It looks like the real thing, but costs a fraction of the price - no wonder fake materials are all the rage, writes Julia Richardson
WHAT A BEAUTIFUL home. What a magnificent studded-copper front door with a gentle patina of age-whispering green. And what a glorious foyer, its floor an expanse of pearly travertine. Beyond that, in what's clearly the family room, the floor is a perfect whitewashed oak, the very picture of casual European chic. And is that the sound of cicadas coming from the balcony?
Can you spot the fake? The door is, in fact, an MDF knock-up, its fine finish done with a couple of bottles of paint-on copper and paint-on patina green. The travertine is a composite-stone lookalike. The timber floorboards are laminate.
And those cicadas? A recording, housed inside a polyresin rock tucked in among the pot plants.
Since the first silk flowers came into bloom, people have been driven by the thought of beating nature. We want crockery that won't chip and kitchen benches that will last a couple of millennia. And we want it cheap. After all, we may change our minds in a few years. That's why we cheat.
Why revamp your old garden wall with sandstone when you can buy a can of paint and spray it on? Technology and design have produced miracles. Fake roses have fake raindrops on their petals. Even plastic fruit is looking tastier. We can buy art by the metre and acrylic chandeliers. Cut down your water use and Sunday slog by installing an acrylic lawn.
And these fakes have achieved something new: social acceptability. Not only are they almost indistinguishable from the real thing, they're often more attractive because of their durability, versatility and cleverness. By far the most significant advances have been made with building materials. Timber and marble compete with trademarked materials with names such as Forbo, Amtico, Corian, CaesarStone and Marblo.
Robert Reid, a product-design expert in Sydney, says these man-made products are far more controllable and consistent than natural materials, which vary in colour, density and texture. They may not always be cheap: in Hong Kong, floor vinyl resembling wood can cost $90 a square foot. However, the variations in natural materials - which are their drawcard - are also the reason they're more laborious to work with and source. Those costs are ultimately passed on to the consumer.
'A marble-lined bathroom was unattainable for most people until recently,' says Reid. 'Now you can buy laminex sheeting that looks very close to marble. In fact, some people would say it's an improvement because laminex doesn't stain as easily, and it doesn't get mouldy and all those other things that could be seen as the drawbacks of the natural material.'
In most cases, so-called composite or reconstituted stones are made from a combination of granules of quartz or granite, marble dust and glass chips mixed with resin. They offer consistency of colour, so laying a floor of uniform tone and texture is easier. And they tend to be denser and, therefore, less prone to staining.
Composite stones also tend to be less brittle than true stone, making it possible for manufacturers to produce thin tiles that are considerably lighter and, therefore, simpler to work with. This allows them to be installed on vertical surfaces such as walls and splashbacks or laid as flooring in places such as upper-storey bathrooms, where weight issues might prohibit the use of the real thing.
Reid says reconstituted stone is the most versatile of the new generation of fakes. 'It can be used architecturally, it can be used for seating, it can be used inside or outside,' he says.
Companies such as CaesarStone and Stone Italiana deal in solid slabs of reconstituted stone. Others offer the material as a surfacing treatment. Granite Transformations claims to be able to deliver a new granite kitchen or bathroom within 48 hours, with a layer of reconstituted stone applied directly over the top of existing kitchen benchtops, vanity tops and even bathroom walls.
Beyond price and convenience, some household fakes are championed because they save natural materials that need protection. Just as in fashion where fake fur is now more acceptable than the real thing, so too have certain man-made cladding materials become more popular for interiors than the timbers they imitate.
Timber laminates, for example, are made by bonding layers of printed paper to a fibreboard core and topping it with a protective coating so strong that it can be laid as flooring.
Ink and paper does the job of representing the colour and grain of different timbers. A laminated version of African hardwood wenge, which is classed as either extinct or endangered in some countries, gives the renovator the wood's dark, striped look, without the need to plunder a rare species.
And the faux products don't stop there. A number of manufacturers are producing cladding that use real but unremarkable timber species to produce veneers in the style of more expensive timbers. Laminex, for example, uses such an approach to produce its Designed Timber Veneer range. Similarly, Australian company Briggs Veneers has added a range called TrueGrain Veneers, made by taking timber from plantations or managed forests, dyeing them, laminating them, then reslicing them to produce a veneer of a given colour and grain.
Man-made products have their shortcomings, too. Reid says that fakes often have a shorter lifespan than natural materials, but that the combination of affordability and impermanence suits the modern renovator.
It's all part of the drive to evolve the home environment. It's a case of one makeover after another, a stylistic itch quickly scratched thanks to a wealth of affordable, appealing household fakes.