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The ‘Sensational’ Role of Texture in Surface Design

June 3, 2016

What’s the first thing you do when you see an intriguing wall covering, table top, or upholstered chair?

You touch it, of course. You can’t help it. Your brain needs to know what it feels like.

Knowing how things feel–smooth, soft, warm, sticky, dusty–completes your perception of that item or material. This information, along with the visuals you captured, is catalogued in your mind so you can then say, “Yeah, I know what that is.”

As an architect or designer, yours is a sensorial world. You navigate, explore, and ultimately create through the experienced use of your senses. Given the opportunity (and the budgets), your goal is to create spaces that are, for lack of a better term, sensational.

Texture has a huge impact on our perceptions of the world around us and yet, compared to the other senses, there’s precious little research on this important channel of information.

What we do know is that, in the brain, touch and pressure are interpreted by the forward part of the parietal lobe, situated between the frontal lobe and the occipital lobe. The parietal lobe also manages taste and body awareness.

You may be surprised to know that the touch-and-pressure region is larger than the vision area of the occipital lobe, as well as the speech, concentration, planning, and problem-solving area of the frontal lobe. In fact, the only areas larger than touch-and-pressure are those that control motor control, body awareness (frontal lobe), coordination (cerebellum), and reading and language (the intersection of the parietal, temporal and occipital lobes).

This tells us that touch has obviously been very important in our evolution.
It’s the first sense we acquire ontogenetically—as we’re first developing as organisms—and plays a huge role in putting our world into context for the rest of our lives. As babies, the minute we have any control of our hands we’re grabbing everything we can reach (and eventually putting most of it in our mouths) to fully experience them.

We’re All Hungry For Touch

We’re born with hungry fingers, says Lisa White, head of Lifestyle & Interiors for WGSN, the global trend forecasting agency. She says in retail markets especially, there’s a trend toward tactility and temptation of touch—digitally-dazed consumers are looking for “real.”

“Materials play a big role in getting us away from the tablet or phone screen. We’re really getting tired of slick surfaces; our fingers are hungry for tactility. We used a lot of plywood in an exhibition recently because it’s so refreshing to be in contact with something like that!”

Research published by the National Institutes of Health says that not only do “shoppers more readily understand and form confident impressions about products with which they physically interact,” the materials used in the environment and packaging of a product influence perceptions: “[W]ater seems to taste better from a firm bottle than from a flimsy bottle.”

In other words, “haptically acquired information exerts a rather broad influence over cognition, in ways of which we are probably often unaware.”
Plainly put, touch is a very emotional thing.

What the Heck is ‘Haptics’?

“Haptics,” from the Greek word for touch, is the science of understanding of why you feel what you feel when you touch or hold something, and how those perceptions might be controlled or influenced. The phrase “haptic feedback” is used to describe how we interact with technology: the way your electronic devices let you know you are touching them with minute vibrations, or high-tech cars will vibrate your seat to alert you that you’re about to back into your neighbor’s mailbox.

Haptics as a term in the interior materials world began in Europe and crossed the Atlantic with the laminate flooring boom two decades ago.
When laminate flooring was first introduced in Europe, it offered many advantages over the “natural” materials it was replacing—higher durability, easier to keep clean, quick to install, easier on the environment, lower cost, etc.

But it had one serious disadvantage: Consumers noticed that the texture revealed in the glare of window or overhead lighting was visually out of sync with the printed wood or tile designs.

The standard laminate finish at the time, a pebbled or stippled surface, has a telltale look when the light hits it right. So, manufacturers began to study haptics and experiment with technology that controls textures.

These efforts eventually resonated with the rest of the laminate industry, and now we’re seeing more sophisticated textures appearing on materials destined for commercial and residential furniture and interiors.

The Technology of Texture in Laminates

Texture of some kind is applied to all laminate materials–high-pressure laminate (HPL) and thermally fused laminate (TFL)–most commonly by etched hardened stainless steel plates, or press moulds, up to 5 ft x 10 ft in size. These plates are used in the presses that heat and compress the layers of materials that become laminate. As the laminate materials are heated, they become soft enough to accept the embossed texture of a press mould plate.

