Carpet Tile Design: Staying relevant by responding to culture and design trends
By Jessica Chevalier
Over the last couple of decades, the carpet tile category has been moving and shaking: taking control of the corporate or workspace sector, gaining ground in education and, now, beginning to find its place in both healthcare and hospitality applications. What’s more, as Millennials increasingly make their impact on commercially designed workspaces, carpet tile is likely to find itself perfectly positioned. After all, what floorcovering product is more suited to the Millennial mindset than carpet tile: a modular and tactile product with a substantial green and wellness story, inherent style and limitless capacity for customization?
That being said, carpet tile designers can’t rest on their laurels just yet. The category is currently being impacted by a number of trends that both support its growth and demand that it continue to evolve. The migration toward human-focused design, the blurring of the sectors and the trend toward “resimercial” looks- residential-influenced commercial design-are a few of these.
DESIGNS BY HUMANS, FOR HUMANS
The focus on sustainability, or wellness, as it relates to humans utilizing a space may seem like an obvious consideration, but that hasn’t always been the case. David Oakey of David Oakey Designs, which designs flooring for Interface, reports that interior designers of yesterday were often more focused on creating impressive architectural elements that would earn a project a spread in the pages of a magazine, rather than spaces that were healthy-physically and mentally-for those within them.
But times have changed, and with that change comes the realization that good design is experiential-not something to be acted upon but something to be interacted with. That concept-driven heavily by Silicon Valley, according to Oakey-considers how a design that models a neighborhood concept, for example, may yield more creative thinking and productivity than a standard corporate model of cubicle farms and stuffy meeting rooms.
“Today, everything is about the people in the space,” says Oakey, “and that has dynamically changed the space of the normal office. You have focal spaces, meeting spaces, collision spaces-all these add diversity to the space. The other buzzword we’re hearing from clients is ‘neighborhoods.’ If you think of a beautiful little neighborhood with cafes, juice bars, places to meet-these are collision spaces, where people feel ‘this is a great place to be.’ Our major clients in the tech industry use the term ‘collision’ a lot. They want people to meet, collide and collaborate. They don’t want forced meeting rooms. They want it to be casual.”
These changes in intention require product designers to respond. “There has been a lot more emphasis on user need than there was in the past,” says Roby Isaac, vice president of commercial design at Mannington Mills. “With the emergence of experiential designers and what that means in terms of tech and space, that mindset is easy to embrace. If we are building an object, whether it’s carpet tile or a phone, we consider what the benefits are for the user. Whether designers are saying, ‘There’s a shift towards resimercial’ or ‘users want less clutter,’ as a product designer, I have to make sure that I am understanding those needs and developing appropriately.”
Offering employees more human-centered and less corporate-feeling environments in which to work goes hand in hand with the trend toward biophilia. Biophilic design derives from the recognition that humans are healthier when they have an association with nature and, therefore, creating interior environments that mimic or represent nature supports mental health, breeding calm and restoration while also reducing stress.
According to Jackie Dettmar, vice president of commercial product development and design for Mohawk Industries, “We are experiencing a moment where we want to build exaggerated texture, a tactile experience. An explosion of texture. It’s a byproduct of spending so much time in front of screens; people want to have a sensory experience in their environments. We are seeing new textures that look natural and engaging. It speaks to the whole idea of bringing outdoors in. There is big interest in biophilic design, which stems from the realization that every human being responds to nature and natural processes. That’s a lot of why we are seeing the resurgence of wood visuals. Today, we’re making tile that looks like wood; there’s wood everywhere. We saw a similar trend in the ’70s of bringing natural processes in, natural materials-macramé, for example. After that, we delved into a cubicle world and found that it was unhealthy.”
Though the concept of biophilia isn’t new, Oakey believes that the interior industry is still only at the stage of dipping its toe in, adding, “Today, we are designing artificial spaces that look and feel like natural spaces, but we’re just at the brink of this. Artificial interior spaces are stagnant. The colors and textures stay the same. Outdoors, there is change from morning to night, with the seasons. There is diversity. We’re just seeing glimpses of how technology will help us create spaces that change color, pattern and texture throughout the day.”
