Peter York: Enough of tasteful granite and steel. I want to eat my bacon buttie off plastic

As Formica Inc fights for survival, a lament for its Fifties' dream topping


Formica, the shiny, plastic surface that went from café cool to shabby naff and back to cool again, has slipped into bankruptcy. I'll miss it.

The Formica Years was my working title for a never-made television series I dreamt up in 1988. It was about the golden age of plastics. Of course it wasn't an Open University chemistry series; it was vastly more pretentious than that. Those post-war plastics with their evocative names – Formica, Orlon, Dralon, Acrilan – were great metaphors for mass optimism, the democratisation of leisure and luxury.

In the Fifties and Sixties people were mad for plastics. You can see why. Just think about the Thirties and Forties realities. And then look at any of the big ad-spreads in British or American magazines of the period sponsored by Du Pont, ICI or any of the major multi-national chemical companies. They propose a whole new world – in interiors, clothes, kitchens or cars, the future's bright, the future's orange, scarlet, turquoise or, most amazing of all, brilliant white.

People were proud of their perfect new acrylic false teeth then too – they had replaced painful rotting stumps. Plastics seem to have reversed the horrors of history, mortality and class at a stroke. There was nothing they couldn't kiss better.

And don't go running away with the idea that plastics were just for deluded proles either, glass beads for cannon fodder. With a bit of presentation, clever PR and design, they got everywhere. (What baby-boomer will ever forget the career advice Dustin Hoffman's character Benjamin gets in The Graduate: "Just one word for you, young man ... plastics"?)

And in every baby-boomer heart there's a Formica-clad kitchen. It's a focus for memories, the surface you ate the fried eggs and macaroni cheese off at home. It's the surface of first-generation cafés and coffee bars – milky coffee in glass cups, bacon sandwiches, and banana fritters fried in engine oil. Some of those cafés – the survivors are celebrated on the website 'Classic cafés – London's Greatest Formica cafés' ( – had the most exciting Formica patterns possible, the kind that were censored in middle-class houses.

But you'll have spotted that the language I'm just slipping into is nostalgia – even bordering on its self-conscious clever-clogs cousin retro-kitsch. I'm utterly sincere about the Formica years but I know that, in the real world, it's slipping away.

Commercially Formica – The Formica Corp of Warren, New Jersey – seems to be on its last legs. This month they've filed for bankruptcy protection after years of losses. People don't want plastics any more, they don't like the word, don't like the idea. They want authentic, inconvenient and wildly expensive materials such as stone, marble and stainless steel; ways to show off their subtle tastes and marvellous money.

Over the last six months I've been thinking about Formica, about how to find the most lurid designs possible to redeem my tasteful granite and oak. The thought that the world's Formica reserves will be running down has thrown me. But I'm sure we'll see a vigorous black market develop.

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