This restaurant makes use of Tarkett Sommer's LVT (luxury vinyl tile) commercial collection in Walnut and Oak.

While the current economic outlook for the commercial floor covering business may be a topic of debate, the design and color trends taking shape this year are nothing short of incredible!

The recent NeoCon World's Trade Fair in Chicago, the contract furnishings industry's premier trade event, showcased a panoply of the very latest product innovations and trends for commercial interiors.

During the show's designer roundup program, architects were asked what they want to see in today's commercial flooring products. Topping their list were environmentally friendly products, creative designs and trendy products. And, as the product introductions at NeoCon proved, manufacturers have gotten the message.

Mannington Commercial's Visual Jazz line of modular carpet tile.

Sustainability to the fore, flooring products get 'greener'

While the needs of designers and their clients are extremely diverse and highly individualized, "sustainability" was a common demand among them. If you aren't yet familiar with this term, you should be. The industry's increasing awareness of the sustainability issue is yielding a growing crop of "green" products developed to maximize environmental safety, conservation of resources and recycling. Most specifiers expressed an interest in seeing more options in products made with 100 percent recycled materials.

Sustainability extends beyond the product itself. Manufacturers are focused, like never before, on helping designers grasp the impact of life-cycle processes that relate to their products. Suppliers now emphasize that the ways in which a floor covering is installed and maintained can have more impact on air quality than the manufacture of the material itself. For their part, specifiers want to understand not only the image and basic properties of the product, but also how to work with it.

This mentality underpins Mannington's multifaceted approach with its Earth First Collection of commercial flooring products. In producing the Earth First lines, the company has committed to reducing its use of raw materials, measuring the total environmental impact of every manufacturing decision and preventing any related harm to the Earth's ecosystems. By doing so, Mannington aims to produce floor coverings that are both economically and environmentally responsible.

To these ends, vinyl waste from Mannington's sheet vinyl operations are used as feedstock for new vinyl products. Similarly, VCT operations reprocess their own waste. Carpet operations gather all carpet scraps and yarns left over from creels or cut-off beams and send them to the DuPont Reclamation Center for recycling. Carpet "seconds" are donated to local charities, churches, schools, and civic groups. And all vinyl-backed carpets contain a minimum of 25 percent recycled content.

"Metallic," pictured here in bronze, is another pattern from Tarkett Sommer's LTV line.

Colors, special effects and textures

Color is no longer one-dimensional. New technologies in color design, materials and manufacturing have opened an exciting world of color expression for creators and users of color in all industries. Pearlescents, metallics and iridescents combined with textures, layering and colors that change with lighting conditions have given flooring designers the ability to create fresh looks in their products.

Although prevailing sociological, environmental, economic, and political forces are constant influences, contract colors are strongly reflecting trends in fashion and technology. The emerging theme is designers' desire to combine and reconcile fashion with technology in a well-balanced environment.

The tactile quality of flooring design continues to strengthen as color, pattern and texture increasingly tap into a natural esthetic. Look for the warm shades of gold, orange and red -- tempered with pale, neutral grays, pale blue-greens, fashion olive, and pale and deep shades of purple -- to dominate.

That said, it bears noting that styling and color change gradually in the commercial market. This is due to the fact that some soft products are refurbished in commercial environments before other hard goods are changed out. So the styling of products takes a more evolutionary tack. In carpet, innovations in multi-textured, multi-level and multi-colored products and patterns just keep coming.

Lees is positioning its Metafloor II line as a hybrid product that combines the performance characteristics of carpet and hard-surface flooring products.

Metallics and hybrids

Metallic looks are hot in both carpet and hard-surface flooring. Metafloor II expands upon the popular hybrid flooring category that Lees Carpets introduced last year at NeoCon. Metafloor is a carpet and hard-surface hybrid that Lees touts as a product offering the best characteristics of both flooring categories.

The product features mid-shade nylon highlighted on lustrous, pearlescent synthetic backing material. Lees says Metafloor uses half as much nylon as comparable products, which translates to a 50 percent reduction in petroleum consumption, yet has better performance features than typical carpets. In addition, Metafloor's backing includes 50 percent recycled content.

Another product in the metallic category is Amtico's Century tile, a line available in 12- or 18-inch-square formats with beveled edges and a distinctive color palette that coordinates with the company's new Colormetrics Rib and Wave collections. Century has a textured finish, and the depth of the pattern dramatically creates the illusion of even more texture.

Seeking to focus on more exotic looks, Domco Tarkett Commercial launched a line of luxury vinyl tiles in metallic, fossil, pearl, stone, wood, and marble designs. The company placed most of the emphasis on achieving the right texture for each of the designs, making the stone-look products smoother and the pearl looks more textured. Forty selections are available in the new tile collection, and its 16-by-16-inch format was chosen by the company to allow for faster installation and larger visuals. Domco Tarkett is positioning the line for use in for retail stores, healthcare facilities and hospitality centers.

