Sponsored by ATI Decorative Laminates
walls, wainscoting, ceilings, backsplashes,
furniture, display fixtures, and other interior
Although 3D laminates aren’t new to the
contract interiors market, fresh patterns and
textures combined with customization options
now available deliver an unprecedented level
of aesthetic appeal and design advantages to
market. When it’s time to give a project a three-dimensional look, 3D laminates offer the flexibility,
performance, and aesthetic appeal needed to
take design beyond the surface.
Before delving into the numerous features, applications, and benefits of 3D
surfacing products, it’s instructive to begin with a brief history of the evolution
of laminates, as well as a basic explanation of the process of manufacturing
vacuum-formed 3DLs. As design historian Grace Jeffers has noted1, “It
surprises many people to learn that laminate, the material commonly found
on kitchen counter tops, has been around for more than 100 years.” In the
architectural and interior design trades, Jeffers explained that laminates are
categorized as a “surfacing material” or a non-essential overlay, a material
applied to achieve an aesthetic effect or to serve a durable function.
Initially, however, laminates didn’t have the aesthetic appeal when they
were first introduced in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, who impregnated fibrous
sheets with phenol-formaldehyde resin2. The first uses of decorative laminates
in the 1920s were used in radio cabinets, and the dark color of the resin
limited the product to dark colors because it colored dyes didn’t translate
well and tended to rub off3.
Decorative laminates were made by impregnating large sheets of kraft
paper with phenolic resin, which was then partially cured and cut to sheet
lengths after coming out of the oven, which made the dry sheets some-
what stiff and brittle4. A decorative sheet (solid colored, wood-grained, or
patterned), impregnated with melamine resin and cut to length in a similar
manner to the phenolic core sheets, was laid on a polished stainless steel
press plate5. Then several plies or layers of kraft paper impregnated with a
phenolic resin were placed on top of the decorative layer, yielding products
of varying thickness depending upon end-use requirements6. Next, a sheet of
release paper that would not bond to the phenolic resin was placed on top of
the phenolic kraft and following this a mirror image build-up of the assembly
already on the press plate. Finally, another polished stainless steel press plate
was placed on top of the pack assembly7.
Beginning in 1927, decorative laminated sheets using clear urea- and thiourea-formaldehyde were used for countertops, tables, bars, splash backs, interior
paneling, doors, store fronts, and ornamental designs8. Because these resins
were colorless, lighter-colored laminates, which were resistant to sunlight,
were made possible; however, urea-formaldehyde resins tended to warp,
absorbed water, and were less durable and more expensive than phenol resins9.
Following the invention of a new kind of resin, melamine, in 1938, laminate
could be engineered with a top layer of colored paper10. Melamine bakes,
or “flows,” to create a hard, clear, topcoat finish, which bonds and protects
the “decorative” paper layer beneath11. “This important invention made the
brightly colored laminates we associate with kitchen counter tops of the
1950s possible—and opened up a brand new world of design possibilities
for American kitchens and bathrooms,” noted Jeffers.
The old lamination process was costly and labor-intensive, and required
extensive handling of the individual sheets. Those sheets were extremely
brittle and easily damaged. Breaking off even a small corner rendered the
sheet unusable (and not repairable or recyclable).
Modern 3D laminate manufacturing, on the other hand, provides con-
sistent quality, custom patterns, and branded color matching for the design
community at smaller minimums and lower costs than historically available.
At the most basic level, specifiers can select from a wide variety of available
three-dimensional patterns to choose from and then pair them with one of
many finish options to create a unique panel or tile product. The extensive
assortment of standard design and color combinations enables designers to
meet both traditional and contemporary design requirements. Metal, wood
grain, and patina looks can be easily achieved with striking realism but at a
lower cost without sacrificing the three-dimensional look and feel of natural
products. Additionally, some manufacturers offer the ability to produce
custom sheets with logos and other brand-recognizable features built directly
into the panels or tiles (more on customization options later on).
The manufacturing process begins with a raw thermoplastic material like
PVC, PETG, HIPS, or ABS that provides the “base” of the finished product.
The base material may also come in sheeted form for certain through-color
finishes. Decorative foils in roll form provide the finish that gives the panel
or tile product the desired metallic, patina, wood grain, or solid color looks.
Special coatings can be added to the decorative foils for an invisible layer
of protection (for patina finishes, for example), whereas protective masking
is added when a coating might affect the finish. Solid through-color finishes
3D wall panels come in a
variety of sizes, unique textures, and finishes that add
dimension, as well as durability,
to virtually any environment.