Trends in Upscale Residential Design: Hardwood rules in the luxury home - Feb 2021
By Jessica Chevalier
In an unexpected silver lining, the Covid-19 quarantine has spurred a surge in residential remodel activity, as homebound individuals exist within their personal spaces in ways they may not have previously. Designer Kesha Franklin, founder of Halden Interiors, explains that, amid the quarantine, “many people are truly experiencing their homes for the first time. For some, especially those who come from fast-paced locations like New York City, prior to the quarantine, home was nothing more than a place to sleep. They weren’t experiencing their homes enough to realize, ‘Hey, the floors are cold.’ They didn’t have time to.”
Now, as so many are working and schooling within their four walls, homeowners are noticing what they love about their spaces and what they’d love to change, and accord-ing to Franklin, who is based just outside New York City in New Jersey, “the home industry has exploded.” Of course, it’s homeowners at the upper end of the financial spectrum who have the resources to hire professional design help, and as such, the sector has been active during the quarantine months. These renovations may be a single room or the whole house, but regardless, they are generally large-scale overhauls that include replacement or refurbishment of all major finishes, flooring included.
Since the onset of the virus within the U.S. in early 2020, there has been a great deal of chatter about population movement. The suburbs and exurbs have come alive-and new home construction has been brisk-as those from city centers seek more space. However, John Cialone, partner at Tom Stringer Design Partners and director-at-large for the American Society of Interior Design (ASID), points out there is an awareness that the pandemic is finite, and potential buyers are wondering if they will still want 4,000 square feet and a 40-minute commute once it ends. For some, the answer isn’t more space but smarter space, and that’s where renovation comes in.
Much to the joy of designers in the residential field, the pandemic has shed light on the fact that a well-designed home isn’t just a pretty space but one that has been thoughtfully constructed to function better for its residents. And now that work and education has entered into the home space, multi-functionality is key.
This multi-functionality is a factor of both the big-picture and the minute details. On the grand scale, the pandemic caused homeowners to reconsider the ever-popular open-concept floor plan. “With everyone home,” says Chicago-based Cialone, “we realize that one great room isn’t enough.” Open concepts are especially tough for mitigating noise transference, and that is a important factor if even one individual is working within the home. “We need a family room with a door that shuts,” the designer adds, a place where the kids can watch Disney while their parents tuck into a quiet space for a Zoom call.
“Homeowners are looking for flex space that they can use as they see fit, either as an office or a place where they can home-school the kids,” says Alan Beulah, vice president of sales and marketing at the Charlotte, North Carolina division of Co-lumbus, Ohio-based M/I Homes in a recent study by Builder On-line. According to the report, while this doesn’t signal the end of the open floor plan, it does mean that “buyers are looking beyond just a kitchen with a clear sightline into the living room,” with Steve Spinell, principal at Chicago-based Kinzie Builders, noting that the best designs are “those that show how open floor plans and defined spaces can exist in the same home.”
As for the importance of de-tails, small considerations can make a big difference. Cialone, for example, has long included a desk in a bedroom design. Why? He believes that both residents and guests should have a space to which they can retreat for quiet work and contemplation outside the hustle and bustle at the heart of the home. Amid the quarantine, several former clients have reached out to compliment him on that forward-thinking ap-proach, which has transformed from a thoughtful touch into a critical asset.
And Carolyn Noble, founder of Ames Design Collective as well as product developer and trend forecaster, strongly embrac-es the opportunity of the nook. “It’s great to be able to put in a luxury home office, but what do you do in a mid-town apartment?” the designer asks. “We can create a nook-a countertop with stor-age that can be used as a place to craft, to do school, a space of quiet and tranquility. This will be important for a while.”
Flooring plays an important role as homeowners establish multi-function spaces. “One room may serve as a study for the kids during the day but a yoga studio at night,” says Kerrie Kelly, creative director of Kerrie Kelly Design Lab and ASID fellow and National Board chair. “With hardwood flooring and an area rug underfoot, this is an easy transition.”
