Volume 26/number 28 June 10/17, 2013
by Lou Iannaco
Since laminate’s introduction into the U.S. marketplace in the mid ’90s, when many products resembled photographs of wood glued onto medium density fiberboard, the segment’s aesthetics have dramatically moved forward. Propelled by technology to mimic wood and ceramic, laminate now fools even the most experienced flooring veterans.
FCNews recently asked laminate manufacturers exactly how they create such realistic product, and what the thought processes are behind their newest designs.
Derek Welbourn, CEO of Inhaus, believes offering a realistic design is the most important element for creating a product that sells. A consumer will have to look at her floor long after its price was presented, removing cost as a longstanding issue.
Laminate is an ideal product in terms of design, he explained, “thanks to innovations which are now industry standards, from major producers. The most important technological developments include high definition four- and five-color prints; textures ranging from flat to hand-scraped; gloss levels from matte to high-gloss piano finish; embossed in register (EIR), where the texture follows the printing; edge treatment with a beveled edge, either pressed bevel or a cut eased edge, and size, including random width and random length.”
The Timeless Impressions hand scraped collection from Inhaus, above, offers the rustic feel of hand hewed hickory, while Formica’s Coastal Classics collection, below, in Tybee Island Oak, features narrow planks with beveled edges and a hand scraped finish.
Depending on how modern design techniques are utilized and combined, the results can be wildly unique and highly realistic. “At Inhaus we often work with real wood or stone,” Welbourn continued, “depending on the design we’re targeting, and after many iterations we eventually come up with a product we’re happy with.”
A prime example of successful utilization of design technology is Inhaus’ Timeless Impressions Hickory Hand Scrape collection, a product line that has been the company’s top seller for three years running. “It isn’t a price point product, but given the look that it creates, in our opinion there isn’t a better hand scraped laminate available on the market and, as a result, it creates value.”
People want to buy laminate because of its visual appeal, Welbourn noted. In addition to overall design, color remains crucial. “You can get everything else correct, but with the wrong color the product doesn’t look good. Discipline and continual focus on design creates results. With existing technology, the opportunity is there, but it is how you apply it that separates you from the pack.”
Joe Amato, vice president, residential styling, Mannington, believes realism in laminate is achieved through a combination of visuals, surface texture and gloss. Similar to Inhaus, Mannington uses ‘real’ materials, such as wood, as inspiration for its laminate products. “We often conduct field research and purchase wood from lumber mill companies. We also hand work the wood to enhance, distress or add additional character before developing artwork with computers.”
As digital printing becomes more affordable, synchronized embossing textures are a must in the upper price points that require additional realism.”
When it comes to recent developments within the company’s laminate line, Mannington’s Restoration collection has been a success, Amato noted. The 12mm x 6.25 inch planks feature the mill’s “most realistic wood visuals in fashionable colors that coordinate with popular home fashion trends.
At Kronotex USA, Travis Bass, executive vice president, said the company’s intent with ongoing product introductions is to provide consumers with a laminate that has the look and feel of solid wood. “Surface texture, and to a lesser degree, thickness, determine perception. We’ve invested heavily in high quality EIR and hand-scraped textures over the last two years, preceded by international market research to stay ahead of the trends reaching our North American market.”
Much like Amato, Bass believes digital printing offers a valuable response to the emerging generation of laminate consumers who want specific products without a long wait. “From a cost perspective, digital printing also offers the opportunity to invest less dollars in working capital for ‘made to order’ opportunities.”
Quick-Step also touts extreme realism in addition to customized product. According to Roger Farabee, senior vice president of marketing for Unilin Flooring, Quick-Step’s parent company, one of the significant advantages of Quick-Step laminate is the company’s ability to “customize our different processes to the needs of each individual product, enabling us to create products with high levels of realism.”
Farabee explained Quick-Step’s GenuEdge technology creates such an authentic visual that consumers struggle to see the difference between real wood and a Quick-Step plank. The company’s 2013 Reclaimé designs include a surface structure with registered embossing and a heightened level of realism created by 7 ½ inches wide, 12mm thick planks. “Adding this GenuEdge treatment to the authentic Quick-Step surface designs achieves a level of authenticity that is unmatched in laminate flooring.”
At Armstrong, Sara Babinski, principal designer, laminate & hardwood, explained the company continues to take the high road in product design, launching upscale looks in commodity-busting laminates. “Our Architectural Remnants Laminate collection features designs that are brought to life in considerable detail; they’re often mistaken for the real thing. The talk here should be more about texture and reclamation of hardwood looks, with patterning on the floor with random widths, various designs and realistic textures in today’s top selling colors.”
In addition to laminate’s state-of-the-art technology, executives were also asked about the development of an overlap of laminate with categories such as floating LVT, LVT on HDF, waterproof laminate, etc.
According to Bass, clear distinctions remain between laminate and LVT, thanks to laminate’s environmental story, low maintenance, and its appearance as a natural, warm wood product.
Amato believes a consumer today will find ‘real’ products such as wood and porcelain and ‘imitation’ products including LVT and laminate all look very similar in design and color. Because these products tend to be visually comparable, the shopper will decide on the right product for her based on her lifestyle, product performance requirements and budget.
The important factor of ease of installation has allowed floating floors to gain popularity, Welbourn noted. Laminate, wood and LVT can all be installed in this platform. “Laminate performs well relative to wear and is forgiving when preparing the subfloor for installation.”
The use of printing, regardless of the method, has created overlapping looks in a variety of categories, including LVT, laminate, and real tile, he explained. Consumers can find laminate and LVT that resembles wood and tile, while tile that mimics wood is also available. “However,” he concluded, “[all categories] posses the underlying advantages and disadvantages related to their specific flooring types.”