Trends in Hardwood Design - Oct 2016

By Jessica Chevalier

Creating a new hardwood product is a unique and compelling endeavor rooted not only in consumer trends and demand, but also in the character and availability of the lumber itself. Hardwood flooring designers must first work with nature in developing the looks they desire, then determine whether the process of creating those looks is feasible to roll out for mass production.

The hardwood market is changing at a rapid pace. Technology with regard to formats, finishes and styling is altering the look of a material that was, in some ways, in relative stasis for years. Yes, variations in the standard color offering may have ebbed toward and away from red or yellow undertones, and there were changing preferences with regard to species, but for decades, the standard hardwood SKU was a 21/4”x4’ to 6’ solid hardwood strip in some shade of brown with a mid-level finish and flat surface texture. 

Today, there is a great deal more play with regard to palette, board format—both length and width—and texturing, which hardwood design teams achieve through a variety of means, including stains, finishes, texturing tools, varied formats and even printing. And the teams that we interviewed report that they gather information and inspiration for their new looks from a variety of sources. 

Designing hardwood is a tactile process that relies heavily on a variety of stars aligning and parties collaborating to achieve a desired result. “Other product categories are all printer-related, computer-related, but with hardwood, it’s definitely more of a hands-on process,” explains Joe Amato, vice president of styling for Mannington Mills. 

Hardwood product design teams often start in-house when commencing their creative process, talking to their company engineers, product managers and sales teams about possibilities for new products. Product managers and sales teams have the advantage of being in the field, in direct communication with customers and gathering knowledge about what is selling well and where, and that information proves valuable as the teams begin considering what new products are needed to fill out their portfolios. 

In addition, some hardwood product design teams talk directly to those on the front lines of flooring sales—such as distributors and retailers—about consumer wants. “I, personally, talk to many customers—whether they be distributors, retailers or homeowners—on a daily basis,” says Paul Stringer, vice president of sales and marketing at Somerset. “There’s no better way to learn what people think and want.”

Expositions—flooring, housewares and even fashion—are another means to delve into what looks are hot today and what direction trends are moving. Mirage’s Genevieve Lambert doesn’t limit her sight to the North American market, but considers European trends as well. 

“The first step for us is to identify what’s next,” she says. “What is the product we don’t have that we should? And to do that, we travel across North America and Europe to a lot of different shows. That gives us different ideas of what we’re missing and what the current trends are in the market. As an example, in Las Vegas every year, there is a big furniture market show, a kitchen and bath show, and Surfaces—those give us insight to know what we’re missing and also what the trends are. This is really the first step of creation.” In addition to the shows Lambert cites, other interviewees point to the Architectural Digest Design Show; New York City’s luxury furniture fair, ICFF; High Point Market; and NYCxDESIGN as good events for trend gathering. 

Hardwood product designers also look to the media. Shelter publications stay atop of what’s current in home design, offering product designers not only an idea of trends they should consider for product creation but also those they should seek to coordinate with. “Flooring is part of a room; it’s part of a house, so it’s something we really have to connect with,” says Amato. “For those reasons, we really look at what’s happening in home fashion. What are the styles we’re seeing in other products in the house?”

Mohawk Industries’ hardwood product director Adam Ward agrees. “We’re looking at furniture shows,” he says. “But we’re also looking at—where is the furniture industry going? Where is the cabinet industry going? We’re making sure our floors fit in with all of those categories that are going into the home.”

Home-related social media sites, such as Pinterest and Houzz, provide product design teams a perspective on what looks are really resonating with consumers. Says George Ragsdale, manager of hardwood product development and design at Shaw Industries, “There’s a good amount of information that our designers, Jason Shaw and Patrick Pusateri, just create from what they think is starting to be trendy from watching social media, like Pinterest and Houzz.” 