Interestingly, the pandemic embrace of the home may be as much a function of psychology as it is pragmatics. “There’s been a fundamental shift in what home means to American buyers. People are realizing more than ever the fragility and expiration of life. They’re steadfast and determined to turn their residential dreams into reality. We see them chasing a feeling, one that is good, safe and permanent,” said Scott Acton, CEO of Las Vegas–based Forté Specialty Contractors, in a recent Builder Online article.
Tom Stringer Design Partners has a reputation for finishing projects on time and on budget. “Design gets a bad rap for things being over time and budget, especially in a Covid world,” says Cialone. “We understand the parameters and work within them. Sometimes we are a little practical, which is a funny thing in this business.”
One thing Cialone does not appreciate are products that imitate other materials. “I’m a purist in this respect,” he says.
While high-end design may once have been about establish-ing a showplace of the home, to-day’s professionals have a strong conviction to create designs that serve the client’s lifestyle and in-crease their joy and ease of living. That means spaces in which a cli-ent, their children, grandchildren, friends, pets and guests can live freely, without fear of damaging the finishes.
It’s a noteworthy theme among the designers with whom we spoke and much more important in driving de-sign that contemporary trends. “Every client is different,” says Franklin. “My approach isn’t about what’s in or what’s out but about what the client and their family need. What problem am I here to solve to make their living experience better?”
Cialone agrees with the approach, adding, “We would never be a firm that, for instance, doesn’t do French Country. We’re very client-centric. We do a lot of research and get to know the client and the vernacular of the location. The design has to be about the client, the location and the architecture-we push boundaries from there. Many of our clients have multiple residences, and it’s important that they all function the same way, so we use the same lighting systems and the same ap-pliances to make living simpler and build a sense of place.” Cialone, who spent his formative years and early career in South Florida, adds with a laugh, “Even if every design we’re hired to do has a tropical coast theme, it’s still about the client. We have no formulas.”
Kelly seeks to satisfy what may seem like somewhat compet-ing needs with her flooring choices and to create a space that fits the client’s life. “We recently worked with a family whose home we had originally designed 12 years ago,” explains the Sacramento, California-based designer. “Unfortunately, over the Fourth of July, their home burned down, and they came to us to rebuild it. With three daughters who are now teenagers and a dog named Pupcake, we were able to address their life-style in a whole new way. The finishes for this project became of the upmost importance-not only did they need to be beautiful, they needed to be durable.” Kelly specified porcelain tile and hardwood throughout the home. Her go-to hardwood purveyors for the “California-casual style” and long-wearing performance are Carlisle Wide Plank Floors and DuChateau.
It is important to remember that homeowners who hire professional designers aren’t looking for a run-of-the mill aes-thetic but for something grand and fabulous. “Most high-end clients are looking for the wow factor. They want luxury, and visual experience is a driving factor in that,” says Franklin. As such, high-end residential design-ers are always seeking manufac-turers that push the limits of style and offer unique aesthetics. On a current project, for instance, Franklin created a tile backsplash with products from handcrafted tile firm Pratt + Larson.
While adhering to current fashions does not drive the deci-sions of the designers with whom we spoke, there are some big-picture trends that have a significant impact, according to Cialone; health and wellness and casual living/ease of main-tenance are overarching themes of residential design today. “Even in houses with formality, fabrics and finishes tend to be low maintenance or high durability,” he explains. “Even in an elegant space, you don’t want to worry about materials that can be easily damaged. We don’t want materials that negatively impact the client’s use of the space.” Cialone reports that, while he still specifies expensive rugs and finishes, he always does so with a consciousness of their durability.
On the wellness front, Cialone notes that clients are inter-ested in healthy products that do not offgas, and that these and locally sourced products, such as a hardwood floor made from lumber harvested locally, are often the driving sustainable concerns for residential clients.
Noble, based in Atlanta, reports that sustainability is an important consideration for her, and she always tries to lead client discussions with a conversation about sustainability focused largely on products made with renewable resources and those that are healthy for humans in proximity to them. For the most part, she avoids LVT, for instance, because she has concerns about offgassing and the non-renewable nature of the product’s ingredients, favoring solid or engi-neered hardwood instead. She points to a quote that speaks to her approach: “The beautiful story can also be the most sustainable.”
