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Formica: Coming to a table near you?

Formica laminate. That staple of '50s kitchen counter tops is being embraced by young architects as a green alternative to stone.

It's one of those brand names that becomes generic, like Kleenex, or Jello.

I'm talking about Formica.

The word probably brings to mind the suburban kitchens and baths of the 1950s, every surface bathed in turquoise, pink or that classic boomerang pattern. And it wasn't just America. Home decorators around the world went wild for Formica. Check out this 1958 French ad.

C'est Formica!

But what is Formica exactly? Jay Bolus at the company McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry says it belongs to a group of products called HPL, or high pressure laminates.

"It's paper and a bunch of different resins smooshed together at high temperature and really really high pressure," he says.

Since it's paper, the top layer can be printed in any color or design, a cheap way to get a designer look. Mitch Quint is president of Formica North America. He notes the product has always been very thin and strong.

"And because of that it ends up being in locations for a significant periods of time -- 15, 20 years," he says.

Which is why by the 1970s and '80s, Formica had a bit of a bad rap. The smooth surfaces had been chipped or rubbed down to show the brown paper under the pretty colors. By the 1990s, expensive stone countertops became a status symbol, paving over passe Formica.

But last year, Los Angeles designer Scott Lander chose white Formica for the kitchen in an award-winning project.

"Most people were asking, 'What is this surface?' Most people didn't even know it was Formica," Lander says.

It's also getting more popular with budget remodelers. And, green builders. The company has switched to non-toxic resins, and uses recycled paper. Just one more way Formica is clawing back a little more counter space.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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