7012 Amber Maple

image of Formica
Richard Artschwager, Piano, melamine and wood, 1964

Richard Artschwager, Piano, melamine and wood, 1964

7012 is the product name for a warm-toned image of maple wood printed and fused to layers of craft paper coated with resin. I am unreasonably obsessed with this product. I order 5″×7″ physical samples. This tinkered version of reality, the idealized image of Amber Maple, standardized and flattened, operates in my mind as a metaphor of a fragile construction of reality so pervasive in North America that it extends into our built environments.

It began at a Home Depot in Dartmouth, NS. I was poking around the hardware aisle when I came around a corner and was dazzled by the small spectacle before my eyes. The Formica laminate sample display swept me off my feet. They were so beautiful, these little printed gems, a selection of fifty 2″×3″ samples, mimicking stone and wood in subtle tones. They were printed well enough and lovely in texture. I spent a half-hour marvelling over their glossy surfaces and left the store with pockets packed with each sample. The display awakened me to this surfacing material of the built world. Why had I never before considered that our countertops and floors are printed? Thus began my ongoing fascination with Formica, one resulting in a personal inventory of samples and a studio visit ending with the warning “be careful not to be seduced by it.” In the world of printed matter, why had I never noted that it is printed matter; printed wood, printed stone, printed concrete?

Laminate products offer fragile constructions of built space. Formica assures the consumer durability is inherent to the product; on Formica’s website homepage alone, the word “durable” appears four times. However, while holding my samples of 7012 Amber Maple that arrive in the mail, I do not trust this assertion of durability. This thing is an image composed of ink and paper, which despite Formica’s insistence otherwise, I argue is a very fragile construction. Printed images are liable to aging, and worse yet, immediately reveal their thinness when damaged. If the spaces we inhabit are composed of images of materials in the world, does it only take a puncture to erode the sense of stability?

Richard Artschwager, Description of Table, melamine and wood, 1964

Richard Artschwager, Description of Table, melamine and wood, 1964

While laminate is not as robust as the stone it imitates, I do not wish to linger on its material brittleness. Instead, I think it is productive to look at the everyday fantasy the printed image brings into our interior spaces and the intrinsic instability of spaces founded on imitation. I’m not the first to consider that printed laminate produces a 100% scale trompe l’oeil.

The sculptor Richard Artschwager made images of 3D objects in 3D using Formica. He created mediated versions of furniture, pianos, and books that resemble the objects they copy while playing off the image plane. The space under the table is rendered as a black or grey panel to suggest negative space. In Description of Table, the tablecloth flatly drapes over the simulated wood grain of the legs, entirely levelling the multiple materials and surfaces of a table. The conflation of surfaces illustrates that Formica is an image plane. The Description of Table is so close to being a table that it could function as one, illuminating that the Formica surfaced cabinets are so close to wood that they successfully function as wood. This process of equivalence is the foundation of simulacra.

Simulacra and mediation are not new ideas to printmakers and print enthusiasts. But the extent to which our lives are mediated that even our cabinets are printed is worth pause. While it’s no revelation to most of us that we live in a time where images and media have exceeded the idea of an original, looking closely at Formica can be a case study in what conditions lead to our current visual paradigm. Images are cheaper than marble. Baudrillard was damning of this process of simulation, believing the simulacrum destroys the original: “simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ (Baudrillard, 5). Inhabiting the “post-truth” era, I find his language exhausting, and honestly, as a digital native, antiquated. I do not think the simulacra destroys the original, rather it mediates and destabilizes. Thus far I have explicitly avoided words such as “truth” because I fear it’s a trap to call simulated materials a lie.

Fragile is a richer word as it acknowledges that fantasy and aspiration are real conditions of North American culture, but these conditions are delicate and depend on a shared cultural preference to create images of wealth rather than live with their material cheapness. Like leaving the gold standard, I feel moving towards simulated materials has opened our culture to Neoliberal unfettered growth. This a worrying state, because I fear it becomes too comfortable for us to print images of 7012 Amber Maple rather than wonder if there is enough healthy maple to harvest. Instead, an image of maple, printed on pulp and bound with resin, asserts that scarcity is no matter. This is a fragile and dangerous ecosystem that depends on simulacra and magical thinking, where middle- class aspirations lead to a proliferation of wasteful printed realities. It is fragile because, eventually, we must realize there is an ecological price to making vast swathes of imitation maple. It is fragile because we have permitted images to supersede material, thus mediating our material understanding of the world. As a printmaker, I adore the idea that I can inhabit a printed room, but I suspect it’s unstable to base our lived spaces on facades, ones which can be removed and thrown away when no longer in style. Perhaps printed laminate is the print ephemera of surfacing materials. If this is the case, I believe there is a correlation between the material qualities of Formica and psychological and cultural values of North America. Architecture is a physical manifestation of our values, and Formica’s presence in our spaces demonstrates we are truly an image-based culture founded on waste and unstable likenesses of wealth.