HPL consists of a décor layer and several layers of brownish kraft paper fused together under heat and pressure in very large presses. The layers for each sheet are separated by the textured plates, which for HPL are engraved on both sides. The laminate sandwich below the plate faces up, the sandwich above faces down, so one plate applies texture to two sheets of HPL in each pressing cycle. A blank plate is placed on top of the down-facing laminate sandwich, and the paper-textured plate-paper-order repeats. Large HPL presses can produce several sheets of HPL in each cycle.

In TFL, where the décor layer is thermally fused in the factory directly to an MDF or particleboard substrate, panels are pressed one at a time in a through-feed press. Press plates for TFL are only engraved on one side.

These plates not only impart texture, they’re part of the mechanical pressing process, so they’re engineered to exact dimensions and thicknesses, and to have the thermal properties necessary for different pressing processes.


Plate manufacturers must consider four intersecting goals when engineering a textured press mould:

  • Pattern: Is it a woodgrain, tile, leather, for a geometric or fantasy design?
  • Gloss level: Is there a desired, definable gloss level in the designer’s mind?
  • Depth: How deep does the texture need to be to achieve the desired reality for the pattern? Maximum achievable texture depths depend on the type of material and pressing equipment used.
  • Touch: What is the desired haptic response of the surface …weathered wood, smooth, word tile, warm, flat matte?

All of these characteristics must also be compatible with the surface layer of the laminate. Décor sheets are impregnated with a melamine resin, which cures clear in the pressing process and is very hard, and if not handled properly, brittle, at least until laminated into a finished decorative sheet.

Materials destined for higher use applications may have additional layers of impregnated paper over the décor surface, sometimes with wear-resistant additives like aluminum oxide. These additives may change the effect imparted by the mould plates, and will reduce a plate’s useful life.

The detail engraved or etched into press mould plates range from quite large and obvious (woodgrain ticking) to microscopic (smooth gradients from high gloss to super matte). In even the tiniest details manufacturers have control over depth and directionality, creating structures that, even though you can “see” or feel them, seem to move as you change your position around the finished laminate, or move it relative to light sources.

Some laminate manufacturers also use textured release papers to create laminate texture. This method is more common in Europe, where the market includes continuously pressed laminates (CPL), rarely found in North America. CPL is produced in large rolls rather than individual sheets.

Texture Design Over the Years

While “haptics” may be a late 20th-century term, texture design has been part of the decorative surfaces story since the materials were first introduced three quarters of a century ago.

Satin Finish

The first laminates carried a very smooth, satiny finish. Inspired by the finishes used on real wood, satin was a furniture-like finish that was very cleanable and didn’t interfere with the rich colors and patterns of the decorative prints. Unfortunately, this finish was prone to scratching (just like the real furniture finish), and consumers began demanding an option that was more durable.

Matte Finish

The next laminate finished introduced was matte, to offer a warmer, velvety touch and reduce fingerprints. Still very easy to keep clean, but not a huge leap forward in scratch resistance. It also softens the visual details of the décor layer.

Stipple Finish

Enter the ubiquitous “stipple” or CR (crystal) finish. This is the tiny-pebbled texture you still find on many, many laminate surfaces. The goal was to limit the amount of the surface that could be contacted by objects that might damage it. The stipple texture was deeper than previous designs; only a tiny fraction of the actual laminate surface is ever exposed to contact, minimizing potential damage.

The non-directional structure of the stipple finish is resistant to fingerprints and cleans easily.

Early Woodgrains and Tile Textures

In the late 1970s the first woodgrain textures hit the laminate market, and it has never looked back. The pursuit of realistic etched woodgrains began to change perceptions of the material for the better, and different structures and scale were developed to mimic different wood species.
This was also about the time TFL panels began to find their place alongside HPL, capable of carrying the same visuals and textures. TFL would eventually prove to be a cost-effective, efficiently produced alternative for all but the highest-wear applications, where HPL was still the first choice.

