By Jennifer Bardoner
When Sara Babinski, now senior design manager for AHF Products, started in hardwood design at Armstrong over 30 years ago, “everything was gunstock and brown,” she says. Over time, the styling trends shifted to lighter, low-gloss finishes and the distressed, handscraped look started to wane. But, now the color wheel is beginning to turn again in favor of midtones. While no one expects a full-scale return to gunstock and other medium browns, there’s growing demand in the market for these traditional colors as consumers seek coziness in their surroundings.
The trend toward lighter colors started in the mid-2010s. In 2008, the Lacey Act Amendment flushed exotics out of the market, leading to a trend away from exotic colors. In the decade before the pandemic, there was a period of greys, starting cooler and moving warmer and lighter even before quarantine, and by late 2018-when the retailers and manufacturers we talked to pegged the current trend of soft naturals-the move to the lighter end of the spectrum was firmly established. But amid the pandemic’s prolonged season of uncertainty, buyers are beginning to turn back toward rich, warm browns, away from greys, as a source of comfort.
“I think what’s starting to come in are those medium, warm browns-not brown with reddish in it, not brown with yellowish in it,” says Brad Williams, vice president of sales and marketing for Boa-Franc. Based in St-Georges, Quebec, Boa-Franc is one of the largest Canadian hardwood flooring producers and a leading supplier to the U.S. market through its Mirage brand.
Regardless of whether it’s a sandy Scandinavian or a welcoming walnut hue, Kali Kupp, marketing manager for Swedish engineered hardwood producer Kährs, says removing undertones or going warmer was a big request from designers when the company recently sought input for its Canvas collection, which gained three new colors this year based on that feedback.
“Currently, it seems the ‘holy grail’ product is a natural, neutral, light wood with no undertones, a matte finish and some slight texture on the surface-like a freshly cut piece of wood,” she says. “With this feedback we produced our Oak Fawn color, and we’ve seen consumers respond just as strongly as the designers did to this color. Henna is also a big hit because it’s that midtone brown that I think people are looking for now-cozier, warmer.”
She says the shift toward darker colors is taking hold in Europe as well, which tends to lead the industry in terms of what’s next. Scandinavia, the mother of the current trend of airy naturals, is starting to turn to “musty dark colors, brown and greys,” and in Central Europe, consumers are reconnecting with “lively, rustic products” in brown tones.
As human nature continually drives us from one end of the spectrum to the other, midtones represent a compromise. “There’s kind of a backlash in the industry where people are getting a little weary of these very light, warm colors, and they want to see something different,” Babinski says. “Medium-tone browns are coming back that have kind of a grey cast.”
Greys and greiges have been the gold standard for several years, and while they may be out on the West Coast-which, like Europe, tends to be ahead of trends-Williams notes that there is still a place for them, especially in the Midwest. “We have to be careful,” he says of taking cues from one segment of the market. “That trend is going to start to trend next year in these [other] markets.” Middle America is generally several years behind the West Coast when it comes to trends, he explains. But with clean aesthetics still trending across the country, stains with a slight tint can help tone down some of the wood’s natural characteristics, especially for domestic producers, as red oak, one of the most abundant species in North America, has a livelier grain structure than white oak, which is predominant in Europe.
“The challenge can be that you have to find attractive colors to put on red oak, because that’s what predominantly comes out of the woods,” says Paul Stringer, vice president of sales and marketing for Somerset Hardwood, which sources its products from Appalachian timberlands. His Kentucky-based company’s best-selling line, Color Strip, which features natural, gunstock and golden hues, is the same as it has been since Somerset began offering the solid strip line-one of its first collections-20 years ago.
“You talk about trends and all that, but our best-selling line is the same,” he says. “One of our finishing companies says it makes 232 different tones of gunstock.”
Despite latching onto trends as they make their way across the country, the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Southeast to some extent have remained more traditional, and manufacturers agree that there will always be a wide audience for their legacy collections, especially as hardwood buyers tend to be older and more established.
“There’s still just a huge audience for those classic looks that people are used to or that they grew up with,” Babinski says.
