CONSERVATION OF FORMICA
BY THIJS JANSSEN
The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) has a set of plywood furniture with a white Formica finish by the Dutch architect, designer and artist Bruno Mertens (1914 – 2010). Mertens designed a architect table, a cabinet and a rollable table for his own home in the late 1960’s; both the tables are in the collection of the RCE. The construction of the tables is in good condition, but the Formica is damaged. It has partially delaminated, cracked and parts are missing. The conservation of the set is still in progress: the finish of the rollable table is consolidated and a series of experiments resulted in a method for the reconstruction of the missing parts. The conservation of the rollable table will be completed this summer.
The Formica finish on the rollable table is mainly damaged at the drawer fronts and the bottom of the legs. The damage is caused by the properties of the material and use. Formica is made of a top layer of melamin-formaldehyde on a substrate of phenol-formaldehyde impregnated kraft paper. The kraft paper gives some elasticity to the brittle top layer, but is also watersensitive. Changes in relative humidity have therefore caused tensions in the material. Moreover, the rubber glue used to adhere the Formica to the substrate has become brittle over time. In accordance with the curator it was decided to consolidate the finish and reconstruct the missing parts.
For the reconstruction of the missing parts it was important to create a white film that does not yellow over time and can be handled easily. Paraloid B72, a copolymer acrylate, was chosen because it does not yellow over time. A mixture of white pigments was added to match the colour of the original Formica. Then the film was cast under vacuum to prevent inclusion of air bubbles with the addition of active charcoal to absorb the solvent vapours, allowing the film to dry. After a few weeks the film could be sanded with Micromesh to match the degree of gloss of the Formica. Currently experiments are done to see if an alcohol saturated atmosphere can make the film mouldable, therefore enabling to make precise infills.
Bruno Mertens has worked with a wide range of materials and techniques, but most of it did not exceed the experimental fase. In the archives of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) various correspondences show companies not willing to take his designs into production. The set for his own home was made by Ben Kraan, who calls the set ‘experimental’. At the end of the 1970’s Mertens let all his material ambitions behind him and started a religious commune; no more experiments with polyurethane foam, glassfibre reïnforced polyester and aluminium. The archive showes design from the perspective of the ones that did not make it into the books.