“We like a home to perform for a lifetime,” says Kelly. “With so many flooring manufacturers being conscious of sustainability, it makes it easy for us to focus on aesthetics and low-maintenance features with our clients.”
And Franklin says, “There are so many amazing products on the market, so you aren’t compromising one benefit-like sustainability or durability-for another. I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of what’s available from the flooring indus-try-it’s doing an incredible job.”
Half of Kerrie Kelly Design Lab’s work is new home construction with its homebuilder partners. On the new construction side of her business, there is interest in vinyl plank due to its durable aesthetic and great value. Kelly notes, “LVP and LVT have come a long way with technological advances, allowing vinyl flooring to get close to natural wood and stone looks.” This is important, the designer notes, to achieving visual continuity within the spacious, open concepts of today. The designer notes that Shaw offers “many beautiful LVP products.”
She continues, “The innovation that has occurred in the flooring industry is incredible. To be able to offer a ‘look’ at any price point is a true benefit working as a designer. Years ago, it may have been obvious when using wood-looking vinyl or tiles. Today, our clients have to kneel down and touch the product to know what it is truly made of-and even then, there is often a question of ‘Is this real wood?’”
Kelly adds that the inclusion of designers-those who specify the products-in the product design process is a positive trend that she believes should continue.
“Flooring is one of the very first considerations on a project,” says Noble. “We build the palette around it.”
All of the designers with whom we spoke agree that flooring considerations happen early and, while they may ultimately change, provide a foundation upon which a design is built.
Kelly considers flooring part of the “backdrop” of the home, not-ing “after interviewing a client about their lifestyle and desired aesthetic, we can offer various options that will fit the bill, under-standing that all the other layers of the home will perch upon it.”
On a recent project, Cialone was renovating a 12,000-square-foot house on the banks of Lake Louise in Indiana. He began his process with an “eye wash,” a walk-through to establish prelimi-nary design ideas and, at that point, suggested a hand-scraped, bleached oak flooring with a slight wash for the living spaces
and broadloom carpet for all bedrooms except the master, which would include the same bleached hardwood. The light-toned oak was selected because “there was lots of sand coming in the house, and I wanted the flooring to look as good in its tenth year as its first.” Ultimately, the designer didn’t go with the first product he proposed but something similar that carried the same overall look.
While Cialone often takes the hardwood into the bed-rooms, for the Lake Louise project, he opted for broadloom in all but the master “because broadloom makes the rooms quiet and provides a hotel ex-perience, so visitors can kick off their shoes.”
While residential clients often approach their designers with a concept or a picture of the aesthetic they are seeking, design-ers report that they are generally not well-versed enough in flooring to have specific requests that go deeper than “hard-wood” or “porcelain” or “carpet.”
Noble notes that she finds it important to educate clients about product criteria factors that they may not even realize are important, such as the need to choose a slip-resistant por-celain for a shower application or the fact that wool rugs will shed, sometimes considerably, but that will not impact their performance long-term.
Regarding hardwood, Franklin reports that “clients are overwhelmed by all the species, how the color will take on oak versus maple, plank sizes, installation patterns and how the width of the wood will change a pattern. There is some educa-tion to do when the conversation of flooring is introduced.”
Notably, when it comes to specifying solid hardwood-Franklin’s product of choice for most projects-she leans into her trusted partnership with her hardwood flooring installer, with whom she has been working since 2012. “I give him my ideas and how I want it to look, as well as the budget, and he presents some of the options,” she explains.
HARDWOOD RULES HIGH-END HOMES
While the hardwood category has faced challenges in recent years due to the many less expensive wood-look products on the market, high-end residential is very much the category’s domain-even more so in recent years as the preference for hard surface has expanded across the living spaces and into the bedrooms. “Hardwood is our top choice for flooring through-out a home,” says Kelly. “If it can’t be solid due to price, we can always find an engineered alternative.”
Of course, many spaces under renovation have existing solid hardwood, which has the amazing ability to be sanded and re-stained to complement a new color scheme. Engineered hard-wood products with thicker veneers can offer this benefit, as well.