Why has carpet tile taken a leading position in biophilic design among the floorcovering segments? In part, it’s simply because, more than any other floorcovering manufacturer, Interface has been on the leading edge of the biophilia movement, and it manufactures carpet tile. But the textural possibilities of soft surface flooring play a role as well, allowing product designers to create dynamic representations of natural elements.
Consider, for instance, the look of autumn leaves on grass, and it’s easy to imagine an interpretation of this look using fiber that yields dimension both texturally and tonally. Hard surface flooring, however, is a flat surface, limited to two-dimensional looks. As for the differences between broadloom and carpet tile in this regard, carpet tile’s modular format enables designers to achieve random and evolving patterns reminiscent of nature’s landscape.
Can broadloom achieve a similarly natural aesthetic? Of course, but not with the capacity for customization and randomization in installation that carpet tile offers. Technology has been an enabler in this regard, with the development of Servo-driven yarn placement that made it possible for carpet tile designers to create more definite patterns with seemingly no repeats, setting the product apart style-wise from broadloom.
The blurring of design lines between the sectors is something we’ve talked about a lot lately here in Floor Focus-last month in our government sector update and in our November focus on hospitality flooring trends. With their general dislike for artifice and uniformity and their craving of experience and individuality, Millennials are a significant driver for this transition, and we have seen these preferences manifested strongly in the design of commercial interiors.
No longer does the lobby of the Best Western in Albuquerque look exactly like the lobby of the Best Western in Buffalo. Today, each reflects the brand culture, yes, but more prominently the culture of the area in which they are situated, thereby creating a sense of place, a building block of creating experience. With this more vibrant ambiance, these spaces invite guests to sit, relax and interact.
The education sector, too, has seen this shift, starting with universities branding their interiors more prominently with school colors and proprietary icons, creating the perception to students and visitors that they are part of something special, that they have had a unique experience and that experience is verifiable because, no doubt, they have snapped a selfie and posted it to social media as proof. Competing heavily for students and their tuition dollars, universities have put on a pretty face, using design as a differentiator. For students, this means more amenities and looks that are more hospitality than lecture hall.
Even healthcare systems look to interiors as a differentiator. Once, we expected the hospital emergency room waiting area to be functional above all else, vanilla, static. Today, hospitals are using design to brand themselves, to reflect the regions within which they are situated and to create environments that suggest health and wellness. Hospitality style elements and tones increase comfort and reduce stress.
As all these transitions occur, the distinctions that we once attributed to each tend to fade. Workspace looks less stark and more hospitable. Hospitality takes cues from the home to create spaces that feel warmer.
“We are seeing a lot more fluidity between the market segments,” says Reesie Duncan, creative director at Shaw Contract Group. “There are some subtle delineations for healthcare, and, in the broad sense, hospitality is still primarily broadloom, but that’s the only market that’s still living in a broadloom world. In workspace, they are wanting more of a hospitality feel, a soft residential aesthetic that is less corporate feeling, with more personality and a casualness to it. Higher education feels more corporate and retail-like. Design has crossed the boundaries.”
Responding to this trend, carpet tile is once again at an advantage, because it allows interior designers to create floorscapes reflective of both a project’s individual identity and unique needs.
Because there is so much fluidity between the sectors, product designers understand that even if they design a product specifically for workspace use, it is likely to end up elsewhere. For this reason, carpet tile manufacturers offer a great deal of customizability with regard to both palette and product features. Using a workspace-targeted product for healthcare? No problem, the manufacturer can add a moisture backing more fitting of the application. “We want to make it easy for designers to get what they want but not tell them what to do,” says Dettmar.
Taking a look from one product type and applying it to another is also an option. “[At Tandus] we have had, for years, a robust custom department, and it’s still 25% to 30% of our projects,” says Terry Mowers, vice president and chief creative officer for Tarkett’s Tandus Centiva. “Here, patterns are designed for formats. One designed for tile wouldn’t work for broadloom, but we can offer a reformulation of patterns and textures to fix a particular product platform.”
Laura Compton, director of contract product development for Masland Carpet, notes, “As consumers become more and more accustomed to greater customization in the marketplace, designers have increasingly high expectations for customization in all facets of their own projects, including flooring. More now than ever, the floor is being used as a canvas, with our products as the paint.” Compton adds that her design team pays close attention to all custom orders that come in, using these to gauge emerging needs and trends in the market.