Limestone from Crossville Ceramic's Eco-Cycle line of porcelain tiles.

Old favorites resurface with natural accents

New "retro" products, such as 1960s-era shag carpets, were also a hit at NeoCon. Product designers say it's an extension of the current trend to imitate natural materials. Other options in this vein include poured resin floors, cold-rolled steel, recycled cork flooring with no off-gassing, and translucent sanded Plexiglas and Plynyl.

Also exhibited were vinyl-woven fabrics, with looks ranging from sisal to high-tech metallics, bonded to commercial-grade backings. Another new type of woven vinyl replicated the feel of carpet. These durable vinyl products were developed for high-tech installations where they serve as an industrial, slick and cool alternative to the concrete floors that have been in vogue over recent years.

Cork, another favorite from an earlier era in flooring, continues to reinvent itself. Wicanders' Wood-o-Floor and Cork-o-Floor lines encompass a wide variety of designs for contemporary commercial interiors.

The Wood-o-Floor system has six layers, each of which is designed to provide a unique benefit. The product starts with an integrated insulating cork underlay. The next layer is a counterbalance to the first. Next, a high-density fiberboard layer is added, topped by an insulating cork layer. At the surface of the floor is a thin natural wood layer topped by an ultra-tough vinyl surface developed to enhance wear resistance.

The natural cork core, Wicanders says, makes the floor feel warmer to the touch and quiets the sound of foot traffic. The 0.3 mm layer of cork on the underside of the floor eliminates the need for an underlayment. The product's Corkloc glueless installation system allows the panels to attach to each other like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

Cork-o-Floor works essentially the same way. Both products are available in a variety of colors, patterns and designs.

In the realm of ceramic tile, designers are opting for porcelain tiles that imitate the look of stone and marble. Crossville Ceramics has answered that call.

Crossville's Eco-Cycle line -- made from 95 percent reclaimed, unfired raw material -- has two new looks. Limestone and Pompeii, porcelain tiles designed to maintain the style, texture and stone-like appearance of natural materials, are suited for commercial and residential markets.

With the stone category becoming so important to the tile world, Crossville also introduced a cove base with a through-body stone look. Also introduced was Milestone Mosaics, a product the company describes as the first through-body porcelain stone-look mosaics. These 3-by-3-inch tiles have a subtle, multi-colored slate finish suitable for both indoors and out.

Laminates make commercial inroads

Laminate flooring finally has arrived on the commercial scene - particularly for hospitality settings, such as entries for guest rooms. Wilsonart's new Trac-Loc system for commercial interiors was developed to dramatically reduce installation time and expense while allowing for quick reconfiguration of the floor when new design motifs are required.

The system also allows the entire floors to be taken apart piece-by-piece and reused at another site. The Trac-Loc system utilizes aluminum tracks onto which laminate flooring planks or tiles are placed. The edges of the planks or tiles are scribed with a groove that locks into the aluminum track without need for glue. Wilsonart claims that the system allows approximately 4,000 square feet of product to be installed in 6 to 8 hours.

Also showcased at NeoCon was Mannington Commercial's iCORE laminate flooring, which features an extruded synthetic core that is impervious to moisture and incorporates unique sound-dampening chambers for a quieter sound underfoot. The line features 10 hardwood finishes with textured wood plank designs. Unlike some other laminate floors, iCORE does not require T-mouldings and its Snap&Fit joints are sealed with CoreWeld for fast, easy, watertight, and hygienic installations.

A commercial carpet selection from Pacificrest Mills.

New takes on commercial carpet

Carpet has always been a staple product in the commercial market. Patterned carpets are getting more luxurious and, many would argue, have better durability and pricing than woven goods.

Pacificrest Mills achieved the illusion of shape through complex placement of color in its new Tangier, Marrakech and Casablanca patterns. Abstract forms and geometric shapes come alive with rich patterns and styling in Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, and Vera.

The new Pacificrest carpets feature BioBak, a new performance backing system that makes use of soybeans, a completely renewable natural resource. BioBak incorporates BioBalance polymers, which are manufactured with soybean-based polyol, to replace a component in the chemistry used to make polyurethane carpet backings.

The polymer is safe, non-toxic and environmentally responsible. Performance, appearance of the backing, and anti-bacterial qualities remain comparable to that of polyurethane backings, Pacificrest says. Additionally, as much as 5 percent post-industrial content has been added to the primary backing composition, and a new non-woven secondary backing using 100 percent post-consumer materials, such as recycled soda bottles, is available on Pacificrest's BioBak attached cushion products.

Though I've only touched on a portion of the many product highlights showcased at NeoCon, I hope I've given you a feel for the trends and design innovations currently generating a buzz throughout the commercial flooring market. I cannot remember a time when designers and specifiers had so many flooring options available to them. For the industry's commercial flooring segment, these are exciting times indeed.