Tile and stone designs also began to mature, capable of conveying the distinctive characteristics of a slate or granite surface, and the varying textures and depths of both tile surfaces and grout lines were also applied across a single panel.

Textile, Leather and Fantasy Textures

Hounds tooth, linen, burlap, suede, ostrich skin and other textures added a level of interest not only to printed designs, but solid colors as well. Fantasy geometric patterns play with the light, creating dynamic and discontinuous designs that change as you moved around the surface. Steel grate, step plate, brushed aluminum, corrugated cardboard and small-scale washboard textures are also part of the fantasy texture movement.

Laminate Flooring Raises the Bar

The sheer size and scale of the flooring market inspired laminate producers to up their game, which required the press mould and release paper suppliers to further refine their capabilities. Deeper and more detailed textures to cover sculpted and distressed wood designs and worn stone and tile patterns, combined with the use of much tough wear layers changed the game for texture technology.


Up until now, textures didn’t match the structure of the printed designs. Rather, they worked separately to convey “wood,” or “stone.”
Embossed-in-register (E.i.R) flooring designs, introduced in the mid-1990s, were major leap forward for the entire laminate industry. The idea was to create surface textures that were in perfect register with a printed woodgrain or other design. The visuals and haptics of woodgrain ticks, cathedral arches, and knot details would be in perfect alignment, delivering an unprecedented level of natural realism in an incredibly durable manmade material.

Executing E.i.R. laminates was a herculean challenge. TFL producers were the first to tackle it, because their materials made up the bulk of the laminate flooring market. Printers and press plate producers shared their digital image files to create parallel designs, but quickly found out that papers and panels shift ever so slightly in the press.

After solving that problem, they found that the décor papers tend to expand or shrink when impregnated with melamine resin, and stretch or contract under the heat and pressure of the press, throwing off the matching scale of the designs. Looking at a woodgrain where the texture and pattern are even slightly out of register is very disconcerting; E.i.R. technology is an all-or-nothing endeavor.

Huge investments went into solving those issues, requiring the creation of new types of décor papers, resin systems and pressing technology and procedures. At the same time, the laminate flooring market began to be pummeled by very low-cost producers, negatively impacting broader adoption of the expensive E.i.R. technology by manufacturers.

E.i.R. in TFL panels has since been slowly making its way into laminates for furniture and interiors, and has blossomed with the distressed, barn-board look we’ve seen in the last few years. It has also found its way onto HPL, beginning in 2003 with wall surfaces popular in bathrooms in Scandinavia and Spain.

Matte/Gloss Finishes

As E.i.R. was making its eventual way into showrooms and sample books, a surface design concept originally developed in the 1990s virtually exploded—matte/gloss finishes. It’s quite a simple idea. Areas of matte finish are alternated with areas of gloss finish, to create the impression of a natural surface structure. Long-straight woodgrains, mottled stone surfaces, even organic and geometric patterns on solid colors, have captured the attention of designers and consumers, first in Europe, now across the globe.

Matte/gloss isn’t designed to compete with E.i.R. Rather, it’s another option that gives a strong impression, both in touch and lightplay, of the printed design without pretending to be a literally exact structural match.

New Gloss Technologies

High gloss is still in high demand. Believe it or not, even gloss finishes can be said to have directionality. Press mould suppliers have discovered that by reducing the directionality of the production process they can significantly increase gloss.

Natural Woodgrain Finishes

Raw, distressed, recovered woods are found on furniture, floors and walls in commercial and residential markets. To execute these textures realistically requires the lowest possible level of gloss. Some of these materials feel so raw you could swear the samples leave sawdust on your fingertips.

The Future of Texture

The combination of incredibly high-definition printing technology and matte/gloss and E.i.R. textures have helped to separate laminates from their pedestrian past. The line between real and imitation has been blurring, so much so that even furniture experts can be fooled. At the same time, design specifiers are finding value in the positives of realistic laminates—durability, design consistency, and access to rare and unavailable species without requiring their harvest.

On a macro level, most human beings are hungry for new experiences, visiting new places, tasting new foods, hearing new sounds, breathing in new smells, and touching new textures. We’re not only looking to saturate our senses…sometimes we’re just starving to be surprised by something new and unexpected.