In addition, she notes that the difference in how designers use floorcovering as a design element is, at least in part, influenced by sector lines, adding, “While corporate products sometimes function as the backdrop for an overall design aesthetic, hospitality and healthcare products sometimes serve as a focal point in the installation. In designing for hospitality and healthcare, we work to provide a usable range of designs appropriate to those end uses: more color, more definite patterns, more coordinating options.”
According to Shaw’s Duncan, “Successful products are the ones that speak from a design standpoint and can work in multiple markets, depending on how you mix multiples in collections. We might have six products with different constructions that can meet different wear or traffic patterns. That has been our approach for the last year or two. We ask ourselves, ‘How we can leverage products to be relevant from a design perspective and used in multiple segments?’”
“The most successful products have a lot of planning around them, around their application and what type of problem they are solving,” notes Stacy Walker, global director of customer experience at Milliken. “In designing a product or collection, you try to be as broad as you can be, but certain design aesthetics do align themselves to certain applications.”
The preference for comfort over corporate means that today’s commercial interiors are finding inspiration in an unexpected source-the home. What space, after all, is more comfortable, more likely to reduce stress and set people at ease?
In carpet tile, that often equates to longer face fiber. “Pile heights are getting higher,” says Mowers, “but you have to be careful it doesn’t get too residential looking. Ultimately, we [at Tandus] try not to be too trendy. Even though pile heights and face weights are increasing from a trend perspective, the challenge for us is still maintaining performance and price points. We want to be in the path of demand. That’s why we look to tufting and yarn processing techniques to get more texture and volume and still maintain price points. Once you get over 25 ounces, you’re out of the path of demand.” Mowers notes that he has challenged his staff regarding how to achieve a more residential feel without compromising the value proposition or durability.
David Fuehrer, director of product at J+J Flooring Group, believes that the overriding design trends in carpet tile today are driven by both residential and hospitality aesthetics and palettes. “That is what we are starting to see: more texture, pile height differences, liberal use of color. Much of it is inspired by high-end tufted rugs. These products have a great feel and use color as a leader. As for what’s being specified, it’s tailored, and [manufacturers] have to draw some of the color out. We do have some proactive or forward-thinking corporate clients looking for brighter colors, different from the status quo, but for the most part, the market is still looking for tonals and greys.”
Interestingly, regarding the color story, this is what we’ve heard in the residential market for years. Homeowners want options with regard to color, but at the end of the day-with resale weighing heavily in their decision-making-they go home with beige or grey.
Isaac points to Mannington’s Design Locale as a collection that was edited, mid-design process, to better cater to the blooming resimercial trend, which the team noticed was coming on strong at NeoCon 2016. “We looked at the construction and added more weight and pile for warmth,” says Isaac. “To increase the appearance of comfort, we looked to both construction and visuals.”
Interestingly, the trends, below, that Oakey currently finds most compelling are closely interconnected.
• Worlds Apart: Global vs. Inward-Looking-Not only in the U.S. but in many countries across the world, people are grappling with the concept of globalization, asking: Do we want to be in a global, connected world, or are we going to withdraw, to focus inward?
Says Oakey, “Political tension will shift into economics. Will there be trade barriers? What does this mean for business, for a brand? For automobiles, electronics and technology? Are we going to open or close our borders?” Each year, Oakey is contracted to provide one global collection for Interface, and the designer notes that it will be interesting to see how the process of creating that collection changes as we, as a people, work through these concepts.
• Technology: The Collision of Technology, Humans and Nature-Technology is a driving force and is actively changing the world in which we live. “We have been watching how technology, people and nature connect and collide,” says Oakey. “And we are starting to see an interesting shift. Technology is a given. It will help us, but we see a shift toward the tactile, a drive for local and handmade. People want to know where their products came from, who they were made by. Millennials want to touch and connect.” As examples of this, Oakey points to the fact that online mega-retailer Amazon is opening bookstores; that adult coloring books are popular; and that last year vinyl record sales overtook digital sales in the UK. “If we are to live in an artificial, technological world, everyone wants to touch, make and create,” says Oakey.
