North Shields was once known for shipbuilding, fishing and coal-mining. Yet one of its most enduring industrial products is something more surprising.
The Tyneside town is one of just 11 places in the world that makes Formica, the versatile laminate and mainstay of 1950s kitchen furniture, which marks its 100th anniversary on Friday.
With another of the plants in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, the northeast of England can claim to be the manufacturing capital for a material that is enjoying a revival in global popularity.
Starting off as an unglamorous industrial product, the past century has seen Formica evolve into a symbol of sleek modernity and, more recently, a statement of retro style.
Best known for providing the first seamless, wipe-clean kitchen surfaces, Formica originated from a patent application filed in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 1 1913.
The North Shields factory opened in 1948 and the Formica company – a unit of New Zealand-based Fletcher Building – today has its European headquarters nearby, within North Tyneside.
Initially used in car engine components as an insulating material, it replaced the mineral mica – hence the name Formica. More than 60 per cent paper, the remainder comprises layers of cured resin; a structure that permits the use of diverse colours, inventive patterns and textures.
Its first consumer use was in the 1920s as radio casing for the US Navy and Signal Corps – in black or brown only. In 1927 the company began lithographing decorative images on to the sheets of laminate; by the 1930s artists and architects began specifying it for modernist and art deco interiors. Today it is widely used in the retail world: the changing rooms of Topshop’s Oxford Street flagship in London and department store make-up counter displays for the Estée Lauder cosmetics brand are two examples.
Architects have recently shown renewed interest in the material, with potential uses in new public buildings, schools, laboratories, hotels, museums and offices worldwide. A new outdoor panel range features at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and 2008 saw a limited edition collection of sculptural furniture by architects, including Zaha Hadid and Thom Mayne.
The company says although poor market conditions have affected sales in some European countries, they are growing in Russia, the Middle East, Africa and China.
Nevertheless, the brand has proved as durable as the product, and Formica’s strong association with the 1950s is serving it well amid today’s mood of austerity.
“We look to the 1950s as this ideal of happiness, safety, comfort and security,” explains Joanna Feeley, founder and director of Trend Bible, a style consultancy,
In the past 10 years 1950s items have become sought after. Self-styled “Queen of Formica” Stella Blunt, who sells “mid-century” furniture and accessories at her shop in Hackney, east London, has various 1950s Formica tables on sale.
“They’re funky,” she says. “I’ve been in my shop six years and I’ve always bought them because I love them.”