The evolving technology of texture on laminates adds a little spice to our world on a micro level. The unexpected realism of a woodgrain or a topography that adds dimension to a solid color or subtle pattern trigger an unquantifiable emotional response from everyone who interacts with that surface.

It’s the small differences like this that will make your work delightful, even sensational.

The texture revolution began with laminate flooring, which was largely made with thermally fused melamine panels, or TFL. Although widely used in commercial and residential markets, TFL is still not widely understood.

TFL, originally known as melamine board, is a European creation, developed over a quarter century ago by large composite panel producers looking for a way to produce decorative panels for furniture and interiors more efficiently than what was the state of the art at the time—HPL glued to particleboard or MDF.

These producers took the uppermost decorative and durability layers of an HPL sheet, thermally fused them directly to the surface of the composite wood substrate, and marketed them as “melamine boards”–melamine being the resin system that gives toughness and clarity to the surface layer.

But the decors chosen for this first generation of TFL were pretty dull–white, almond and grey. Black was introduced later, with much fanfare. This is why for first few decades TFL surfaces were used only for cabinet interiors, closet organizers, student furniture, and other applications where price point was paramount.

This is why many in the design community could be heard to say, “Melamine boards? They’re great for cabinet interiors, but that’s about it.”
In the 1990s, TFL design began to emerge from the shadows. A handful of North American producers began to purchase decor papers from HPL suppliers, so designers could value engineer projects without compromising design harmony–the HPL on the high-wear work surface was now an exact match to the TFL casework.

Such design matching programs are now the norm, with all major TFL producers publishing cross-reference guides for matching and complementary designs in HPL, 3DL (three dimensional laminates), edge treatments, and other materials. This “one-stop-shopping” access to matching designs has played an important role in the growing use of TFL.


TFL is a two-component material–surface and core. The core is always composite wood, either particleboard or MDF, and the surface is a resin-saturated printed decor paper. For very high-wear applications (like flooring), an additional durability overlay may be used.

The secret to TFL’s appeal for responsible design lies in how these two elements are brought together. The resin systems in both the composite wood core and the decor paper overlay flow into each other and crosslink, or “fuse,” under heat and pressure in a high-tech press. This creates a permanent bond without the need for adhesives; the paper literally becomes part of the board, and will never delaminate.

Decor papers deliver the visuals:

HPL, TFL, and the lighter weight paper-based foils all laminates begin with a design concept, interpreted and executed by décor printers, who print on papers engineered to accept water-based inks used in the giant rotogravure printing presses and absorbing the reactive resins required in the pressing stage without degrading the print.

Design inspiration for laminates come from an infinite number of places, and with today’s technology, the printed realizations of materials found in nature, industry, architecture, or even in the imagination, are stunningly vibrant. Special pearlescent inks can recreate the reflective flare of a piece of finely finished wood as you turn it in your hands.

Rotogravure printing—laying down portions of a design in stages with up to four engraved cylinders, each carrying a different color water-based ink–is the same process used for making fine art prints. Laser engraving of the cylinders enables greater print definition and detail in even the subtlest designs, as well as sharper contrasts and smoother tonal gradients for greater dimensionality and realism.

Printers work with artists to source the raw materials (original art, veneer, stone), which are photographed or scanned and digitally manipulated for scale and pattern repeat. These designs may be further tweaked for specific colorways, so the same visual structures may be offered in very different tones, creating a catalog of literally hundreds of designs from a single supplier.

Composite panels deliver the backbone:

Particleboard and MDF panels are produced are produced by mixing the wood particles or fibers with resin, paraffin wax and other additives, forming the panel, consolidating and curing it under pressure and heat, and then sanding and sawing to desired dimensions.

The composite panels are highly stable, dimensionally consistent, and can be engineered for special performance properties, like moisture and fire resistance, specific indoor air quality goals, density/screw-holding power, lighter weight and varying thicknesses.

