Pictured here is one of Fausfloor’s newest additions to the Really Exotic line, called Coffee Bean. Laminate flooring that features dark colors and exotic visuals has grown increasingly popular among consumers, manufacturers say.

New from Mannington, Adirondack laminate flooring is designed to look like real quartzite. The product uses the company’s NatureForm Optix process and embossed-in-register texturing for greater realism.

On the surface, the laminate category may seem fairly unchanged. Consumers are still snapping up wide-width products and they remain enamored with dark wood grains and hand-scraped finishes. Also, as evidenced by the popularity of laminate inspired by African, Brazilian and Asian hardwood species, they still can’t seem to get enough of exotics.

But a closer look at this crucial category suggests that the  picture is rapidly changing. Rather than sticking with the tried and true, laminate makers are aggressively venturing into uncharted territory. They’re testing the waters with low-gloss finishes and planks in assorted lengths. They’re fine-tuning stone textures and tinkering with micro-bevels. Some, like Faus Group Inc., are even planning to expand into new segments of the business.

At last month’s Surfaces 2007 in Las Vegas, Faus president Juan Flores told NFT that his company is planning its first commercial laminate collection later this year. Signaling its long-term plans for the commercial market, the 54-year-old laminate company - which operates plants in Calhoun, Ga.; Gandia, Spain; and Shanghai – also plans to double its manufacturing capacity by 2008, Flores noted.

“We are very serious about entering the commercial avenue,” said Flores during an interview on the show floor. “We already have a strong foothold in this industry. High-end residential laminate flooring is what we are known for. Now we want to expand our innovations into a whole new segment.”

Faus is also planning an exclusive line of installation tools called FasTools. With a name closely modeled after the company’s FasTrim laminate and hardwood moldings, FasTools represents Faus’ bid to extend its reach beyond its bread-and-butter laminate flooring, Flores said.

“We want to offer complete solutions to go with our high-end laminate,” he noted. “We want to provide all the different accessories and tools in one system.”

While the plans taking shape at Faus may be particularly ambitious, it is clear that manufacturers committed to the category are stepping up. As competition intensifies,  a new generation of highly realistic laminate flooring is emerging. 

“The traditional view of laminate is changing,” said Roger Farabee, vp marketing for Quick-Step, which is also expanding its reach in the category. Highlights include Versailles Medallion, a 24” by 24” decorative laminate floor tile available in both light and dark colorations. Scheduled to reach stores in July, the large-format, parquet-look tile can be used as an insert with Quick-Step’s Versailles plank flooring or by itself as a dramatic field tile. According to Farabee, the new large-scale design points to the category’s continued evolution, and marks one of the first medallions offered in the laminate segment.

“Consumers are going in a different direction with laminate, and they want a wide range of interesting new products,” he said. “They’re very open to a variety of looks. They’re breaking away from the traditional oaks and maples into more exotic styles.”

Though Quick-Step, which is owned by Mohawk Industries, has focused mostly on updating its wood looks, the laminate maker is also updating its ceramic laminate styles. Plans call for new entries based on some of the top-selling ceramic products offered by sister company Dal-Tile.

Formica Flooring from Kronotex offers Quintessa laminate flooring, available in six exotic species. They are: Hawaiian Koa (pictured here), as well as Zebrano, Rosario Palisander, African Wenge, Dalarna Birch and Valhalla Birch.

Other laminate makers are similarly borrowing visuals from other segments to provide a fresh look for the category. Among the most notable is Mannington’s new Adirondack, a laminate tile look available in four patterns made to resemble quartzite. It is based on a similar pattern in the company’s popular porcelain flooring collection.

“One of the advantages of being a full-line hard surface manufacturer is that we can translate popular looks and designs from one flooring type to another,” said Mannington spokeswoman Betsy Amoroso. She added that company has been a pioneer in the category in recent years. Mannington’s exclusive NatureForm Optix printing process and embossed-in-register texturing has yielded a level of realism previously unavailable in the category.

Kronotex, which produces Formica Flooring laminate for specialty retailers, is also looking beyond the laminate category for inspiration. Company COO Ken Peden confirmed that there are plans for laminate flooring inspired by best-selling Formica countertops.

“The laminate category is in the process of refining its products,” noted Peden. “And for Formica Flooring, that means leveraging the power of the Formica brand. For a lot of people, the first thing they think of when they hear Formica is countertops. We want to take advantage of that.”

Curt Thompson, business unit manager for Wilsonart Flooring, said new technology is only part of the story in laminate. The strides forward reflect changing perspectives on design in general. And that, he said, is the result of heightened consumer interest in high-end products.

“We’re focusing on different widths and different textures,” he explained. “We’re going for full-board design. We pay attention to the individual planks and give them all the detail they need rather than printing out repeating block patterns. From our perspective, it’s the future of laminate.”

Bold new design techniques are also high on the list at  Moderna by BHK. The company’s exhibit at Surfaces prominently included product with a low-level gloss finish. Positioned along side the company’s shinier laminates, the flooring was subtle but highly distinctive.

“What do you think?” asked Dave Ryan, spokesman for BHK while proudly showcasing the flooring. “It’s definitely different,” he acknowledged. “We’re willing to test the waters. Our strength has always been innovative patterns in residential flooring. It’s what keeps the category moving.”

While laminate flooring has undergone a number of changes in recent years, those close to the category say more new wrinkles can be expected in the near future One decorative paper supplier for laminate flooring predicted the category will slowly shift away from the dark exotics now popular and back to lighter, gentler fare.

“Right now in Europe, white ticking is extremely popular,” said Beverly Albert, a spokeswoman for Suddekor. “It’s the opposite right now here, with dark ticking in the grain being the prevalent look. But it’s coming.”

And, she added, changes in taste will help drive new designs. That focus on style and design, she said, is likely to keep the laminate in the forefront of  flooring well into the future.

Jack Boesch of MP Global Products, flanked by presenters Traci Powell and Peter Barretto, holds up one of his company’s two Lammy awards at Surfaces 2007.

The envelope please ... Faus, MP Global win 'Lammys'

Faus Group and MP Global Products were among the big winners at the National Laminate Flooring Association’s inaugural Lammy Awards, held at Surfaces 2007 in Las Vegas. Each manufacturer was honored with two awards in recognition of their respective contributions to the laminate segment.

Presented by Traci Powell and Peter Barretto of NALFA’s marketing committee to a packed ballroom in the Venetian Hotel, the award was established to recognize member companies that have helped elevate the segment. Additionally, NALFA launched the awards in the hope of raising the profile of the 10-year-old trade group.

“We are honored to recognize the first-ever recipients of the Lammy Awards,” Barretto said to the guests on hand. “We’re hoping to continue these awards every year. Maybe someday we’ll even be wearing tuxes,” he quipped.

Fausfloor was recognized for Regular Member Company of the Year and Person of the Year (president Juan Flores). MP Global Products, a manufacturer of underlayment, was named Association Member Company of the Year. It’s director of marketing, Jack Boesch, was recognized as Associate Member of the Year. Other awards included: Member of the Year, to NALFA president Bill Dearing of Pergo; and Distributor/Retailer of the Year, to Herrigan Distributing. Matthew Spieler of Floor Covering News was given a special recognition award 

The NALFA board of directors selected nominees for each category. Ballots were sent to NALFA members, who voted on the winners along with members of the flooring press.

For more information, visit www.nalfa.com.