Well, it's not really a secret. Done well, laminates are an important and too-easily-overlooked option when it comes to covering surfaces. At least they're easily overlooked in homes. Every time you walk into a Starbuck's, or a Panera, or a Gap or any other store or chain restaurant you can think of, you're surrounded by them.
Laminate was invented by two engineers at the Westinghouse Corporation in 1912. Back then, the mineral mica was used as an electric insulator. Daniel O'Connor and Herbert Faber set out to invent a substitute material for mica. They figured out a way to impregnate layers of kraft paper with melamine resins and then cure it under heat and pressure. Since they'd invented a replacement for mica, they called their invention Formica. O'Connor and Herbert left Westinghouse and formed the Formica Company in 1913. Their product found widespread use as a counter surface and they pretty much owned the surfaces world until DuPont rolled Corian in 1967.
I can't remember the last time I put a laminate counter in someone's home, but it's not anything I'd reject out of hand. Laminate has a place in both homes and in commercial spaces, but that place is best served when laminates are allowed to be laminates. The secret to their versatility is on how they're made. Laminates are still made from layers of kraft paper, but the top layer can be any image someone can imagine. If someone can reproduce a pattern, it can end up as a sheet of laminate.
I've used it for wall cladding, for ceiling tiles, as cabinet inserts, you name it. But the kinds of laminate patterns that interest me aren't hanging on a chip rack at Lowe's. My interest in laminate surfaces is around three years old. Three years ago, a rep walked into my office with a sample book from Arpa, an Italian laminate manufacturer.
In that sample book were some of the wildest patterns I'd ever seen. I swear, I went out and found reasons to use some of their stuff. Here's some of what I saw in that pattern book. Careful though, you'll never be the same after you see these.
Black and White