TFL is the most efficiently manufactured decorative panel. The process of thermally fusing the resin-impregnated decorative paper to a composite panel core takes less time than producing a sheet of HPL. In most cases TFL is pressed in the same facility that produces the composite panel, eliminating costly transportation, handling and potential for damage.

This means that the decorative panel leaves the factory with decorative surfaces on both faces, ready to be made into finished products or installed as decorative millwork. (HPL, on the other hand, must be glued to the panel in an extra production step, adding time and cost.) Have your fabricator add an edge treatment and it’s ready for office desks, bistro tables, retail fixtures, night stands, you name it.

Better Than Carbon Neutral

Thanks to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards, composite panel producers have stepped up and modified their products accordingly. Panels produced in North America now meet, and usually exceed, these newly established indoor air quality (IAQ) goals.

Producers have also invested in further research into the true impact of their materials and their operations. Though a recent lifecycle impact analysis (LCIA), they discovered something extraordinary—that their materials are actually “better than climate neutral.”

One major factor in this finding has more to do with traditional makeup of the panels than recent modifications.

Particleboard, unsurprisingly, is made up of small wood particles. In MDF, the wood chips are further refined down to cellulosic fibers, producing a panel with a smooth surface and homogenous core. Together they use tons of wood fiber left behind by other manufacturing processes from lumber mills, plywood plants and furniture fabrication—wood fiber that would otherwise be burned or landfilled—as well as recycled post-consumer urban wood.

A recent life cycle impact analysis (LCIA) conducted by College of Forestry, Wood Science and Engineering at Oregon State University, found:

Composite wood panels make incredibly efficient use of resources:

  •   They consist of mostly recycled or recovered wood fiber;
    •   Some suppliers offer up to 100% non-virgin fiber content
  •    Particleboard, over 90%;
  •    MDF, over 80%.
  •     7% of the fiber is used as fuel in the manufacturing process.
  •    Less than 3% is landfilled.

 Wood is one of the planet’s most easily renewable resources:

  • Composite wood panels are primarily produced from wood resources that are sustainable, renewable, recycled from pre-consumer waste, and can be made from post-consumer waste.
  •  U.S. forests are sustainable in that they generate more wood annually than are harvested; in 2006 there was 72% more net growth than total removals.
  • To ensure wood is from specific sustainable sources, producers can request certification by such third party groups as FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council), SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative), ATFS (American Tree Farm System) and CSA (Canadian Standards Association).

Composite panels are “better than carbon neutral” because wood is actually a carbon sink.

  •  Wood stores carbon as it grows.
  •  50% of wood’s chemical structure is absorbed carbon, which is not released back into the atmosphere until it burns or decomposes.
  •  The carbon sink properties of the wood in composite panels more than offset its carbon footprint, including manufacture and transportation.
  •  Their net carbon footprint, therefore, is negative, actually  offsetting some of the CO2 in the atmosphere.
  •  The longer a wood-based decorative panel last in an application, the longer that carbon is sequestered.

The new textures coming online are the final frontier in TFL design, creating a material that delivers a unique combination of benefits for furniture and interior design:

TFL’s aesthetic versatility makes it possible to achieve any visual effect, including rare and endangered materials, without depleting those natural resources.

  • Extensive design-matching programs give you hundreds of “one-stop shopping” options; you don’t have to request samples from several suppliers and hope they’ll look good together.
  • The finished decorative panels are very durable, a longer installed life and easier maintenance than veneers and other materials.
  • It’s highly efficient to manufacture and requires less processing,transportation, energy and chemicals than other materials.
  • The traditional way TFL’s composite panel cores are produced is inherently very resource efficient; more recent advances have improved the product’s environmental footprint to the point that it’s been deemed “better than carbon neutral.”

Most TFL designs are woodgrains, because wood is our most ubiquitous building material. We love it, at home, in the office, in public spaces, everywhere. But natural woods aren’t always the most responsible choice, especially in areas where they won’t be able to stand up to the wear and abuse.

With this latest generation of textures, decorative TFL panels are, more than ever before, able to provide the warmth of wood with better design consistency, higher performance and lower costs.

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