By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Wall Street Journal
The most fashionable thing in the house now may be its floors.
Flooring manufacturers are rolling out new options at a record pace, from exotic woods, such as the pinkish-brown African bubinga, to unusual materials such as leather and cork. The industry's biggest growth has been in laminated surfaces that resemble wood or marble; this fall, manufacturers Tarkett Residential, a unit of Tarkett AG, and Mohawk Industries Inc. are introducing laminated "planks" with beveled edges and wood-like texturing.
Granite and marble are starting to replace the once-ubiquitous wood in the living areas of high-end new homes, and at the lower end, laminates are moving in on carpet and vinyl tile, according to Sanford Steinberg, principal of the Steinberg Design Collaborative in Houston.
In carpeting, Mohawk - one of the largest in U.S. floor-covering makers - introduced 15 wall-to-wall designs this year, after offering just two to three new patterns seven or eight years ago. This fall, carpet makers are pushing dramatic patterns such as organic vines and tropical leaves and hues such as warm, chocolate brown.
Altogether, the selection of flooring options now is five or 10 times greater than it was 15 years ago, estimates Santo Torcivia, owner of Market Insights/Torcivia, with all but the most unusual materials readily available at mainstream retailers such as Home Depot.
Flooring traditionally has been seen as more or less a commodity - key questions: How much does it cost and how long will it last? But manufacturers are hoping to differentiate themselves by offering eye-catching choices. The idea is to get consumers to start thinking of what is under their feet as something akin to wallpaper or purses that needs a change as fashions shift.
The new options are partly the result of increased competition from new - and, sometimes unexpected - places. In the late 1990s, European companies such as Belgium's Unilin, which makes Quick-Step laminate, began expanding into the U.S.
The playing field became even more crowded as some commercial carpeting makers crossed over into residential lines. Interface Inc., which has made commercial carpeting for more than 25 years, launched a home collection in February 2003; Milliken & Co. followed a few months later with the launch of carpet tiles for residential use. Even lumber giant Weyerhaeuser Co. has gotten into the game - in 2002, it launched Lyptus, its first big foray into selling wood flooring.
Meanwhile, flooring has taken on new importance as American homes have become larger - rising to an average of 2,330 square feet last year from 1,500 square feet in 1971, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The proliferation of home-decorating shows and shelter magazines also has fueled growth. In all, wholesale sales of flooring - which includes carpeting - have risen to $20.9 billion in 2003 from $14.5 billion in 1995, according to a research report by Floor Covering Weekly.
Once, "it was not uncommon that you used to go into a subdivision and two to three of the houses would have exactly the same kitchen floor," said Bob Weseman, vice president of hard surfaces at Mohawk. "Now people want to be different."
Another factor increasing choices in flooring has been new materials and technology. Tarkett's FiberFloor - a fiberglass layer sealed between two vinyl layers - and laminates, which basically are pictures of a surface bonded to a dense fiberboard and sealed in plastic, imitate the look of other materials more precisely. Laminates, which have been in the U.S. for only a decade, posted the biggest growth in the flooring industry in 2003, with sales jumping nearly 33% from a year earlier, according to the Floor Covering Weekly report.
At the same time, the number of species of wood used in flooring has increased. While red or white oak once accounted for 80% of flooring sold, that is down to 60%. The industry is touting its expanding list of exotic species - such as Australia's dark brown spotted gum, which features pale, needle-thin stripes - from far-flung places.
Stone, slate and ceramic and porcelain tiles have proven popular because they are more durable and water-resistant that wood - they are easy to clean and, unlike wood, if you are planning on throwing rugs over them, you won't see fade marks a year later. One drawback is that these surfaces sometimes can be cold in the winter. In addition, stone and slate can be expensive, selling for anywhere between $2.50 and $25 a square foot. Cork and bamboo have become popular among those looking for something quirkier, and leather tiles, while rare, appeal to people seeking a touch of opulence for a library or home office.
The new, fancier flooring options often are pricier - imported woods such as bubinga and spotted gum can cost at least $10 to $15 a square foot, not counting the price of installation - while the average wood floor costs $8 to $9 a square foot.
Higher prices don't guarantee a problem-free floor. Ceramic and porcelain tiles can chip, cork floors can dent easily (and cause bouncing!), and granite and stone can be tricky, especially if you have children, who might actually skin a knee if they fall. Wood floors can scratch or dent. While laminates are hardy, the surface can be slippery and have a hallow, plastic sound when you step on it.
Marc Lefkowitz, owner of Classic Floor Designs in Washington, D.C., says one customer wanted to do her kitchen in a sleek, leather tile. He warned that she would have to re-buff it often if she spilled on it. She initially insisted it was OK - "I don't cook," she said - but in the end, she went with wood.