If you think fake finishes only go back to Z-brick and Formica, think again. Architectural fakery has been around as long as architecture itself. When the Egyptians began building with stone instead of plant stalks, they nevertheless carved their walls to look like reed matting and shaped their columns to mimic bundled papyrus. Likewise, many of the details found on classical Greek temples are traditional wooden details merely copied in stone. And even after those fun-loving Romans started making walls out of concrete, they contrived to embed special slabs of fired clay in them so they’d look more like the brick walls they were used to.
While these ancient cultures usually imitated older materials for the sake of tradition, economics soon became a more compelling force. Craftsmen of the Middle Ages were already using plaster as a cheap stand-in for carved stone, and gossamer-thin gilding to masquerade as gold. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Italians invented an imitation marble consisting of gypsum mixed with glue that was good enough to earn its own name--scagliola, or “little chip”.
The Victorians were even bigger fans of fakery. Many Victorian “marble” mantelpieces, for example, aren’t even scagliola, but merely cleverly-painted wood. Another favorite fake of the period was Lincrusta, an embossed linoleum-like wall covering that was originally varnished in brown tones to resemble tooled leather. Likewise, stamped metal ceilings--that ornate staple of Victorian store interiors--were simply a cheaper, faster, and lighter substitute for cast plaster.
The revivalist architecture of the 1920s used a whole host of cheaper stand-ins for the opulent originals. Among these was cast stone, a fine cement that was cast in molds, which could imitate carved stone detail with stunning fidelity. When more deeply modeled forms were required, architects turned to terra cotta, which could be glazed and fired to produce a spot-on imitation of granite and other stone finishes. Building interiors of the 1920s also made spectacular use of painting techniques like graining and stencilling to mimic expensive woods and inlaid detail. Even the humble bungalow homes of the era used graining to make cheap cabinets look like fine hardwood.
After World War II, architectural fakery relied more on advanced technology than artistry. Various newfangled exterior finishes, from asbestos-cement shingles to aluminum, vinyl, and pressboard siding, sought to displace solid wood--though only with middling success. Inside postwar homes, a new technique of laminating plastic sheets with photographic reproductions of wood or marble (as well as a number of weird patterns not found in nature) gave us materials like Formica and Micarta. Later on came Corian and its successors, all of which sought to give a more convincing imitation of marble and other types of stone.
Among today’s most popular fakes are flooring materials such as Pergo (a variation on plastic laminates), as well as yet another generation of granite and marble imitations such as Silastone. And of course, vinyl windows, with their hokey two-dimensional muntins, do their darndest to look like the pricey wooden kind.
Ironically, some of the materials once used as cheap substitutes are now themselves being flattered by imitation: For instance, various plastics are now commonly used to mimic cast stone or cast plaster details. And no doubt it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing imitations of “genuine” plastic ornament.