AHF-now the largest domestic hardwood producer, following its recent acquisition of American OEM-is working on two new collections set to debut in 2022 that will feature 50% legacy colors and 50% trending colors like pale Scandanavian hues.
With trends tending to originate in Europe or on the West Coast, it typically takes years before they are established nationwide by way of the country’s major metro markets, though that window of time is closing due to the immediacy of the Internet. That also means that commercial designers, typically looked to as heralds of change, are no longer the only genesis.
“We’re also seeing ‘influencers’ setting trends, especially with consumers-like the star of a home renovation show or a social media influencer or DIY blogger,” Kupp says. “With how interconnected the feedback loop is, trends may become more widespread more quickly, and in parallel, allow for more niche trends to surface, too.”
This is both a boon and a hurdle for hardwood producers. On the one hand, it has helped homogenize preferences to some degree. “What we used to do is look at a variety of different geographic areas, including the West Coast, the mountain states, the TOLA states [Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas], Midwest and Central, South and Southeast, and Northeast and mid-Atlantic, and what we’ve found happen over the past couple years is that’s really collapsed,” Babinski says. “How we break it down now is with coastal looks, Midwest looks, and national, which would probably have a mix of coastal and Midwest-type colors.”
But manufacturers still have their own timelines to contend with and can’t churn out new products on demand. It typically takes a producer at least a year before a new product hits shelves, depending on the level of infrastructure needed to create it. “If it’s just a color, I would say it’s typically on a 12- to 18-month basis from the time we’re saying we want this color to the time it’s on the shelf,” says Williams. “If it’s a texture, depending on if we have the machinery where we can change the process, I would put that in the 18-month range. If we have to buy a machine, install it, make the product, prototype it and get it to market, we’re talking at least two-and-a-half years.”
The length of the homebuilding cycle has an impact on the timeline of a trend as well. “The process from a new development to building may take as long as three years, so the designers are specifying products that are popular at the time of the design, not necessarily the time of the build. I think that’s why trends like grey wood floors stayed so long-they were specified at the height of their popularity, and it just took time to get through the market, even though a new trend has already begun,” he says.
Bob Dolan, vice president of global sourcing for New Jersey-based Avalon Flooring, points to a handscraped product that he stocked for roughly a decade as a marker of a trend’s overall lifespan. “So that’s how long that handscraped trend ran,” he says, adding in reference to the current trend of light colors and muted characteristics, “I feel like they’re still newer trends that I don’t know if the industry is ready to move away from yet. I think they still have more life in them.”
FORMATS AND TEXTURES
With the average home in the U.S. having sprawled to around 2,300 square feet (though that is a decrease from the peak of nearly 2,500 square feet in 2015), according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it makes sense that wider, longer planks-made possible with engineered hardwood formats-continue to trend. They not only make a space feel bigger, a talking point of today’s open-concept floorplans, they make for a cleaner, more seamless look for the homeowner.
“The trend we see is just when you think you can’t make a board any wider, somebody figures out how to do it,” Michael Martin says. “If you went back five or six years ago, 5” width was considered wide, then it became 7” and now you’re seeing 9” and 10” products,” says Bob Dolan, who works with homeowners and custom builders in the Northeast. “So I feel that may be one thing the manufacturers are still trying to push the envelope on, to see how wide ‘wide’ can go. But I’m not sure the consumer in an average home wants 10” wide. The sweet spot still seems to be in the 7” to 8” range.”
Just as the preference for honey blonde could move to richer browns in the middle of the spectrum, the market could morph from fairly clean, muted aesthetics to something with a bit more character, though most agree that the heyday of intense handscraping and heavy distressing has passed.
“The day of the rustic handscraped look is over,” says Wade Bondrowski, U.S. director of sales for Mercier, which produces its own solid and engineered hardwood in Quebec. However, he notes that the push for wide widths means some character will be inherent. “The wider you go, the more you have to allow a little bit more of that character in, but it’s not as raw or as beat up as some of the old handscrapes.”
Dolan quantifies some of this through the current knot structure: “If you went three, four, five years ago, you could have knots that were 3” and 4” wide, and now they’re a half inch wide. Everything is just getting lesser and cleaner.”
