Tracking global furniture design and consumption trends and listening to the next generations of interior and product designers (who also happen to represent the next generations of consumers!), it’s very clear that people yearn for a better understanding of the elements that make up their world. Younger buyers are like new parents scrutinizing baby-food ingredients; if they don’t understand what’s inside, they’re not going to feel good about buying it.
Decorative surfaces play a surprisingly large role in creating a positive materials story for designers and consumers. Combined with a composite wood panel core, the resulting panels give us a truly great materials story to tell.


Materials: Plan for Pretty Good Design

As consumers ask more of the materials in wood products, analyst Kenn Busch offers a new take on sustainable manufacture, Busch will address the 2019 Executive Briefing Conference in San Jose next month. 

In mid-2018 a paper titled “Toward a Sustainable Materials System” was published on the website of Science Magazine. Written by Dr. Elsa A. Olivetti of MIT and Dr. Jonathan M. Cullen of Oxford University, the paper introduces a more holistic approach to assessing the true sustainability of a material – a goal that resonates deeply with design students – mainly through what they call the “Five Levers to Minimize Materials Impact.”

The authors are focused mainly on industrial metals, but the Five Levers are a perfect template for how we should be talking about the decorative surfaces you use on your closet and storage projects. While a full exploration of each Lever is beyond the scope of this article we can still scratch the surface enough to frame the story we should be telling to consumers. 

Lever 1: Extended lifetime for materials

The longer a product lasts, the less often you replace it, saving materials. Decorative surfaces like TFL, 3DL, HPL and even decorative foils are more durable than veneers and solid woods, and much easier to maintain and keep clean. And should a component or panel get damaged, it can be replaced with an exact match years later – something that’s impossible to do with veneer.
Further, with decorative laminates and materials matching programs we can sell on design first, then specify it on a material that perfectly fits any application or price point. Designers can truly value engineer projects for longevity and sacrifice neither budget nor design harmony. 

Lever 2: Dematerialization

Lightweight MDF and particleboard use less wood fiber than standard panels. Panels with hollow or honeycomb cores use even less fiber, are easy to handle, and allow integrated lighting or wiring. All of these options will still carry most decorative surfaces. 

Lever 3: Manufacturing efficiency

Composite wood panels and decorative surfaces are a match made in…factories! Some TFL surfaces are applied under the same roof as composite core production. 3D laminating surfaces five of six panel sides in one processing step, saving at least two edgebanding steps. We can add installation efficiency to this part of the formula, especially in closets and storage, and the durability of laminate surfaces further reduces handling damage.

Lever 4: Substitute Low Impact Materials

According to the authors, this Lever points to “substitution (complete or partial) for materials with lower environmental impact. The scientific community has long had a role in developing material substitutes; however, the aim has typically been to improve technical performance or reduce use of toxic or difficult-to-source materials, rather than more comprehensive environmental impact.” 
In the case of decorative surfaces, this isn’t and either/or scenario.
Substitution might be the strongest case we can make for the sustainability of laminates, an angle not previously considered by previous measures of sustainability. Any time we don’t have to harvest a stand of walnut, cherry, oak, rosewood, mahogany, or for that matter zebrawood or bubinga, the longer we’ll have them for musician instruments (where substituting materials rarely produces the same quality) and finer furniture. 
Beneath the surface, using composite wood panels over plywood or solid wood is another way to extend the use of virgin timber. Over 95% of the wood fiber used particleboard and MDF is left over from other furniture and lumber operations, material that would otherwise be landfilled or burned. The dimensional stability of these panels and the fact that they can be engineered for weight, fire, moisture and pest resistance, screw-holding strength and many other properties only adds to their value as the best possible substrate decorative panels. 

Lever 5: Furniture Component Recovery

“Component reuse and repair have long been in decline due to rising product complexity, shortened life cycles, de-emphasis by manufacturers, and societal norms,” say the authors. “Design efforts should focus on current perceived limits in the degree of modularity, what parts can be made accessible for replacement, and consumer uptake.”
In their view, recovery is measured strictly at the end of a product’s life cycle. While it is true that replacing, reusing or repurposing decorative panels is a growing trend, our recovery story must begin with the wood fiber that goes into composite panels. 
This is where we get to introduce a sticky subject for our industry: formaldehyde and indoor air quality. Material Intelligence is currently working on a certified educational presentation on “the f-word” in furniture materials, a subject that is as deep as it is controversial. We invite you to follow progress on this issue on our website, but for now, we can sum up the topic with these four truths:  
  • Formaldehyde is part of our biosphere and food chain. Every living organism produces it because it’s essential for primary metabolic processes. Mammals, fruits and vegetables, trees and plants all off-gas small amounts of formaldehyde. 
  • For decades it’s been in everyday products like pill coatings, makeup and plastic dinnerware, and it forms the basis for the most effective and affordable wood-binding resin system available. 
  • Attempts to create an alternative have thus far required the introduction of highly volatile additives (to replace formaldehyde’s natural pest-, water- and fire-resistant properties), and cost more to produce than the market will pay. 
  • Composite wood panels produced in North America meet the strictest formaldehyde emissions requirements on the planet, and properly laminating these panels can further reduce emissions by 95 percent. 

Kenn Busch  is the founder of Material Intelligence, which organizes educational material exhibits like the Materials Pavilion at NeoCon, creates certified educational content on materials for architects and interior designers, and collaborates with design educators and students to nurture new thinking about materials and materiality.

Busch also covers the major materials and design fairs in Europe for the A&D and manufacturing communities and organizes the TCM North America Decorative Surfaces Conference.

Kenn Busch will deliver a presentation on materials trends during the 2019 Executive Briefing Conference. Learn more at 

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