Carpet Tile Trends: Today’s carpet tile offers designers more creative control over the floorscape - Feb 2020
By Jessica Chevalier
The carpet tile category, long popular with designers, is winning even more love from the group with its continued innovation in format and the resulting design opportunities created by those evolving formats, which provide designers greater control over the floorscape, offering an increasingly sophisticated palette of tools with which they can create. Of course, the category’s many practical benefits-ease of transport, installation, maintenance, replacement, acoustic mitigation, comfort underfoot, sustainable profile-are numerous and well enumerated and, paired with the creative control the material provides, have cemented its standing as a darling of the design world.
It is important to remember that while the carpet tile category is no longer gobbling up marketshare at the rate it once was, racking up double-digit annual increases, this is not because its popularity is waning but because it has largely consumed new ground in the commercial market and is today seeing growth at a more organic pace. “Unless the client has a very specific opinion otherwise, if we are doing soft surface today, we are doing carpet tile,” says Jessica Collins, senior project interior designer at HOK with a focus in creative workplace design.
With increased competition in the commercial marketplace from hard surface-both from poured surfaces like polished concrete and terrazzo and increasingly attractive hard floorcoverings, which have benefited greatly from innovations in digital printing-carpet tile manufacturers have continued pushing the style envelope. “From standard, oatmeal and innocuous, the carpet tile market has become a fashion race today, almost like the commercial furniture world,” says Primo Orpilla, cofounder and principal of Studio O+A, which focuses primarily on workplace design. “Design-wise, carpet tile has become almost as rich as fabric: the detail level, the concepts behind them-and to be able to go from one surface to another with continuity is quite amazing.” Orpilla names Interface, Shaw Contract, Milliken and Mohawk Group as solutions providers to which he frequently turns for carpet tile.
The ability to not just select but have creative control over a floorscape is a benefit that designers highly value. “Carpet tile gives designers the ability to influence the flooring design; we almost have a hand in designing the floor itself because, depending on the method of installation, you can get vastly different looks,” says Tamara Bopp, director of interior design for Hahnfeld Hoffer Stanford, which works in all sectors except healthcare.
From the designer’s perspective, perhaps the best news in the carpet tile story has been the quality of design available at competitive price points. Says Bopp, “Manufacturers have done a good job at providing carpet tile that we can work with price-wise. We can find tile to fit K-12 budgets, for instance. We don’t have to search for a bottom-of-the-barrel product to make it work. There is good design at good prices.” The pairing of these high-abuse environments with a product that has the ability to be easily replaced when damaged or stained is an auspicious union.
Collins reiterates that point, noting that “low budget carpet is no longer ugly, flat and boring. The industry has come a long way to producing gorgeous, rich, higher-pile products for a lower cost.”
Andrea Hartley Bishop, senior associate at Rabaut Design Associates-which works primarily in the workplace, education and healthcare sectors-adds, “There are times I say, ‘I have to have this at X cost per square foot. What do you have?’ And there will be great selections, while it used to be that there weren’t.” She points to a recent elementary school remodel project, where budgets “didn’t allow much besides paint and carpet,” noting that carpet tile served as a great transition material from the already-existing solid surface material at the entrance, making it easy to add some design to the space and “transition pattern that was more dense in some areas to less dense in others.”
Bopp, color offerings: “For a while, everything was warm, then the pendulum would swing to all cools. Today, there is a blending of cools and warms, providing designers a choice.”
Collins, installation imagery: “It’s really nice to see installation images on manufacturer sites. I’d like even more.”
Orpilla, sustainability: “It’s amazing what manufacturers have done with sustainability and recycled content. They are so far ahead that they could be teaching other [interiors sectors].”
BEYOND THE SQUARE
All the designers interviewed give high marks to plank carpet tile formats. This adoration is two-fold. First and foremost, the plank format provides designers the ability to create designs heretofore impossible, increasing the material’s design potential greatly, while also trimming installation costs associated with cutting square tile to make such designs.
Bopp points out that rather than adding interest via color, planks provide designers the ability to change the installation pattern in a zone and create differentiation another way.
Bishop says it another way: “We can create the idea of a pattern without getting too crazy. You can use the same product and change the installation pattern from space to space and have it flow well, while also streamlining the maintenance.” She notes that Rabaut opts for carpet tile as its soft surface solution, “pretty much 100% of the time.”
Collins adds, “I love how texture can undulate across tiles and patterns to achieve rich textures. Even in inexpensive options, you can get rich texture.”