• What is Luxury?-For Millennials, luxury isn’t about things but experiences. A hotel, for instance, isn’t judged by the thread count of the sheets or the luxurious nature of the broadloom underfoot. Instead, it’s about what sort of experience the consumer is offered. Is the lobby a pass-through space or a relaxed, Wi-Fi equipped location within which visitors can work, rest and connect? Social media, which enables users to share their experiences with a network of both friends and strangers with only a click, both drives and is symptomatic of this trend. Ultimately, the ‘What is Luxury?’ trend relates closely to the Millennials desire for authenticity. In a world of technology and screens, true experience in highly valued.
• Nature-“Nature is the one trend accepted around the world,” says Oakey. “We all realize that a connection with nature makes people feel more comfortable. We need protection from the weather and the sun, but we still need color.”
THE DESIGN PROCESS
All artists have a process, and as it turns out, so do all floorcovering design teams. Not surprisingly, these vary. Some design studios have designers who focus on one particular product or sector-a practice-makes-perfect kind of approach. Others encourage their designers to vary their work among the sectors or even to work in both hard and soft surface modular flooring.
Shaw divides its design studio by market sector but encourages designers working in different sectors to collaborate. For example, a workspace and a healthcare designer may come together to work on a collection that targets both sectors.
On the other hand, Dettmar’s team at Mohawk designs both hard and soft modular flooring. This strategy was initiated three years ago, when the company launched its commercial LVT line. And in this team, designers go back and forth between the surface types.
Mannington, which has been producing a wide range of commercial hard and soft floorcoverings for decades, is structured so that designers work in all product categories.
At J+J, designers focus on a single surface type but work in varying sectors. “We don’t have a huge design staff,” says Fuehrer, “so we like to have them work in multiple markets. We will appoint a thought leader for a particular collection and move that [responsibility] around. But all the designers work on all the different markets, price points and constructions.”
Design teams also approach the creation of collections differently-some think about global appeal at the forefront, others focus on creating a product that speaks to a trend and leave the positioning of that product to the marketing team.
Interface’s approach is unique among the players with whom we spoke. Oakey says, “We don’t ever think ‘this is for hospitality’. That’s not the role of the designer anymore. It’s the role of the marketing person; it’s their job to consider, ‘Of this product portfolio, what do we want to show in education, in hospitality, in corporate?’ How we sell products is becoming so important now. People want to see the product, see a rendering of the space, see the product in the space. It’s all happening so fast. I think in the next couple of years, we’ll see virtual reality coming in. We don’t just see the product in an architectural folder anymore. Interior designers want to know, what will it look like in my space?”
J+J, led by Fuehrer, takes a different approach, beginning with the identification of “holes” in the company offering with regard to market need. “Typically, we start with a need for a particular market segment, then we review our catalog and see what products we have that are nearing the end of their lifecycle, trending down,” Fuehrer says. “We ask ourselves, what can we develop for this market that is fresh, based on developing and future trends? We create a business case and a design brief, saying, ‘We’re looking at doing this, and these are the parameters.’ Once that’s approved, I go back to the designers and tell them the price point, the face weight and where we’re headed design-wise, then I leave it open to them. As a designer myself, I like to set parameters but allow movement.”
Mohawk operates its creative process in a similar manner. “We start with a target,” says Dettmar. “For instance, we need some new carpet tile focused on hospitality. We start with that in mind, but there is so much crossover today in how designers want to use a product that it is hard to say ‘this is a hospitality tile.’ Today, hospitality is trying to set up its lobbies to be like corporate workspaces, and corporate is setting up its lobbies to be like hospitality, and schools want to feel like hospitality spaces. It really comes down to how a designer wants to use a product in the space. Still, we need X number of corporate, education and healthcare tiles. We dive in to make sure we are making the attributes of a tile fit that use, but the visuals might fit multiple markets.”
Isaac operates his studio at Mannington similarly to the peer review process used at university, gathering a group of designers and having them show and discuss their products for critique. In that process, the quantity of designs often gets pared down significantly. Isaac notes that they might start with 12 and end up with three, for example. After the patterns are evaluated and perfected, the process moves to color. “Towards finalization, we discuss color and how it will impact what the pattern does. We go through an iterative process of color work. What does high contrast do? Low contrast? An accent color here? We consider the end-use market, and ask, for instance: If we put this amount of accent color here, will it make primary school aged kids go crazy?”