Even clothing fashion trends offer insight into where flooring design may be headed—albeit in a few years’ time. “Flooring is not exactly the driver when it comes to design trends,” says Emanuel Lidberg, Kährs Group designer, “so you have to look elsewhere for those trends, toward more fast-moving consumer goods, like fashion and electronics. Those are a great inspiration for me. When it comes to color, I look to the fashion industry because we know in a couple of years consumers will be translating fashion trends to interior design. I spend a lot of time looking at fashion blogs for ideas on color, texture, three-dimensionality. For design, I look at soft goods and hardware goods like consumer electronics. If you look at consumer electronics for the past two or three years, there are a lot of patterns, and we’ve had a lot of demand for patterns when it comes to flooring. It’s a result of consumers getting used to the design language and wanting to take it further into their homes and their interiors.”

With surface texture playing such an important role in hardwood today, Amato often goes “into the field” to look at examples of naturally distressed woods, studying the character of woods from old, weathered, disassembled barns and buildings to serve as a starting point for textures Mannington might develop. 

At Shaw, Ragsdale’s team finds value in reaching outside of the hardwood category to consult with designers in different flooring product categories, at times pulling processes from one category to another. 

Howard Montgomery, creative design director for Armstrong Flooring, takes a similar approach, soliciting feedback from many different departments within Armstrong Flooring. “Internally the audience [offering feedback] is a totally trans-disciplinary team,” Montgomery says. “It’s product management; it’s operations; it’s design, brand marketing, quality, sales. Our process is all about team.” 

In large part, at the start of the design process, designers aren’t looking for outliers but for themes, and, interestingly, though many designers will ultimately hone in on the same themes, that doesn’t mean their end products will be similar. “We, like others, see the same stuff, but the difference is how you interpret that information,” explains Montgomery. “We go through a certain amount of interpretation about what we’re seeing, and usually, if we see a certain of theme re-occurring, that’s when we will start to take notice, providing some earnest direction about what we should be thinking about in the future. For secondary research, we go to shows, we go to trade events. We look within the design industry, and then we actually build that story around our intuition at the end of the day and provide those recommendations.”

Stringer points out that, ultimately, product decisions aren’t only about style but also about what will satisfy consumer demand and make both Somerset and its partners successful. To that end, the manufacturer considers how the potential new products will fit within the rest of the line; how the company can add value with the new product; how feasible the product is with regard to sourcing, production and achieving the desired look; and whether the product offers long-term viability, noting that, in reality, browns account for the majority of sales and trendy tones for little. 

Once product design teams have honed in on the looks they want to create, they begin considering the feasibility of manufacturing them. Lambert says that following the information gathering process, her team considers what production of the hardwood flooring might entail as well as its chance of success in the market, asking such questions as: How time consuming and labor intensive is it to create the look? Will manufacture involve hand or machine work? Do they have the machines needed to achieve the look, or will they have to buy new ones? Is the process significantly different from what the production staff is accustomed to?

Once they have determined which products to move forward with, they head to the engineering department to have prototypes created. 

Typically, the hardwood design team is creating not one prototype but testing many different techniques and looks. “Sometimes I have a color that is handmade,” explains Lambert. “It is really natural, and it looks very good. But to reproduce this color on a line, that’s not so easy. I would compare it to a recipe. You know the final results that you want, like a chocolate cake, but you don’t know which ingredients you’re going to use and which steps need to be done in what order. That’s why it’s very important that I work with my team of engineers, so they really understand the look I am going for. I’m always on the line with them, making suggestions like, ‘Maybe you should add more white because designers told me they really want something clean, so less yellow.’ And then we’re going to do different tests. We could do tests all afternoon to make sure we’re getting the exact color that we want. That’s really the key to success.”

Montgomery explains Armstrong’s process: “With a textured look and theme, for example, we would do a lot of prototyping on the line. We would also do color trials and test the color and texture and theme. We would do that internally on our operational lines. We would have time set aside for those opportunities, and we would direct those initiatives with our external partners. That can be a highly iterative process, like all design processes. We may not hit it the first time so we will go back and do several tests and prototype runs to achieve the final look we’re after, whether that be by color or by look and texture.”

Once those prototype designs are finished, the information-gathering process begins again, in a way, “I’m going to travel with a rep for our company, and he’s going to bring me to all his different design accounts,” explains Lambert. “And then I’m going to show them the prototypes to get their feedback and comments. For example, they might say, ‘This color has too much pink in it; it’s going to be hard for us to match it with furniture,’ so then I’m going to come back to the plant and try to tweak the color with my team.” 

