Faus' FausFloor line is offered with the company's FastDesign technology, which makes patterns such as herringbone possible in a laminate floor.
Manufacturers are fine-tuning their laminate flooring products for 2006, rather than reinventing the wheel. Unlike last year, when hand-scraped and exotic looks were first introduced seemingly en masse into the marketplace, this year presented nothing as sweeping. Companies are building on the innovations of last year, adding bells and whistles to their products through advances in printing and manufacturing technologies.

Taking a page from hardwood trends, laminates are becoming darker and richer. Hand-scraped and exotic species are dominating the upper-end looks, and wide, 5-inch-and-up planks are starting to be favored over traditional narrow-width looks.

Faus is one of the companies working on blurring the line between hardwood and laminate looks. The laminate flooring maker recently launched FastDesign technology, available in the company's high-end FausFloor line. FastDesign is unique in that it offers designs that have not been successfully achieved in laminate before now, according to Juan Flores, Faus president. Patterns include herringbones, diamonds, large and small spirals, and combinations of those looks.

"With FastDesign technology, we are making it easier for people to install what are often very difficult designs," Flores says. "We're changing the very approach to laminate design, by making complex patterns easier to achieve."

Kaindl recently launched its Kaindl One brand in the U.S. The product is sold under "Better," "Best" and "Luxury" categories.
On the other side of the coin, Tarkett is moving away from hardwood realism with one of its new commercial patterns, called Night Flower. Part of the Laminart collection, the floor features a bright lavender and red floral design, with reflecting chips laid into the surface of the laminate. The floor resembles nothing so much as a designer vinyl floor. The idea behind Night Flower, according to Tarkett spokeswoman Sophie Dentan, is to show that current designs have only begun to scratch the surface of what laminate can do.

"In the laminate business, you have to be quick or you'll be dead," Dentan says. "There's a lot of competition, and everyone's trying to make the most realistic wood and stone visuals. With Night Flower, we wanted to show how deep a design can go and still be a laminate floor."

Dave Ryan, a spokesperson for laminate flooring maker Moderna by BHK, says he agrees that competition in the category can be fierce, especially as manufacturing technology becomes cheaper and more companies step into the fray. To help differentiate itself and to highlight the company's global reach, BHK of America recently changed its name to Moderna.

"Moderna is a well-known company in Europe and South America," Ryan says. "BHK felt that changing the name to Moderna in the U.S. would better represent the globalization of the product."

Wilsonart has launched 28 new designs for 2006, including the distressed Portland Butternut in the Red Label line.
One way for companies to stake their claims in the laminate segment is to specifically court the high-end of the market, says Steve Mone, president of Kaindl USA. "That is one of the best ways to differentiate your brand from the rest," he notes.

His company just recently launched the Kaindl One brand in the U.S. With its "When good is not enough" tagline, the product is positioned as a superior quality, high-end laminate. This message is echoed right down to the Kaindl One displays. Traditionally, laminate displays list entry-level products as "Good," intermediate products as "Better" and high-end entries as "Best." Kaindl forgoes the "Good" category entirely, instead calling its products "Better," "Best" and "Luxury."

"We're trying to show that this brand is something special, that it's not just for anyone," Mone says.

Kronotex is also expanding its reach in the high-end market. The company is planning a spring launch of a new high-end laminate line. The line will showcase 38 products - predominately 8- to 12-mil wood looks, along with some tiles, slates and travertines.

Says Keith Wiethe, marketing manager for Kronotex, "The new line will include products of different lengths and widths, along with hand-scraped and exotic offerings. The market is geared toward upper-end looks, and these high-end products will capitalize on that."

Manufacturing technologies have not only equipped the laminate category with an arsenal of high-end looks, but have also made the flooring itself more durable. Wilsonart Flooring, for example, offers two types of laminate flooringsuitable for high traffic areas. The company's Classic line uses a laminate manufactured at 1,400 pounds per square inch, topped with a 17-mil wearlayer. Its high-end Estate Plus and Red Label products also use a high-pressure laminate, topped with a beefy 45-mil wearlayer. The company does not offer any direct-pressure laminates, which are made using much lower pressures.

"We've completely eliminated direct-pressure laminates from our flooring," says Curt Thompson, Wilsonart's national sales manager. "We feel that high-pressure laminates are much more durable and feature better design clarity."

To help celebrate the company's 10th anniversary, Wilsonart has introduced 28 designs for 2006, the largest launch in the company's history. New products include hand-scraped looks, wide-width planks and several new pecans and hickories.

While some manufacturers are differentiating themselves with huge product launches, others are branching out in different ways. Quick-Step launched several new additions to its existing flooring collections this year, but what left perhaps the greatest impression was the company's new multifunctional profile, featuring Incizo technology. The laminate flooring profile is manufactured as one solid piece, which can be scored using a special cutter to create either an end molding, a T-molding or a reducer. A strip of sandpaper is attached to the cutter to file down any sharp edges.

Tim Tipton, Quick-Step's marketing manager, says that new technologies such as Incizo are helping to keep the laminate segment strong. "Registered embossing used to be a premium in laminate flooring, and now it's a standard," Tipton notes. "Every six months, our technology is outdated. We're already looking ahead to January and February of next year." Without a doubt, other laminate makers are already making plans for next year, as well. And that may lead to more innovations in the years ahead.

MeadWestvaco goes high-end with Lustralite decorative papers

Laminate flooring is more or less a sandwich. It comprises several layers, including a high-density core for strength, kraft papers for added stability and insulation, and decorative paper impregnated with the laminate's décor. If the core is the laminate's heart, the decorative paper is laminate's soul. It's what gives the product its character and its tone.

MeadWestvaco Specialty Papers, working with designer Grace Jeffers, has developed a new line of decorative papers which Jeffers says she believes "give a truly unprecedented look to the laminate category." Rather than using a print layer, the new Lustralite line uses natural materials in the surface of the paper, resulting in completely random patterns with no repeats.

"The look that we're achieving cannot be printed and that's because the scale is too fine, the metallic content is too high, and the look is 100 percent random," Jeffers says.

The Lustralite papers are available in four categories: Naturals, Recycled, Metallics and Special Effects. The Naturals papers incorporate agricultural waste products such as banana fiber, coconut husk and flax leavings for a distinctive earthy visual.

Recycled uses waste paper, and offers a look "like linoleum in a larger scale," Jeffers notes.

Metallics papers usa actual metal fragments, rather than metallic dust-while Special Effects presents iridescent hues through the use of such materials as abalone shell chips.

Jeffers notes that the new Lustralite decorative papers are designed for use in high-end laminate floors. "With these papers, we're taking the high-end products and translating them into a new material," she says.