Rather than start with a market sector, Shaw starts with a concept. “Most of the concepts we work on as a team once or twice annually,” says Duncan. “We do a lot of research and concept development up front. It can take us up to a month to build a story, which includes travel and photography. Once we determine a concept and size, we move into color. Sometimes inspiration drives the color palette. For instance, we have a collection called Active right now that is inspired by active-wear and active lifestyles. In that instance, color feeds its way in, but we work on pattern and concept first. Different patterns come alive differently depending on the pattern.”
The incorporation of a color palette into a concept also varies among design teams, but most leave that aspect of the process open-ended. At Masland, the creation of the color palette and design “can work in either direction, really,” says Compton. “Sometimes we create a pattern, thinking of it as its own entity, and apply color later, while sometimes a color palette will inspire a design. However, often as we are designing, we have to take color into consideration as we draw the pattern.”
“Nothing is permanent anymore,” the product designer says. “In carpet tile, everyone has a tape system. If [product designers] are designing collections with that forethought, the question is, how can you build a coloration or add to a collection season after season so that it can be refreshed?”
This mindset supports the general trend toward refreshing a space frequently-which is stimulating for those utilizing the space and more environmentally friendly as well as more cost- and time-efficient than a full-blown remodel-rather than letting it sit stagnant for a decade or two and undertaking a complete rehab.
“Refreshing interiors is new and exciting,” Mowers continues. “Designers can come back in and refresh as color trends change. Even our Powerbond sheet is now available in a non-permanent format, meaning that you don’t have to glue it to the floor. At Tandus, we are creating intelligent collections in a fluid and textural way, rooted in looks that can stand the test of time and be refreshed. No one wants the same color or style for 15 years anymore.”
As processes vary, so do the manufacturers’ approach in catering to tastes both regionally and across the world. Sometimes, taking a U.S. collection and offering it in other nations simply means editing the color line. Other times, greater changes might be necessary.
Shaw has three design studios in the U.S. plus one in Shanghai, and, in summer 2016, Shaw designers took a three-week trip to Europe to understand the trends there. Ultimately, says Duncan, Shaw is “thinking of products that stand globally, which is a hard thing to do. There are small nuances that are important in every market. Some might be relevant for some products more than others.”
For a company like Tandus-Centiva, under the umbrella of Tarkett, which is headquartered in France, a global perspective is inherent. The company has international design committee meetings twice annually.
With studios in Asia, Australia, North America and Europe, Milliken has similar access to worldwide trends. “Ideas may have relevancy across global markets,” says Milliken’s Walker, “so we collaborate. Typically, if design is global, we will interpret it regionally, add additional patterns or color, perhaps. Not everything is always relevant, but often a portion can be. A palette with 18 colors developed in the London studio may translate to nine colors for the U.S. market.”
Though the bulk of J+J’s business is U.S.-based, Fuehrer believes that a design team “has to have a global outlook, even if it is only designing for North America.”
For Compton, considering worldwide appeal in design “is a much more global phenomenon than it was even ten years ago, so such a distinction might eventually become irrelevant. We think more about creating usable design as a whole.”
WILL CARPET TILE EVER COME HOME?
While this article was in process, there came the news that Interface would shut down the majority of its Flor stores-there are currently 17 in the U.S. and eight abroad-between January and April 2017, with the possible exception of three, in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, according to analyst Stifel.
Coincidentally, in late 2016, Milliken also terminated its residential carpet tile program called Legato, which was introduced in Home Depot in 2002 and became available to a broader range of dealers in 2008 in a somewhat different iteration.
These developments mark a significant setback for the category’s residential growth, but may have little bearing on the longer term development of a residential carpet tile market. Interface will continue to sell Flor through its catalog business, though that doesn’t offer consumers the tactile experience that they crave as they purchase floorcovering, something that seems particularly important for product to make headway in a new market.
For residential use, the category faces a number of challenges. Cost is one. Sure, customers understand the value of plunking down a couple hundred dollars or more for a good quality area rug. One that arrives in pieces and requires assembly simply does not carry the same value for many and may be construed as a lesser product.