Looking ahead, the movement between the clean characteristics of today and the mid-range tones gaining favor could give way to a less muted aesthetic. As people have holed up in their homes, they’ve sought connection with the outdoors through their interior spaces, and Kährs’ head of design, Petra Lundblad, foretells a retro return, “almost a little 70s,” with wood taking center stage. “An overall macrotrend we see is a return to organic materials, craftsmanship, and bringing the outdoors indoors,” she says, “meaning whether the hardwood floor is light or dark, the trend is that it looks like natural wood and has the warmth and feel of nature. We’re seeing a lot of textures, with a rustic and vintage feel.”
That character is often achieved with light wirebrushing to subtly elevate the grain, though there is plenty of range in the market; the new Kährs Texture collection uses a satin oil to enhance light saw marks and brushing, and AHF’s new Barnwood Collection features heavy graining with natural texture as a nod to the toned-down rustic look they see on the horizon.
Gloss levels remain more matte, playing into the desired natural look. “We are seeing demand for finishes that enhance the color profile and complement the natural look of the wood, such as ultra-matte finishes, and soft brushing to enhance the inherent grain of the product,” Kupp says.
Kupp says patterned floors, like parquets, herringbones and chevrons, are being seen in both residential and commercial spaces, particularly as a specialty installation. And Pat Oakley, vice president of sales and marketing for domestic hardwood producer Mullican Flooring, is even seeing black floors in niche applications.
Williams says live-sawn planks-which display the most grain structure-are becoming more prominent but not necessarily widespread. “All this live-sawn cut is trending, but it’s such a small percentage of the overall market,” he says. “Live-sawn cut looks are primarily from Europe, and some of the domestic guys are trying to do it. But if you talk to a consumer or designer [and say], ‘Yeah, I can give you the live-sawn look,’ they kind of look at you sideways. It’s more about someone doing something and trying to push it into the market. A trend for me is when the consumer comes in asking for it.”
With white oak’s less lively grain structure, it has gained in popularity over red oak for the last several years and has become the most sought-after species. “White oak has now outsold red oak for the first time in the United States’ history,” Bondrowski says, adding, “If you look at the forest, white oak only represents 18% of the total forest [globally], but demand for white oak is at 40% right now.”
The increased demand has pushed some producers to experiment with cuts and colors, as red oak, which is abundant domestically, has a pinkish hue and more pronounced grain structure. “For us, the big challenge we’ve been working on innovation-wise is how to make red oak look very close to white oak,” Williams says. “Red oaks always have this reddish tinge. Okay, how do we mute that red with different staining and finishing techniques to make red oak look like white oak? At the end of the day, the number one driver is the color. People are not saying, ‘We’re here to buy red oak or white oak.’”
White oak, which is more predominant in Europe, is becoming prized the world over as other markets seek to emulate the trending looks, but when it comes to domestic sawmill production, red oak is still king, especially in the solid category.
“It almost has to be since it’s what comes out of the woods the most,” Stringer says. “People love white oak, but the truth is, we make so many millions of square feet, if we made just white oak, we wouldn’t have enough wood to run the plant.”
Hickory, another North American staple, rounds out the top three, though requests are starting to come in for other species. “While white oak remains very popular with customers, walnut has been increasing in popularity for a couple of years,” says Charla Pettingill, director of hard surface product design for Shaw Residential. “We’re also hearing more requests for ash, maple and exotic species. We think this is due to interest in grain patterns and levels of character and variation that differ from white oak. Customers want to try something different in their spaces as a means of self-expression, or to go with a more classic look.”
AHF’s new Dogwood process, which uses heat and pressure to double hardwood’s density-making it perform two and a half times better on the Janka scale, says AHF Products CEO Brian Carson-could open up more species for practical use as flooring, like black walnut.
“We’re actually ordering a variety of species, most of which are soft,” Babinski says.