Secondly, clients like the plank. Perhaps it is spill-over from the popularity of hard surface flooring, but customers accept plank formats at least in part because, speculates Bopp, they are “a little bit different” from the norm in carpet but quite familiar in other flooring types.
Orpilla gives high marks to the exploration manufacturers have undertaken with regard to additional shapes. “Today, you have more [tools] to create a mosaic of carpet, not just squares and rectangles but a Gio Ponti-grid of tile,” says the designer. “It’s intriguing and gives designers another way to influence the look and feel of the flooring.”
Collins believes that the floorcovering industry is putting real thought into its formats, noting, “The formatting choices seem to be dictated by design and consideration of what format would best carry the pattern. It’s not just about making planks to fill a hole in their offering. The formatting seems to be thoughtfully executed.”
HOK’s Collins consulted with her team to determine their favorite carpet tile collections in the market today:
• Shaw Contract, Community: Community is very design-driven and feels custom-but isn’t. I especially like the custom area rug program launched with it; it will give higher-end rug companies a run for their money.
• Shaw Contract, Haven and Suited: I’m all about texture first and color story second. I care about structure, weave and patterning, but, that said, the color stories within these collections are very beautiful, with gorgeous neutrals and nice accents.
• Shaw Contract, Dye Lab and Gradient: In Dye Lab, no two tiles are the same. Both of these collections are design-driven and highly usable.
• Interface, World Woven: This collection is all about neutrals and really rich textures.
• Interface, Human Nature: I love the biophilic design and color stories.
• Mannington, Bouclé: This has a gorgeous texture and an expensive-looking color story. It looks like broadloom when installed, hiding its seams perfectly.
• Mannington, Paper and Origami: In full disclosure, I was on the design team for these, and I love them both. Our goal was to create two collections that could pair well together but at different price points. Paper is in the low to high teens; Origami is in the low to mid twenties.
• Tandus, HalfTone: I love Suzanne Tick. This is a gorgeous, larger-scale, undulating pattern.
• Tandus, GeoKnit: GeoKnit offers great neutrals and lots of texture.
Collins also reports that she loves the biophilic designs available today, noting, “To me, it is essential to create spaces that support health, wellbeing and inclusivity. Biophilia is great for our brains, and I appreciate that the flooring industry is giving us more organics. Stripes will always have their place, but I can do a lot with organics that benefits the users of the space.”
Most contemporary flooring manufacturers are no longer specialists, focusing on one type of product, but generalists, offering a portfolio of products, and that approach has largely been a winner with designers due to the resulting integration between product types.
“I talked to my team,” says Collins, “and we all agree that we prefer to source products from a single manufacturer, when possible, to streamline the process as well as get better pricing and color synchronization. It’s also nice to have a single point of contact. That said, if there is a space for which we’re not finding anything within a specific line, we will go outside, but for the majority of our projects, we try to use a single source.”
Bishop notes that using a single manufacturer also eliminates the possibility of the blame game, should there be a failure. “You don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen,” she reports. “Our selections are really based on relationships-who is in front of us without being annoying. If I am going to be in the trenches with someone, I want it to be someone who cares enough to call on us.” Bishop’s go-to carpet tile manufacturers are Shaw, Mannington and Interface.
Bopp is happy to revisit the same products from time to time if they have good service backing them. “If it’s easy to get in touch with the rep and get samples, our tendency is to go with them,” she says. “If someone has a great product, but we can’t get in touch with them, that will impact our choice.” Bopp adds that if a design dictates that she use various manufacturers’ products, it simply requires more due diligence on the front end.
One of the big changes Orpilla has seen in the workplace is the fact that food is now everywhere. Workers take coffee with them wherever they go; they eat at their desks; they snack in meetings, and that means that cleanability and potential for replacement are now paramount virtually everywhere, making carpet tile the best suited soft surface choice across the office space.
Orpilla prefers to let the nature of the design dictate which manufacturers he works with, adding, “I tend to mix and match between manufacturers-just like I don’t use all Steelcase furniture. Our products are determined by the concept and design. Telling the story. If it doesn’t work with one line, we won’t stick with that line and try to make it work.”
Designers are very pleased that manufacturers are now offering soft and hard lines that coordinate with one another. Says Collins, “I am so grateful that manufacturers are creating synergies between product types. Even within architectural binders today, they have samples of coordinating materials. For instance, I really appreciate that Amtico’s Umbra LVT collection-which is rich and elegant and plays on light-has coordinating carpet.”