In addition, Mirage assembles product committees that give the final yes or no on whether a product will go to market. “We have a stage gate process,” says Lambert, “so every color has to go through different gates to make sure we’re going to launch it. Different VPs are in that committee, so everyone offers their opinion.”

Don Bufalini, western regional sales manager at DuChâteau, employs a similar process, “Our owners are hands-on in product selection. We make decisions in a broad sense—an idea about a color or a visual that we’re going for—then we’ll select some textures, colors and styles and have them sampled. We lay them out and look at them over time. They kind of grow on you. We round table it.” Bufalini notes that choosing looks that stand out and also age well design-wise involves walking a line, and, in this regard, the best choices are often the result of pooling the views of many participants. “We’re trying to be inventive and innovative, but you also don’t want to create something that will cause someone to say, ‘Wow, you bought that in the ‘80s, didn’t you?’ We don’t want to pigeonhole a look. We’re trying to find that balance. No one person makes a decision; it’s usually a collective.”

Much of what we appreciate in hardwood is its natural look, and for hardwood designers, that means striking a balance. Reinventing the look of hardwood time and again is key to staying at the forefront of the industry, but, ultimately, those new looks can’t overshadow the natural appeal of the product. Here’s what’s popular in today’s market: 

• Species: White oak, hickory
• Character: Softer rustics (modern, farmhouse, industrial cool)
• Finish: Low-gloss to matte, the oil finish look
• Tones: Muted, lighter tones; grey-browns; browns 
• Formats: longer (up to 8’) and wider (up to 8”), but reaching a limit

There are, however, additional complexities to the process for creating a hardwood SKU. Interestingly, for hardwood manufacturers, it’s not about launching one great SKU in ten fresh tones that appeal to contemporary palettes, but about offering a complete assortment of these. What makes that even more complicated is realizing that a great market assortment for East Coast communities isn’t necessarily a great market assortment for Western metropolises. The U.S. alone is made up of many different markets with varying tastes that are impacted by color and format trends differently.

This presents an even greater challenge for manufacturers that serve a variety of global markets, like Kährs. “We can’t match just one trend,” notes Lidberg. “We have to sell floors on the West Coast and on the East Coast—and there’s a big difference when it comes to trends even there—then consider Russia, the Nordic countries, central Europe. We have to have a really wide portfolio. But, then again, we still need to customize our offering for each market.” Though Kährs is based in Sweden and is influenced significantly by Nordic design trends, the company reports that it must, at times, break from those guiding design principles to serve particular markets. In fact, the company recently launched a collection called Talbot developed solely for U.S. tastes. 

In addition to serving so many discriminating palates, there is the fact of the hardwood itself, which varies greatly, not only from species to species, but also from plank to plank. While the unique nature of the material is, without a doubt, one of the attributes that appeals most to consumers, it presents challenges on the design and production side of the business. For example, just because the most popular hardwood on the market is, say, white oak, that doesn’t mean that designers can roll out every new tone on that lumber and achieve an ideal result. On the contrary, certain hardwoods work well with certain tones and not well with others, just as some hardwoods are better suited for wirebrushing or distressing. Different woods have different characteristics, even within a species. 

“Our lumber is graded A to D, depending on what we’re going to do with the actual look,” says Montgomery. “We also look at the color or the species in terms of how the inks will take to certain types of timbers over others. Each wood or species takes dyes and color work differently from others. We have several partners that we work with in terms of color development. Those individuals help develop colors based on certain types of species. We need to think about the type of species and then adapt the chemicals to adhere to that look and feel. We also have to consider, is it a one-dye or a two-dye process?”

The cut of the wood is significant as well. A round column of timber is not the most efficient of shapes to cut planks from, and the process yields a lot of waste. The peel process, which produces veneers, is the most economical way to cut a piece of lumber, but it’s not the most attractive in terms of the graining and overall appearance. Quarter sawn, on the other hand, is expensive but produces a more attractive result. 