Supply will always be the most important part of the equation, however, and maple, white oak and red oak are among the most common trees in the U.S. “There’s the market tendencies-what they want-but there’s also what can the manufacturers provide,” Williams says. “The four main [hardwood] species are red oak, white oak, hickory and maple, because that’s what we have, and that’s what the world has.”
WOOD VS. WOOD LOOKS
While Martin says “demand for [solid] strip [flooring] has gone through the roof” as it trends with remodelers amid the pandemic, engineered hardwood still accounts for the largest marketshare at nearly 60%, according to Market Insights figures, owing to its enhanced performance and dimensional stability, particularly when installed atop slab construction.
“Really, the growth in engineered is dictated by a lot of new home construction that requires engineered flooring over subfloors,” says Pat Oakley, vice president of sales and marketing for domestic hardwood producer Mullican Flooring, since solid hardwood isn’t suitable in basements or for application over slab foundations-popular in the South, which now accounts for more than 50% of new single-family construction in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. “A lot of that, too, is the demand for wider width,” Oakley adds in reference to engineered hardwood’s driving factors.
For the builder market, LVT, however, offers compelling advantages, particularly when it comes to cost. “About five years ago, we were selling a lot more engineered wood, and now that’s all moving toward LVT and LVP of some sort,” says Bob Burton, president of Southwestern Interiors, which works with local and national builders in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. “The builders would love to build houses under a certain price point in each market; they just can’t get there when you add up the cost of the land and the materials. So, unfortunately what that does is they build a cheaper house. It definitely seems like right now on the middle- to lower-end price points, they’re favoring LVT over engineered wood.”
Residential remodel serves as hardwood’s primary customer source, but the divide between the low-end and high-end buyer is evident there, as well. “With the advent of all the vinyl floor that’s being sold, you started losing more of the lower-end hardwood customer to vinyl,” Dolan says. “In a low price point wood, you were getting a very entry-level looking wood, where for that same price you could get a higher-fashioned vinyl. I think when you get into those higher-end price points, people struggle spending that kind of money on vinyl.”
With the builder market trying to cater primarily to first-time homebuyers and retiring Baby Boomers who are “cashing out,” Burton says, this could further relegate hardwood to the higher end.
“We’re falling into a trend where, yes, the middle- to low-end buyer who’s on the fence generally will move to an SPC or LVT product,” Bondrowski says. “But what we’re seeing the real trend being is people who want real wood want better wood.”
That could cause a collapse on the manufacturer side as well, as Stringer expects to see more consolidation as consumers demand cleaner looks. “The consumers and the retailers are getting spoiled by saying ‘I want this clean [characteristic], I want this [certain] look, I want a bunch of it,’ because LVT and all those can deliver that, but with wood it’s harder,” he says. “The bigger you are, the better chance you have of using the whole log and getting rid of all your material [through different channels].”
Overall demand could exacerbate this if it continues to grow. Major producers are already barely keeping up as the category-buoyed both by an inflated seller’s market that is causing consumers to upgrade their spaces and an exploding builder market-sees sales shoot up.
“Demand right now is unbelievable. We can’t make it fast enough, in both our engineered plant and our solid plant,” Stringer says. “Business is booming and our prices are the highest they’ve ever been.” Though he adds, “I think things will start to slow down in the third or fourth quarter. I just don’t think people can keep paying the prices they’re paying.”
Another area where hardwood has lost out to LVT is the commercial market, says Martin, but hardwood producers have sought to remedy that through new technology that adds moisture protection and scratch resistance to engineered wood products.
Major firms like Shaw Contract and Mohawk Group have in recent years added commercial hardwood to their offerings and with its densified Dogwood and waterproofing HydroBlok technologies, AHF sees wider commercial applications for hardwood.
“Products and new technology like Dogwood are very well-suited to the commercial environments,” says AHF vice president of product management Brian Parker, referencing a new commercial collection slated for release in 2022. “Currently we have products in the line that are very well-suited to commercial environments, and we’re definitely expanding upon that.”
Copyright 2021 Floor Focus
Related Topics:Armstrong Flooring, U.S. Census Bureau, Mirage Floors, Mohawk Industries, AHF Products, Shaw Industries Group, Inc.