Of course, this coordination isn’t just about creating amazing aesthetics. Transitions between differently gauged products can be hazardous, creating both danger for users and product failures. There is nothing worse than a bump that may trip someone or cause a material to pop off, according to Bopp.
“The fewer transition strips, the better,” Collins notes. “It’s about creating more accessible spaces and worrying less about codes. Plus, there are fewer nooks and crannies for things to fall into.”
Orpilla summarizes, “Manufacturers have come to understand the importance of gauging surfaces, so that there is no transition issue between them, and this has been huge. Interiors have really benefited from having goods work seamlessly together.”
He continues, “Flooring manufacturers are magical. They do everything now, and they understand that if they own all those pieces-LVT, wood, composition tile, carpet tile, etc.-that the designer may pull all from their portfolio for a seamless integration.”
Larger-scale patterns: “There is small-scale and huge, but we want a blend. Often if we customize, we blow up the size of a pattern.”
Greener sampling: “Is there a way that sampling could become sustainable? We spend a couple of days a month purging samples-returning them to reps or dropping them off at school programs-but some firms throw them away.”
Drag and drop patterns: “We are 100% drawing in Reddit software, but we still spend a lot of time creating flooring installations patterns in Photoshop, and then exporting a flat image of those into our renderings. Drag-and-drop installation pattern renderings would be helpful.”
Area rug programs: “It’s great to have the option to create custom carpet tile area rugs, but it would also be nice to have standard offerings that include an idea of turnaround times and price.”
The ease of customizing carpet tile products has come a long way, and the designers with whom we spoke are grateful for the option but have varying opinions on its utility.
Orpilla reports that he is actually customizing carpet tile products more today than he was previously. “Clients today want a look that doesn’t resemble their neighbors,” he explains. “Today’s flooring manufacturers understand that we are in a time of customization and specialization and have gotten better at smaller runs, enabling designers to customize products for a couple of conference rooms, for instance, rather than an entire office.”
Like Orpilla, Collins is a proponent of creating one-of-a-kind products. “Customization has become more mainstream, but whether or not I do it really does depend on how easy the manufacturer makes the process,” she notes. “If there is a negative impact to the cost of the product, a longer lead time or huge minimums, we are less likely to proceed, but some manufacturers make it really easy with low minimums and don’t even upcharge. And if you are just, for instance, swapping out one yarn for another, it’s easy and fast.”
She continues, “Once we decide to proceed, getting Tryks [a hyper-realistic, paper-based sample development by Tricycle, now part of Shaw Industries] back quickly really helps sell the product to the client. If you can’t get a Tryk and sample back within a week or two, you have lost the window. In the past few years, custom build tools on websites have made that easier. You can create a PDF and print your design right on the spot, basically making your own Tryk.”
Bishop, however, reports that the breadth of off-the-shelf options today leaves her with less need to create something couture. “Our customizations are more based on if we see a pattern we like but need it in a colorway that isn’t offered, or perhaps we really like the stria on a product but the solid doesn’t work out, so we will change one tone slightly,” the designer reports. “Usually, however, customizing a product isn’t worth the cost, and clients see dollar signs every time they hear the word ‘custom.’”
Bopp is also not always a proponent of customization. “The process has come a long way, but it often requires a back-and-forth many times, so it isn’t fast paced,” she adds. When she does choose to customize, Bopp enjoys working closely with a manufacturer rep through the process, rather than going it alone online.
Collins would appreciate upfront and accessible information to make the online customization process simpler. She asks, “Why not include information online saying, ‘This product can be customized at X yardage and requires an X-week lead time,’ so that it’s more obvious what can be adjusted? If we had that, we would be bolder in our customization.”
Collins shares a unique term for HOK’s approach to workplace design today: ‘corpitality,’ which speaks to the goal of bringing the warmth, detailing and inspiration of hospitality into corporate office space.
When designing a floorscape within one of these types of spaces, Collins considers how environments and neighborhoods can be delineated in the floor and the ceiling but is careful to factor in flexibility for the client’s future needs. “If I have created zones that don’t work when the client rearranges their furniture, then I haven’t done my due diligence,” she says. “Clients opt for fewer partitions in favor of flexibility, and the end-user can often adjust those themselves. In that scape, I prefer a dynamic overall floor that is constant in the space. The color and pattern shifts can come in the furnishings and upholstery. If the flooring is color blocked in a space, the end-user has to keep the space the way it is.”
Collins believes that smaller, enclosed spaces like board rooms are a better place to implement saturated color and/or bolder patterning that celebrates the larger design concept, enabling these spaces to serve as, in Collins’ words, “hidden gems to discover.”
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