October 29/November 5, 2018: Volume 34, Issue 10
By K.J. Quinn
It’s been said a leopard can’t change its spots, but this idiom doesn’t apply to the world’s oldest form of flooring. Natural stone suppliers are reinvigorating the category by utilizing new production technologies to produce high-fashion products in larger formats to meet any design vision for inside and outside the home.
“It is important for the manufacturer/distributor to holistically capture the trends taking place across all surfacing applications and offer the products that meet these needs,” said Sam Kim, vice president, MSI. “As a distributor, we see this as a unique opportunity to serve our business partners and end consumers with the ability to service the full basket.”
A robust economy and housing market are enabling the category to make inroads in residential applications. “Natural stone is enjoying a rise in demand following several years of a market saturated with imitation stone,” observed Joshua Levinson, president wholesale, Artistic Tile.
There is a correlation between stone consumption and new housing starts. As single-family homes get bigger, it provides opportunities for stone surfaces to expand beyond the kitchen. Meanwhile, the state of the luxury home market is another barometer, as stone floors and walls are commonly found in these dwellings.
“As home prices rise, we have seen more full house applications,” Bob Baldocchi, chief marketing officer and vice president business development, Emser Tile, pointed out.
Despite economic indicators pointing in the right direction, modest growth of approximately 1.5% to 2% is projected over the next three years as commodity stones face increased competition from hard surfaces. “The stone flooring market has been losing share over the last few years to ceramics, hardwood and now, luxury tile plank,” Baldocchi said.
The influx of hard surfaces in the low end, which mimic nature inspired styles of stone but cost less, is a major competitive issue. For example, “the technology in porcelain tile manufacturing has advanced so well that the natural stone look porcelains are becoming increasingly popular,” noted Meredith Locker, associate ASID, regional manager for Crossville Studios, the distribution division of Crossville, Inc. “They not only offer the beautiful aesthetics of natural stone, but the benefits of low maintenance porcelain.”
Stone flooring is positioned as a premium upgrade over ceramic and certain hardwoods, experts say. While stone is among the priciest of floors, producers are leveling the playing field by introducing products that offer more bang for the buck. Plus, when installed prices are amortized over the life of the floor, the initial investment looks even more reasonable.
“Manmade products can do a decent job of replicating basic stones, but simply can’t compete with the vivid veining, rare colors or the depth and complexity of natural stone,” Artistic Tile’s Levinson said. “As a result, suppliers are currently seeking out more unique natural materials.”
Buyers from the high end are said to appreciate one-of-a-kind looks that can be achieved with a heavily veined natural stone. “The finished look of the install is an expression of the designer and/or property owner that simply cannot be reproduced anywhere,” Levinson said. “It acts as a lasting legacy of the work of the design professional.”
Popular stone used in the home include granite, limestone, sandstone, slate and flagstone, vendors said. Marble and stone mosaics are among the fastest growth categories, with double-digit sales spikes expected this year. “Marble has risen as a top option, with new color variations boosting its appeal as a solution for modern designs while still maintaining its timeless style,” said Roy Viana, director of natural stone and slab at Dal-Tile.
New looks, formats
Innovation is rampant, industry members said, despite the fact stone maintains timeless appeal and durability few materials can match. A major area of focus is decorative and wall elements as more dimensional and complex styles are developed. “As acceptance for decorative products grows, manufacturers and suppliers are finding better efficiencies,” Emser’s Baldocchi said. “This has enabled us to develop new ideas at even better pricing as manufacturers find better manufacturing techniques.”
Technology impacts the ability to design with natural stone in many ways. For instance, abrasive water jets can cut stone into intricate flowing patterns as well as precise geometric designs. “CNC technology has allowed natural stone to be carved into dimensional pieces of different forms,” Artistic Tile’s Levinson pointed out. “These technologies have also allowed for the combination of natural stone with metal and glass, which add intriguing contrast to natural stone.”
Water jet cutting advances enable suppliers to produce highly styled patterns and intricate shapes in products such as mosaics. “The value that water jet cutting is giving consumers and designers is greater flexibility in the stone, so they can now consider stone for certain design aspects where they previously would have turned to wall paper or tile,” Dal-Tile’s Viana said. “You can now modernize a look with stone because it is no longer available in just traditional sizes and shapes.”
Bigger is better when it comes to size, experts said, as variations from tile to tile are more pronounced, plus it meets pent up demand for larger formats. Standard 12 x 12-inch sizes are being supplanted by 24 x 24-inch and 12 x 36-inch formats while planks measuring 8 x 36 inches and 16 x 48 inches are utilized in large spaces. “One of the hottest trends in the industry is extra-large pieces,” Viana noted. “This size category is appealing because it empowers customers to create continuous, seamless design.”
Geometric and irregular sizes—such as rectangles and hexagons—remain popular choices, experts said. “We have developed a new Marble collection that blends the coveted white and gray palette with on-trend geometric shapes to answer all trend needs,” MSI’s Kim said.
Production improvements have allowed for introductions of more heavily veined stones, providing designers and homeowners with more variety. “We’re noticing a rise in demand for veining and color,” Artistic Tile’s Levinson said. “Specifically, colors such as greens, pinks and reds are beginning to interest the design community once again.”
Innovation is also leading to more creative looks, including mixing colors and surface finishes. “In some cases, when we are talking about mosaic or smaller 3 x 6-inch stone wall tiles, we are talking about the same stone in multiple finishes being installed together—whether it is a combination of raked and honed, a honed with a scraped finish, or polished combined with a bush hammered finish,” Dal-Tile’s Viana said. “These texture combinations create interesting variation within the stone application.”
Decorative pieces—in polished, honed and split face finishes—are utilized to provide an unexpected break of texture in otherwise continuous, sleek spaces. “What has helped the category is the expansion of the decorative piece,” Emser’s Baldocchi said. “This has inspired more homeowners to use more flooring to match the selected decorative.”
Color preferences are reportedly trending towards gray, black and white, often found in limestone and marble. “Black and white stone combinations are very popular,” Crossville’s Locker said. “Brass accents in mosaics is a noteworthy trend right now, as are textured finishes, color-etched finishes and large format sizes.”
Light-colored, polished natural stone remains a sought-after option for interior flooring, MSI’s Kim noted. “Alternate finish as well as dark-colored natural stone flooring, including pavers, show significant growth in demand.”
The color combination of gray and beige—fondly known as “greige”—is gaining traction as well, manufacturers noted. Greige is a fresh way to incorporate warmer shades into spaces while still providing a contemporary feel. This color blend ranges from sand tones to deep charcoal.
“A nice example of this color range is found in the Dal-Tile Center City marble and limestone collection, which offers beautiful shades of greige,” Dal-Tile’s Viana said.
One of the hottest new products is natural quartzite, vendors said, which combines the look and feel of marble with the durability and hardness of granite. “Quartzites are becoming more available in a lot of different looks,” said Donato Pompo, CTC, CMR, CSI, CDT, MBA, founder of the University of Ceramic Tile and Stone. “The textured leather finish has been a desirable look without having the maintenance issues of a textured finished stone.”
Classic styles, such as white marbles, remain in vogue and available in many variations. “We offer many white marbles with various price points,” Crossville’s Locker said. “There’s also lots of excitement for color-etched stone with a gold leaf option.”