The current preference for long boards also presents a challenge with regard to lumber. “When we’re producing big 12”x12’ planks, how many pieces of timber are we cutting?” asks Montgomery. “I just went through ten trees, and I got maybe one room. The trend toward longer, wider boards is great [in terms of aesthetics], but what do you do with all that waste? It becomes cost prohibitive.”

Lidberg notes that, while high-end, clean oak is a great hardwood to work with, only about 10% of the material coming from the sawmills qualifies. In cases where the wood isn’t perfect, the trick is to find the right inspiration for the right material. And interestingly, the creation of one product sometimes necessitates the creation of another. Lambert explains, “If I launch a product that is only rustic, sometimes I will also need to launch a product that is clean, so we can have a mix of both grades because we generate both.” 

While hardwood experts obviously understand the varying traits of different woods, creating a particular look is still often more art than science. Explains Ragsdale, “Our designers are going to make up a handful of options to start. We’ll say, let’s see what this looks like on hickory or maybe cherry or maybe walnut. Then we’ll ask, what if we were to direct it toward more of a textured product? What does that texture need to be? One of our first considerations is, what species should we put this on? Some of the substrates work much better for certain types of products over others. If we’re already thinking about a smooth, subtle type product, maple works very well for that because it has a very clean, silky look. We may make three or four different versions of an idea, and then typically our designers and my group review it. We get as much feedback as we can, given the timeline, and we will pursue one of those options to move along in the process.” 

Mind you, feedback doesn’t always align in the same direction, which means that designers have to make tough calls. “My job is to set the design guidelines and come up with a concept that we want to try out for the next year,” says Lidberg. “I’ve started to work on the 2018 collection, for example. We begin with a picture of what we want to try, what logs we want to pursue, and try to explore that. Then, when it comes to producing prototypes, it’s a lot of group work with the product manager, category manager and the different regional managers out in the market. Twice a year, we get everybody in a room and discuss the guidelines for the next product development. Then when we have the prototypes, we gather again, have a look at them and try to evaluate the prototypes. But the tricky thing is, you can’t always rely on market feedback to get where you want. Sometimes you have to say, ‘This is good,’ even though the regional market manager might say ‘No, we’re not going to sell a lot of that one’. You have to remember, it will take a year until we launch this product, and by then the market may have changed. So sometimes we have to overrule them.”

Kährs’ product design team faces a similar challenge, as its ultimate goal is not simply to follow trends but to create them. “As a company, we are not about following trends,” clarifies Lidberg. “That’s important for the basic development of the portfolio—to keep the bulk of it moving with the time and feeling contemporary—but the neat thing about trends is that you can also create them. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and say that this is something really, really nice that we believe in. We haven’t seen it on the market before, but we’re going to go for it and try to set a new standard. That’s, of course, a risk, but we’re striving toward being a needle [in a haystack] when it comes to design in the flooring business. That means we have to take risks. Sometimes you will fail and sometimes you will have a great success. The important thing is you can’t really set a course for following trends. You have to try and create them yourself as well.”

Ultimately, compromise comes in other forms as well. “You can make the most beautiful prototypes by hand, but they will cost so much to actually produce that consumers won’t be able to buy them,” says Lidberg. “I’m an industrial designer, I’m not an artist, so my goal is to be able to make the designs at a price level that’s actually affordable to people. The tricky part is to find that balance.”

For a company like DuChâteau, which is known for its distinctive European oil finish look, another key objective is developing new aesthetics and formats while also staying true to its trademark look and maintaining a natural wood visual. “It’s wood, so I’m trying to keep that natural feeling, that warmth that natural wood brings. When you look at it, it shouldn’t look like a laminate or something artificial. It needs to look real. That’s a challenge we’re finding with a lot of the urethane visuals; in an effort by manufacturers to make floors more scratch resistant, they’re using these thicker plastic type coatings, and the thicker these coatings get, the more they start to look artificial. It doesn’t sound or feel like natural wood. We don’t want to lose that. We’re trying to maintain the feeling that this is a tree.”

A product designer may toil over a SKU for months, or years even, but once it’s finished and handed off, its fate lies largely in the hands of the advertising, marketing and sales teams. If a product struggles or tanks, determining which strategy—the look, the marketing or the sales—went awry can be a challenging process, but one worth undertaking to save a SKU or simply garner knowledge for next time. 

