Neil Sookee is design director at Laminex Australia Group, which is currently celebrating its 80th anniversary. He was originally a qualified industrial chemist and has worked with Formica Australia, Laminex Australia and Formica Group for more than three decades.
Architecture & Design spoke to Sookee about why he’s intrigued by the chameleon-like nature of laminate, colour trends and why designers should be careful about specifying dark surfaces in high-wear areas.
How did you come to be involved in the melamine and veneer laminate industry? What sparked your interest?
I started with Formica Australia as an industrial chemist and gained experience in the chemistry and industrial manufacture of prefinished boards, solid surfacing and high pressure laminate. At the time, I did not have a lot of knowledge about laminate materials and I was intrigued about the chameleon-like nature of this ubiquitous material. I was interested in why certain colours were difficult to produce and why they did not always translate easily between different processes.
This led to investigating the nature of papers and pigments used as raw materials. It was unavoidable to then become fascinated in how certain colours changed over time, local and international style preferences, evolving technology and the pure subject of colour – the physics, history, cultural significance, colour systems, colour language and even to the human response to colour, whether psychological or physiological.
What are your personal style and design preferences?
I’m interested in eclectic combinations of colours, textures and objects – things that represent my life’s journey. Overall, personal space is about individual style, warmth and comfort to me. Not so spartan as to be soulless, but neither filled with clutter and frou-frou. And to be completely honest, I don’t mind a bit of kitsch for quirkiness.
What colours are popular at the moment? What colours do you think will be popular next year?
This depends on what application or market segment you look at. For commercial and residential interiors, we seem to be bathed in a sea of neutrality – whites and tinted whites, grey and browns. In part this is because of economy and the need for longevity in a material. In part it is also about an increasing interest in pure and natural materials and their intrinsic colour. The palette of these materials like stone, porcelain and raw textiles is essentially a neutral palette.
For certain segments like education and retail fitout, the world is a little more colourful and to do with stimulation and special effect. Mainstream palettes will remain essentially neutral, serving as a backdrop for the occasional splash of colour. Blues will turn cooler after seasons of red and yellow-based blues and pure blues will go ever deeper towards deepest indigo.
Grey will influence materials as well. Either as a backdrop to other materials or mixed with them – we expect to see an increasing influence of grey on the brown palette and on woodgrains.
What colours would you be happy to never see in an interior again?
Every colour has its place when used in the right way. There is no such thing as a bad colour really – just bad use of colour. But I would be pleased if I never saw a Granny Smith benchtop with burnt orange cupboards in a kitchen again.
What common mistakes do you think designers make when it comes to choosing interior materials?
Ah, this for me is essentially about materials that are fit for purpose. It’s not so much a designer’s mistake but an opportunity for a better understanding about the physicality of materials.
Dark colours on high wear surfaces, for example, pop up as an occasional problem. In the laminate world, dark colours are no less robust than lighter colours, but they can show superficial wear-and-tear more readily than lighter colours. This really applies, regardless of what the material is.
Think about automotive paint finishes as another example. Black looks great when new, but cleaning and polishing marks will be more evident than on white.
What is your favourite non-laminate interior product?
I’d have to say textile because of the assortment and choice available for every interior, whether commercial or residential. There is a range of colours, tactility and the ability to layer to create the effect of depth combined with lightness. I also like the possibilities ranging from modern, high-tech looks to simple hand-woven forms referencing times long ago.
Who is your favourite designer?
This is a tough question! There are so many wonderful designers who have created amazing works, it’s hard to single someone out. I do have a particular liking for the works of Patricia Urquiola, whom I have been following for many years. I think she has a deep understanding of the materials with which she works, whether it is metal, textile or ceramics – and a great understanding of colour.
Urquiola seems always to be ‘of the time’. One of my recent favourites is the beautiful Dechirer tiles that she created for Mutina – the look of traditional artisanal motifs translated into a ceramic material.