Just when you think the elder statesman of the floor covering industry couldn’t possibly have any more tricks up its rough-hewn, finely grained sleeve, new advances in manufacturing, finishes and more bring the spotlight back around to hardwood flooring.
We asked three industry stalwarts – Sara Babinski, principal designer for Armstrong Hardwood; Allison Finkell, marketing manager for Shaw Hard Surface; and Neil Poland, president of Mullican Flooring – for a little insight into what’s making waves, what’s on the way out and what we can expect to see in the future.
FT: These days, it seems that hardwood flooring is finding its way into all manner of facility, residential and commercial. What’s driving this popularity?
Allison Finkell: There’s a big push toward natural design currently, and wood is the material of the moment. It’s being installed on every surface (including walls and ceilings) and is being replicated on all types of materials including resilient, porcelain, glass and fabric. It’s a very sought-after visual right now.
Sara Babinski: Whether your taste is rustic, traditional or contemporary, today’s wood flooring offers a wide variety of styles and surfaces. Hardwood floors are a natural, long-lasting, cost effective choice. Coupled with a spectrum of species, color, gloss levels, widths, surface textures and edge details, there’s a myriad of options to complement any interior.
Hardwood is the new neutral, and works well in many commercial applications. It is derived from nature, and brings the outdoors in – the great escape (or the great “office” escape)! It can create a mood of international flair and fascination for the exotic or it can be more traditional, with the warmth of a home like environment.
Neil Poland: For a number of years the American consumer has had an affinity for wood, be it on the floor, furniture, what have you. Wood is, in general, a centerpiece that the consumer can be proud of. Wood flooring continues to gain momentum since the the ‘80s, and I’m very pleased to see that recent surveys are showing that young people today still see wood as a trade up.
In general, as an industry, we continue to evolve; when I first started, the objections to wood floors were price and maintenance. Since then, we’ve become much more efficient, much more effective, and with the introduction of urethane finishes, it’s made the product much easier to maintain. The fact that it’s naturally renewable and recyclable as confirmed by the NWFA Lifecycle Study of both solid and engineered flooring only serves to help boost its profile and promote its benefits.
FT: Designers and specifiers are always looking for new options to bring their projects to fruition and help them stand out. What are some of the latest “hot” design elements influencing the hardwood market today?
NP: For one, hand-sculpted looks have grown tremendously. In 2004, hand-sculpted looks started exploding on the West Coast, and has since made its way deeper into various areas of the country; it’s very popular today in the Midwest, the southwest, and is becoming more popular in the southeast and up and down the east coast. What we see it evolving into are wire-brush treatments, French bleed, different textures being developed to reflect a more natural surface product and so on. The look of overlapped color is growing in popularity as well.
AF: Reclaimed visuals and European styling is big. Rustic woods with inherent, distressed character from a previous life seem to satisfy the raw, earthy aesthetic that is trending.
Unfinished or matte finishes are more appealing than high luster, and the natural colors of white oak, hickory and maple are left stained. Previously, blacks, espressos and chocolates were king, but the colors emerging for 2012-13 exhibit a washed appearance as opposed to an opaque, highly saturated stain. Blacks have been replaced with light grays, and the chocolate family has migrated to a lighter shade in the brown family, with green undertones. The days of installing narrow strip flooring has been replaced by a refreshing style of exaggerated, wider widths of plank, as well as mixing various widths to accentuate the style of repurposing a vintage material.
SB: From fashion to interior furnishings, we have rekindled our relationship with wood. It is appreciated for its inherent natural color and beautiful character with knots, mineral streaks, grain figuring and general uniqueness. There is an evolution underway in surface treatments for hardwood, and it translates into a wide range of choices.
Texture is becoming the new color! Distressed/antiqued floors offer customers the look of antiqued visuals that work well in both contemporary and traditional settings. Sculpted or scraped floors offer the popular look of time worn floors often found in older homes, upper end converted warehouse lofts and centuries old castles. Color washed looks provide a unique look of layer stains that offer a very high end style found in many of today’s higher end cabinetry and furniture. All of these looks are being selected by consumers to design their homes to meet their specific taste and style.
FT: Two of hardwood flooring’s biggest selling points are longevity and durability. In addition to those two features, what would you say to a dealer who asks, “How do I close the sale?”
AF: For commercial specifiers, the visual is the most critical element, although specifications are made to satisfy both the budget and the aesthetic. Performance comes into play only after a product is supplied to satisfy the design intent. My advice is to educate end users and designers on products that will have a lasting, beautiful life and meet their performance requirements.
As industry professionals, we must manage expectations and monitor the selection process. If a light-colored product with a glossy finish and no texture is installed in a high traffic environment – the product is almost guaranteed to show wear before an end user expects it to. In this instance, the product shouldn’t have been specified for that application—thus reflecting badly on the industry. If you want to close the sale – you must become a resource to your customer.
