewel-bright-clean-at-a-wipe ‘FORMICA’ Laminated Plastic?”
– Formica Advertisement, 1953, published in Ideal Home
Jean Baudrillard wrote that modern materials like concrete or nylon are no less true, authentic, or real than stone or cotton, and that with the passage of time the “nobility of materials” would dissipate, modifying “our sensorial relationships with materials.”1 Plastic, whether Melamine, Nylon, or Formica, may have become ubiquitous substances of our material lives, but I would argue that, at least in the case of Formica, it has yet to overcome its second-class status as a cheap, fake, or in our current age, highly unsustainable.
Though now sometimes associated in a cool, retro way with midcentury modern design, the postwar boom years, and genuine Americana (think of the counter at a diner with a slice of pie and cup of coffee), Formica remains the scourge of contemporary home buyers, for example, looking instead for glistening, authentic granite or quartz countertops. A symbol of 1950s America due in part to its company’s aggressive and successful advertising campaigns directed at housewives, Formica was actually produced for the first time in 1913. Patented by Herbert A. Faber and Daniel J. O’Connor, two entrepreneurial engineers at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, the laminate substance did not take off until the postwar period, when its ability to mimic the appearance of another material became its strongest selling point.2 As Jeffrey L. Meikle writes, however, Formica retains “an element of sincerity…. The dark line of it phenolic core appears strong and clear at every edge or corner. No matter how convincing the complex butcher-block patterning of a Formica laminate-surfaced coffee table, those dark brown lines expose the illusion and invite us to admire its cleverness.”3
Formica’s trademark dark line became invisible in 1982 when the company launched its Color Core technology, but in the early 1960s when Richard Artschwager first began using the material, this detail became a significant element of the work, breaking up the illusion of surface imitation. Artschwager, however, did not think of the material as overly clever. He stated that it was one of “the great ugly materials, the horror of the age…. He continued:
“I didn’t invent Formica, nor did I make it my own. There was already this huge choice of imagery just waiting. I have written once that wood grain seemed to have passed through and left a ghost…. I was getting tired of all that beautiful wood ; instead, I wanted to create a picture of wood that at the same time was an object.4
In selecting Formica, Artschwager incorporated one of the quintessential substances of the time into his fine art practice, similar to Andy Warhol’s concurrent embrace of the screen print or Dan Flavin’s utilization of the fluorescent tube lightbulb. A few other artists, including Scott Burton, Nancy Dwyer, and Douglas Huebler, also used Formica as artistic material in the 1960s, but Artschwager’s evocation of image making in the above quote is significant. Unlike other artists, Artschwager used Formica to emphasize the surface of the object. He made something akin, as odd as it sounds, to a two-dimensional sculpture; a thing concerned almost exclusively with its facade, not its underlying structure. We have no way of knowing what lies beneath the smooth, imitated pink texture of his Table, nor does it really matter. They both may look formally minimal in their shared geometric simplicity, but the contrast to Andre’s Steel-Aluminum Plain (1969) in this regard is pronounced. For Andre, it is crucial that you stand on the two different metals and feel their material properties; the very distinctions that Formica, in its imitation of other substances denies. No matter how close it could visually come to marble or a tablecloth, it will never be able to replicate the physicality of those things. A Formica countertop when encountered will never express the coolness or the irregularities of a natural stone; in short, it will always feel and be plastic.
Artschwager plays with and maximizes the effect of Formica’s inherent liminality, its ability to be an optical illusion made physical. The Italian designer Ezio Manzini states that with invention of composite materials in the postwar period, the surface of things ceased to correspond to the object it covers, gaining in the process a degree of autonomy. Manzini suggests that the skin becomes a dynamic ‘osmotic membrane,’ which mediates between the exterior and interior; an “interface between two environments whose role involves the exchange of energy and information between the two.”5
Artschwager’s Formica sculptures in their own way, are true to the material that forms them, but in speaking its truth, alters the ability to reconcile what they are and what they purport to be. Furniture that is not furniture; sculpture that is not sculpture; painting that is not painting. Like the shiny, colorful Formica kitchens advertised in ladies’ magazines in the postwar period, these are objects that provide pleasure through the fantasy of their surfaces. Don’t they make you feel good?!
1 Jean Baudrillard, "Natural Wood, Cultural Wood," in The Plastics Age: From Bakelite to Beanbags and Beyond, ed. Penny Sparke (New York: Overlook Press, 1984), 112. 2 R. Craig Miller, "Introduction," in Formica and Design: From the Counter Top to High Art, ed. Susan Grant Lewin (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 14. 3 Jeffrey L. Meikle, "Plastics," in Formica and Design: From the Counter Top to High Art, ed. Susan Grant Lewin (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 55. 4 Richard Artschwager, as quoted in Jan McDevitt, "The Object: Still Life. Interviews with New Object Makers. Richard Artschwager and Claes Oldenburg on Craftsmanship, Art and Function." Craft Horizons 25 (September-October 1965): 30. 5 Ezio Manzini, "Objects and Their Skin," in The Plastics Age: From Bakelite to Beanbags and Beyond, ed. Penny Sparke (New York: Overlook Press, 1984), 116.