High-End Surfacing: A Look Toward the Future
By Russ Lee
One only has to look at the influence European design and engineering are exerting on solid surface today to get a glimpse of what the future holds for the next few years: clean, flowing lines; geometric patterns accented with bold colors, then quieted with cool pastels; thermo-formed shapes that combine the functionality of one-piece construction with the elegance of esoteric design.
Much of that innovation can be found in the bathroom. The American Academy in Rome, for example, uses pastel shades of Corian for countertops, shower stalls, cabinet doors and even the light fixtures. The overall effect preserves the integrity of the remodeled structure while adding a relaxing and maintenance-free environment.
Here in the U.S., tremendous strides are being made with inlay technology. Where there were once only pinstripes and sandwich edges, with the occasional monochromatic floral design thrown in, there are now three-dimensional, multi-colored works of art. CNC routers, laser cutters and other precision machines have become accessible to even the smallest shops, while specialists are now making their services available on a drop-ship basis to any fabricator in the country.
Inlay artists are currently using two basic methods when creating their designs. The more traditional method is machining and fitting solid pieces of material of different colors into the countertop deck to create a mosaic-like illustration. This method is very similar to that found in the wood industry, where differing species of wood are precisely cut and carefully inlaid into the surface.
The second method, which has become increasingly popular among fabricators due to recent advances in chemistry technology, is the poured, or liquid inlay. The artist first begins by carving the design into the countertop surface. This is typically accomplished with a hand-held router, Dremel tool, CNC router or laser engraver. Air-evacuated, colored liquid resin is then poured into the cavity and allowed to set up. Depending on the intricacy of the design, additional engravings are made, which are then filled with the appropriate colored liquid resin. When all of the colors have been added and cured properly, the design is sanded flush with the countertop deck.
This method has also been improved upon through the use of air-brushing pigmented resin into the inlay cavity, thereby creating a soft transition between colors. In addition, other artists are engraving relief patterns into the countertop surface, coloring them with very fine, multi-colored layers of liquid resin, and then covering the entire design with a thick coat of clear resin. Depending on the skill of the artist in carving and blending colors, the result is a three-dimensional work of art that can be very life-like in appearance.
Because solid surface sections can be seamed together invisibly,
it's now possible for a fabricator in Des Moines to order an
intricate, three-dimensional inlay from an artist in Abilene and
include it in his countertop installation. All of this happens
relatively quickly and at favorable cost because both fabricator
and artist are free to concentrate on their areas of specialty to
create a single, unified work of art.
Companies like DuPont, Wilsonart International and Formica are investing tremendous resources into forecasting color and design trends, and then backing that effort up with a continuously evolving color palette. Other manufacturers, such as Avonite and Karadon, are experimenting with new formulations that promise to someday meld elements of the natural and composite worlds into one unified surfacing material.
At the same time, solid surface is re-defining itself as something more than just a countertop material for the kitchen or bath. Architectural molding, wall cladding, flooring and acoustical sheathing are now being used in home theaters, entryways and entertainment centers. Outside the house, barbecues, lawn furniture and hot tubs are perfect projects for maintenance-free, water-loving solid surface in a variety of colors and textures.
All of this demonstrates that the industry is keeping pace with customer needs and wants by anticipating design and preference trends, while opening up new and useful product applications. Most design professionals would agree that the age of the highly customized, millennial living environment is upon us. Luckily for us, we have such a versatile product as solid surface at our disposal.