NP: Wood floors upgrade the value of any home; you see a home for sale, if they’ve got them, you’ll always see ‘hardwood floors’ listed as a selling feature. Comfort under foot is another benefit. It’s also hypo-allergenic and much easier to clean than other floor covering types.
The first thing out of my mouth in the last 3-4 years has been sustainability, that it’s naturally renewable and recyclable. There’s been a big push as far as PR goes with regard to wood flooring; I would tell you that, say 10 years ago, specifiers would accuse us of cutting down all the trees in the forest. As an industry, we really didn’t have a single voice with which we could respond. In the last 5-7 years, though, through various life cycle studies, responsible procurement programs and other initiatives, it’s made wood viewed by designers, specifiers and environmentally conscious consumers as a viable choice.
SB: Have beautiful and easy shop displays and tools, tools to captivate the homeowner in the showroom and when they get home. A great display is a silent salesman. The display systems and support materials should present products in a way that is attractive, logical and easy to understand to simplify the shopping process for consumers and retail sales associates.
We’ve worked so hard to produce a wide array of stunning designs and beautiful choices in hardwood. Our merchandising makes the products sing: organizing and displaying products in a way that enhances the credibility of the sales associate and appeals to the consumer is critical to success. Hardwood is a premium product. This is how it should be treated.
FT: Let’s talk species. What’s in vogue these days?
AF: White oak seems to be taking the lead because of its naturally light color. Commercially, a ‘species of choice’ is all over the map due to the variety of installations and customer preference.
SB: Acacia has become an exotic species in demand. This species comes in two flavors, so to speak, big leaf and small leaf. Big leaf acacia has less character to the wood and that translates into fewer knots, plain graining and wider age circles. Small leaf acacia features a lot of character, more knots and beautiful graining that swirls in various tones of brown. The natural beauty of this species lends itself to hand-scraping, adding a beautiful surface texture in concert with this wonderful species.
It’s no secret to retailers that although oak remains a dominant choice in hardwood floors, it is handing over the baton to more individualistic species, both domestic and exotic. Homeowners increasingly desire distinctive products. This trend is helping lesser known domestic species gain attention. Popular domestic species now include ash, hickory, pecan, walnut, birch, and cherry. We like to call these domestic exotics, or American exotics.
FT: There seems to be a lot more options when it comes to finishes and textures these days. Is technology driving demand, or is demand driving the technology?
AF: I think the technology for texturing has really evolved, but this is a result of the trend—not a result of driving the trend. Texture adds visual interest and camouflage for wear from commercial traffic. And in addition, I believe the appeal of reclaimed wood is driving trends toward raw, unfinished, and imperfect wood aesthetics.
NP: I think it starts with creativity, and then it backs into the technology that’s available. A lot of looks that you’re seeing lately start on the unfinished side of the business, and then manufacturers figure out how to reproduce those looks effectively so they can be sold in thousands of locations across the country. That helps drive innovation, allowing, for example, technological advancements that have made it easier to develop proprietary or new, innovative finishes.
SB: There is a heightened trend toward realism and natural images across all hard-surface flooring categories. Inspiration is taken from nature. When it comes to hardwood, the consumer desire inclines toward active graining, as well as depth of color – whether natural or stained. Surface treatments such as hand scraped, hand sculpted, and distressed bring an artisan quality to hardwood flooring.
The many edge and detail options available in wood planks impact the look of a finished floor more than you might imagine, such as square, beveled and eased. If you’re looking for a high-contrast dramatic effect, select a bold edge/end detail that emphasizes the definition of individual boards. Square edges/ends achieve a low-contrast effect by creating a more seamless appearance. The smooth look of square edges/ends is now available in pre-finished as well as unfinished hardwood flooring, as well as laminates. Beveled-edge details, light colors, bold graining, random-width planks and low-gloss finishes make a room appear less formal, without diminishing the overall beauty or sophistication.
FT: Hardwood is making serious inroads in areas traditionally reserved for tile, stone and other hard surfaces. Looking ahead, is there any reason hardwood flooring won’t continue its expansion?
AF: Due to lower budgets, increasingly better visuals in LVT and the need for higher performance, authentic hardwood will have to continue to improve in terms of performance and better position itself to remain competitive in this market. That said, hardwood has traditionally been a product that adds value/perceived value to a space and this will remain the case—because there’s no substitute for the real thing. Natural products (wood, ceramic, etc.) tend to be more immune to trends, so I expect natural wood flooring to be a preferred material for a very long time.
SB: Hardwood is still the preferred flooring choice of most flooring consumers. For new home buyers and for those embarking on remodeling projects, hardwood is the trophy flooring.
NP: No. I think there’s still great opportunity for expansion of hardwood applications, both residentially and commercially into various areas where 10 years ago those possibilities didn’t exist. The finishes have a lot to do with that. The area I’ve been somewhat surprised to see growth is in the bedroom. Today you have a lot of combination bedroom/study or bedroom/computer center; where rooms are being modified to serve multiple uses and functions, I think hardwood is a natural fit.
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