Secondly, carpet tile fits a particular aesthetic. Few of us could picture a carpet tile area rug under our grandmother’s dining room table, for instance. It is a modern product that makes a distinctly modern statement-a fact that is either endearing or off-putting, depending upon the audience.
Third, carpet tile does not have a plush hand, and for customers seeking a cozy, lush product akin to higher-end residential broadloom, it likely will not fill the bill.
But the most significant challenge, by far, is the fact that many residential customers simply don’t get carpet tile. That is, they don’t really know what it is, what benefits it offers or that it is even an option for the home. They’ve walked on it, sure, at the office or in a mall, but do they seek it out as when they need new soft surface flooring for the den or a new area rug for the living room? No.
“The hurdle is getting consumers to even know about it,” says Oakey. “To experience it. If we get people in stores, there is a high percentage of selling, but how do you get the message out? It’s like going back 35 years to when Ray Anderson was just starting to sell carpet tile for the corporate market. People asked, ‘Why cut good carpet into squares?’”
Ultimately, it’s not that consumers are comparing carpet tile to broadloom or area rugs or LVT and finding the category to come up short. It’s that they aren’t making the comparison at all.
Once a consumer understands what the product is and what it offers, a manufacturer must both sell them on the category’s differentiators and build their confidence with regard to creating and assembling a rug. Flor, for example, offers many examples of finished rugs that customers can simply copy, but many may still feel trepidation at assembling the product once it arrives. What’s more, they may question whether they will frequently be on their hands and knees reattaching the tiles.
The bulk of manufacturers with whom we spoke were in a wait-and-see mode with regard to offering a residential carpet tile program. However, at Shaw’s biennial dealer convention in January-held the same week as Surfaces-the firm unveiled Floorigami, a concept developed in partnership with global design firm Ideo, which represents Shaw’s conceptualization of a residential tile program.
As it was displayed at the convention, Floorigami is a program of carpet tile and LVT in plank formats. In the booth, the floor display was a mixed installation of LVT and carpet tile-and it looked great. The carpet tile was carefully crafted so that it crushes to the same level as the resilient flooring, which means that stepping transitioning from one flooring type to the other is just about seamless. The carpet tile will be made at the firm’s recently completed Adairsville facility, while the resilient tile on display was Patcraft commercial tile.
According to Shaw, the concept’s introduction at the convention was used to gauge interest and collect feedback. As of yet, the company is unsure about the timing of a roll out. Duncan points out that discussions about residential carpet tile programs aren’t only focused on if and when, but also the logistics of running such a program. How can the product achieve a competitive price point at retail? Through what channels would the product go to market, and how will the manufacturer manage the customer education aspect of the equation?
Ultimately, it may turn out that Interface’s Flor stores were just a little far ahead of the consumer curve. With Millennials’ desire to make and create and their comfort with the carpet tile aesthetic, it’s likely just a matter of waiting for their bank accounts to catch up with their tastes.
Interestingly, Dettmar believes that this approach in the carpet tile category is following what the industry saw in ceramic tile when manufacturers expanded sizes and formats, and offered new and varied installation methods. “Designers are always looking for something new and exciting,” continues Dettmar. “A system of planks and sizes that can work together is the logical evolution-especially as Millennials want things to be their own.”
To help overworked interior designers manage these systems, Mohawk offers them a hand in developing two-dimensional floor layouts for their projects. “We can do renderings. Often, designers want to be creative but don’t have the necessary time or resources.”
Both Shaw and Tandus also agree that systems are key today.
“There is no question that shape or size is a big driver,” says Mowers, “and then, of course, texture. We’re looking at collections that can be mixed and matched together. Planks are a big driver, and, over the past several years, the whole idea of designing the floor plan by using products that work together as a system has gained traction. To me, that’s what drives a lot of what we do. You can do this in unique and different ways. [Tandus] is rooted in the classics. We look at designs that are going to stand the test of time. That’s important, although the modularity allows for a lot of flexibility. Designers are mixing and matching size, shape and texture to create pattern and color changes on the floor as well as subtle texture changes, which can be refined and beautiful; this is much different than in the past. It wasn’t long ago that it was the same color and style on six floors of office building.”
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