“I spend a lot of time with the product managers to understand the different volumes and products and how well they actually sell,” says Lidberg. “Sometimes products don’t sell because they haven’t been marketed in the right way. Sometimes they weren’t right when they launched, but they will be right in two years, so you have to convince managers to keep products that are not selling now because they will sell in two years’ time. That’s also true when you launch new products. You may launch a product, knowing it will probably take two years to be established in the market. Sometimes I prefer to launch them early because there will always be early adopter consumers, and that’s also a way to lead and set the trends.”

On the other hand, a product designer may also find themselves at odds with their product and sales managers when it comes to removing a product from the line-up. “Taking out a product is always tricky, because some of the products have been on the market a very long time and the markets are used to having them, and they sell them on old merit in a way,” explains Lidberg. “Sometimes you have to take out old products to replace them with new ones, and force the sales rep to actually sell that product in a different way and talk about the product in a different way.”

Many factors play a role when a product design team is working to determine whether to kill a SKU. Sales numbers are obviously the most significant of these, but they aren’t the only consideration. 

When contemplating dropping a SKU, Lambert begins her analysis by taking a holistic look at the figures, determining whether the product has been on a downtrend for a full five years. She also considers whether the market trends are ebbing away from the product in consideration. A deep red, for example, is decidedly off-trend in today’s market, whereas the market is circling back around to lighter tones, so a beige that has been performing weakly may soon make a comeback. 

In some cases, Mirage holds onto a particular SKU for a time to fulfill a specific market’s needs, but, ultimately, if there are alternative products in the portfolio for the market at hand, they will often drop the color and replace it with something that has more widespread appeal.

With regard to dropping and adding products, displays—with their limited number of slots—pose the greatest challenge for manufacturers. “Sometimes I’m adding eight new colors, and I’m only removing three, so we need to choose what should go in the display for specific markets,” says Lambert. 

“It comes down to dollars and cents,” says Bufalini. “Is it selling or not? We’ve dropped colors this year that I thought were going to be strong performers for us. We had a collection of band sawn visuals with really pronounced, deep cut lines. It was very patterned. Commercially, it sold fairly well in boutique stores and restaurants, pubs and even some office spaces. They really loved it. But residentially, we couldn’t sell it at all. We kept it in the line for a few years, but we finally ended up dropping it because the commercial market wasn’t enough to justify keeping it in the catalog and inventory. It was too patterned, too pronounced, too rough. Logistically, homeowners were concerned about cleaning.”

Just because a company purges a SKU or collection from its line, however, doesn’t mean it won’t reappear at a later date.

Bufalini adds, “We thought, what if we tone it down? Could we keep the visual but make it subtler? We reintroduced it as a new collection with band saw marks on some but not all planks, and it was better received.”

First, he considers character, which can mean two things: the species and the lumber. For the species, he considers what is in demand in the current market. Regarding lumber, he considers what lumber types are going to yield the look that he wants to achieve. 

Once he’s selected the base wood, he considers how best to achieve the character that he wants: through scraping, wirebrushing, sanding, saw marks or embossing (a process in which a design is printed on the hardwood). These decisions rely heavily on what price point Mannington is hoping to hit with the product. If Amato is creating an entry-level product, he might choose printing, for instance, over hand work. “Let’s just say we’re trying to come up with a price point in wood, and we don’t want to put a lot of hand or machine work into it. We can actually create a print roller that almost replicates the look of a hand-rubbed, stain-finished product. Because of all the experience we have in printing laminate, LVT and sheet vinyl, we have an upper hand in using the technology to actually print on real wood. And the key is, when you look at it, you can’t tell.”

Amato next considers format. Over the past five years, hardwood has gotten both longer and wider, but Amato notes an emerging movement back towards 2” and 3” widths. Choosing the appropriate format for a look—or, indeed, a variable width format—for a particular aesthetic is key in developing the overall look.

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Mohawk Industries, Mirage Floors, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Lumber Liquidators, Armstrong Flooring, Mannington Mills