Staying relevant in a tough and ever-changing market is no easy feat, but decorative laminate manufacturer Formica has proven that it is possible with the right people and right processes.

The brand recently celebrated its 100th birthday, marking its success in creating a product that has launched a whole new category within the design industry.

Infolink spoke with Formica’s Group Design Director, Neil Sookee, to find out more about the trend and colour forecasting process at Formica, as well as how the latest Colour Range fits in with wider design trends.

Tell us about yourself, and your role at Formica.

Title: Group Design Director, Fletcher Building Laminates & Panels

Roles and responsibilities:

  • To engage with the local design community to better understand emerging product needs in our category
  • To articulate our design strategy to the public and the design community in order to grow understanding of the rationale behind what we do
  • To represent Australia and New Zealand on the Formica Global Design Team
Number of years with Laminex: With Formica Australia, Laminex Australia and Formica Group, around 33 years experience in different roles

Previous experience: R&D Chemist, Architectural Representative, Product Manager, Marketing Manager, Australian Design Manager, European and Asian Design Director.

Formica has been around for 100 years. How has it managed to stay so relevant in such a fast changing market?

I think that the caretakers of the Formica brand have always listened. Despite the many technical and design innovations to which Formica can lay claim, there has never been any complacency.

The success of the brand over 100 years is founded on relevance and context: our materials are rarely used in isolation, so we design with an eye to broad movements in surfacing materials, textiles, paints, metals, veneers – all of those things with which our products must work.

Of course, the very nature of Formica products is their chameleon-like nature, changing at need and with the times, as if they are being reinvented to instill new interest and appeal.

Forecasting trends and colours would be an important part of your role. What key factors do you look out for when deciding what decors should be part of Formica’s latest ranges?

We try to take a holistic view of what is going on around us so that our ‘world view’ informs us. For example, we recently published our Trend Vision, which seeks to identify the mega-trends that are shaping the way we live, then distilling these down to principle style themes that we believe will be of short- to medium-term importance. Right now, we are talking a lot about the three style themes of Purity, Nutopia and Clash.

We then overlay pragmatic considerations such as existing sales statistics, competitor activity and market segment focus to identify opportunities for improving the relevance of our collection.

Once we determine prototype designs, we validate these with local specifiers before making our ultimate range decisions.

Formica has introduced 29 new decors in its updated Colour Range. What are the nine that form part of the Commercial Colour Range, and how long did the entire process take?

The nine new colours for commercial application include solids – Malibu, Baikal and Sarum Grey; Woodgrains – Ash Woodline, Cinnamon Ash, and Charred Woodline; Optical solids - Finesse Sand, Finesse Stone, plus metallic-look Brushed Nickel.

We also introduced a new product to the portfolio – magnetic dry-erase metallic laminates in Glossy White and Matt Black.

The nine were chosen precisely as per the process already described. The process for deciding the updated range is a little indeterminate, since it is ongoing. But, in terms of the formal process where we thought about what we wanted to do through analysis, selection and market validation, this was of the order of six months.

What are the key features and benefits of the updated range? How do they fit into wider design trends?

A key focus for us in developing the new collection was to update the colour range in a way that would encourage repeat use – nothing spectacular and no heroic colours clamouring for attention, simply well-designed solid colours and patterns in modern neutrals that will work harmoniously with other colours and materials in a space. The key proposition therefore is usability.

In terms of wider design trends I think there are three key messages:

  • The obvious influence of grey, essential in any modern palette;
  • Stripey, linear designs that are not too perfect; and
  • Non-imitative designs like the new Strand patterns and Finesse optical solids.
Which colours or patterns from the 29 are most suitable for residential applications? What about commercial applications?

There is an ever-increasing blurring of distinction between residential and commercial markets. We have also tried to introduce new designs that would have broad multi-segment appeal, so there is some overlap. However we could say:

For residential: The Finestone patterns, our take on reconstituted stone materials; Strand, and original pattern unique to Formica; Other new benchtop decors: White and Grey Kashmir, Jamocha Granite, Venetian Gold Granite and Metropolitan Concrete. The two new blackened woods: Cuban Wood and Brushwood.

For commercial: Finesse patterns, a new optical solid; Malibu, Baikal and Sarum Grey, three light warm greys; Brushed Nickel, Cinnamon Ash and the Woodline patterns.

Which is your personal favourite laminate from the updated range?

My personal favourite from the updated range is the Strand pattern. This came out of global research a little while back when we formed the notion of ‘meandering line’ as a graphic inspiration for pattern.

This is an honest pattern – a pure synthetic that does not try to imitate anything. It is low contrast, so does not fight for attention. In wood-like tones it can reference wood and remind us of it, but clearly is not copying. It can be used on benchtops and on doors and panels. Because of the movement in the design it does not require military precision during fabrication, and so is user-friendly. And it just looks good in commercial and residential applications.