In the 1950s, laminate was an esteemed household material. Prized for its durability and decorative qualities, it was generally applied only on tabletops and counters. By the time Ralph Wilson Sr., the founder of Wilsonart, designed and built his house in 1959, the company was looking for creative new ways to use laminate in the home.
Wilson built his house to serve three purposes: First, the house was his private residence where he lived from 1959 until his death in 1972. Second, it served as a model home for his then-fledgling laminate company. Finally, the house served as a test-lab of sorts, where he could personally test the quality and durability of the products his company manufactured.
The Ralph Sr. and Sunny Wilson House represents a hybrid of ranch and modern-style home architecture. The open interiors and U-shaped plan reflect the influence of the California Case Study House - a series of architectural experiments from the early 1940s and 1950s that were offered as better solutions for residential living.
The interiors of the Wilson House feature extensive use of decorative laminates in innovative applications, most of which had never before been seen in the home. The kitchen countertops reveal some of the earliest work in post-forming, a process where laminate is bent and wrapped to form continuous curves from the top to the side edge of the counter. Other applications include laminate clad built-in cabinetry in the kitchen, laundry, and bathrooms—even in the shower! The house also boasts some of the earliest undermount sinks in laminate tops – considered an innovation even today. While these types of installations are commonplace now, they were virtually unheard of in the late 1950s.
The Wilson House was featured in Ralph Wilson Plastics Company advertisements, as well as in the editorial pages of the nation's top trade magazines. It represented an ideal of design for affordable and fashionable residential housing and had a profound influence on future uses of laminate. Today, the house stands as one of the best residential examples of the mid-century modern style in the state of Texas.
Wilsonart purchased The Wilson House from Ralph Wilson's widow in 1997, and has since restored it to its original appearance in 1959. A striking commentary on the durability of laminate, nearly all of the original laminate remains in excellent condition, preserving this moment in interior design history—a moment which has, in large part, been deleted by over-zealous remodeling.
In July 1998, the Wilson House was awarded National Landmark status by the Texas Historical Commission and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a significant architectural structure. On the national level, it was recognized for extraordinary interior design, which had an impact on the design of subsequent structures, and the employment of cutting edge laminate technology. Also, on a local level, it was cited as an excellent example of a ranch style house. Perhaps most noteworthy, The Wilson House is the first 20th Century vernacular structure less than 50 years old (at the time of nomination) to have ever been nominated for these prestigious accolades.
Two important motivators for preserving the house surpass even its architectural significance in the collective eyes of the folks at Wilsonart. Since its founding more than 50 years ago, Wilsonart has maintained a strong culture of corporate pride. No single structure or artifact better symbolizes this corporate pride. The Wilson House is testament to the founding principles that remain intact even today - innovation, design excellence, and a commitment to the continuous development of interior surfacing products. In light of this, the house also provides a repository for Wilsonart history. Two of the bedrooms are being converted to archival filing, not only for corporate history, but also for documentation of the surfacing industry since 1956.
Wilsonart has always made great laminate. Our standard collection of readily available solid colors and patterns, originally known as Design Group I™, was developed in the 1980s and has become an industry standard for laminate design direction.
The Wilson House is open for tours Monday through Friday by appointment. Additionally, the house is also used for corporate entertaining - the main purpose for which it was originally built.
Design historian Grace Jeffers takes us inside Ralph Wilson, Sr.’s home to give a history lesson on the significance of The Wilson House.