Franklin utilizes both solid and engineered products in her designs, and her selection is often based on logistical factors. For in-stance, the designer explains that many condominium complexes prohibit the use of oil-based poly-urethanes due to the smell or all-out ban the use of hardwood that must be sanded and finished on site-in such cases, she opts for engineered. She will also uti-lize prefinished engineered if she needs a thinner product, based on the height of the subfloor or the need to minimize height dif-ferences at transitions. Budgetary requirements or client preferences may also compel her choice of engineered. Her go-to manu-facturers for engineered hardwood are Mirage and Maxwell.
For the renovation of a Brooklyn-based home built in 1901, Franklin, who has a more modern design point of view gener-ally, removed the chipping, honey-colored parquet across the home; leveled the floors, which were slanted; and opted for a 4” oak on the second and third floors while creating a her-ringbone design in oak with a traditional diamond border for the main floor. The result feels both historical and modern.
In renovating a neighbor’s kitchen, Noble opted to sand and re-stain what were originally dark-stained oak floors. “We went in, stripped the floor down, looked at five finishes and went with one as close to natural oak as could be. We added a drop of grey in the stain mix to neutralize the red in the oak. The color is light and warm. And we used it the whole way through the home, adding new wood flooring in the bedrooms and home office.”
For his hardwood specifications, Cialone prefers finishes that carry an already-worn look, like brushed products, the aesthetics of which are easier to maintain. Cialone notes that it’s a good look even in a formal home, and he reports that there are many great-looking options on the market.
Notes Kelly, “Textured, wide-plank hardwood has al-lowed for durability and variation throughout common areas of the home.”
Porcelain is another product with widespread use in luxury residential design, and the designers with whom we spoke have high praise for the variety of looks available today. “Unique pat-terns and larger format tiles have allowed us to add personality in bathroom spaces,” says Kelly, who notes that Crossville, Ann Sacks, TileBar, Daltile and Bedrosians are some of her manufac-turers of choice.
“I love Artistic Tile, TileBar has a good range of price points and some really creative things, and I like Ann Sacks,” adds Franklin. For West Coast projects, Franklin may opt for porcelain or travertine throughout the living spaces of the house to keep the home cooler. For her current historic home renovation, the designer specified a 36”x36” porcelain. “With fewer seams, it feels more like a slab than tile,” she explains. “It is turning out beautifully.”
Area rugs are the darling of residential design, adding texture, color, interest, comfort and acoustic mitigation atop a hard surface floor. Kelly notes that over the last decade “area rugs have become more popular, giving us a ‘fifth wall’ to add pattern and color to anchor a space.”
“When you make a to-do list in residential design, the area rug is a line item; it brings a level of comfort and is another area for bringing in artistic elements,” says Franklin, who prefers to use wool blends rather than 100% wool due to the shedding. She also uses nylon, bamboo silk and natural silk. “I love rugs with a sheen,” she adds. “It feels more luxurious.”
Franklin’s favorite rug purveyors include F.J. Kashanian and Stark Carpet.
Broadloom & Carpet Tile
The trend against using soft surface materials through the liv-ing areas of the home has been well-documented. The designers with whom we spoke generally reserve carpet for use in bedroom and select spaces as needed. And Kelly notes that she will use broadloom on stairs if she is seeking to make an impression with a custom runner.
Cialone sometimes opts for carpet tile on lower levels of the home, such as in a playroom, where there tend to be spills or if there is the threat of water intrusion. He notes that he is impressed with both Shaw’s residential and contract carpet products and reports that Stanton is at the forefront of durability.
Noble uses and appreciates carpet in all its forms, “Carpet tile is so durable, and I love that you can pop another in if one’s damaged, and there is still something beautiful about a wonder-ful broadloom.”
The utilization of underfloor heating systems is on the rise. Currently, there are many systems on the market for use under a variety of flooring materials. Bathrooms, often porcelain, are a frequent choice for the systems. “There’s nothing like waking up to warm floors first thing in the morning!” says Kelly.
Cialone notes that he even has requests for underfloor heating by clients in warm climates, where it tends to serve as the heating of the house, rather than the furnace.
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