March 2/9, 2015; Volume 28/Number 18
By Amanda Haskin
Digital inkjet printing has completely changed the face of the tile industry, giving it the chameleon-like capability to compete with other flooring categories. At the top of this trend, wood looks in ceramic and porcelain tile have taken the industry by storm, piggybacking off of the enormous popularity of natural hardwood floors.
“This trend started a couple years ago but has gained momentum in the last 12 to 18 months,” said Bob Baldocchi, vice president of marketing and sales support at Emser Tile. “Wood-look tiles are great for all applications but certainly for wet areas around the house where you want the look of wood without the risk of water damage, like kitchens, bathrooms and even outdoors.”
The story of wood-look tile is unique in the fact it has the ability to break out of its own category boundaries and steal inspiration from the hardwood market. “When digital printing first came about, people were really more interested in what they could do with their new technology rather than [representing] what was really out in the marketplace,” explained Terry Marchetta, director of residential styling at Mannington. “But you very quickly found out that you need longevity in your products, so in the last three years or so designers are really concentrating on what they’re seeing in natural wood.”
Marchetta added that because Mannington produces wood as well, “we try to replicate the nuances and trends we’re seeing today, and many looks are focused on reclaimed and rustic looks.”
There is a wide spectrum of style trends within the hardwood category, which opens up designers to countless creative possibilities. “The world’s forests are a continual source of inspiration for tile manufacturers who continue to explore new frontiers in simulated wood effects,” said Vittorio Borelli, president of Confindustria Ceramica (the Italian Association of Ceramics).
“While some Italian tile companies are inspired by the charming imperfections and character of rustic, reclaimed and recycled lumber,” he continued, “others are drawn to special techniques, such as charring, or adding a polished or glazed finish for a touch of sophistication and glamour.”
Size and shape trends have also come into play with the widespread popularity of large-format tile, especially longer and wider planks. “When this product was introduced, it was mainly 6 x 24 tiles that were cut down from larger sizes,” Baldocchi said. “Today, we are seeing increases in lengths and widths, [which] help to recreate the most authentic looking installation. Lengths of 36, 48, 60 and even 72 inches are becoming more common.”
As wood-look tile has started to become an established part of the industry, macro designs related to fashion and lifestyle trends are steering its course more and more. For example, the overwhelming popularity of grays in today’s market can be seen in many newer products like Crossville’s SpeakEasy line, which is offered in five colors, three of which are gray.
“When you see a wood line, most of the time you see brown, brown and more brown,” said Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing. “Instead of working with what people’s perception of what a wood should look like, it was more about looking at what is a trend in the industry, how important gray is in design and capturing that trend.”
Mannington’s new Haven line is offered in a soft gray tone as is its coastal-influenced Beachwood line, which features soft graining with levels of paint erosion that gives it “a laidback, salty charm, like weathered docks,” Marchetta said.
Going beyond realism
Advancements in technology have brought a new level of realism to wood looks, including higher-resolution imagery, more variation from plank to plank, and even texture. But it’s not all about simply mimicking hardwoods; it’s also about bringing something to the table with which even natural wood cannot compete.
“What I love about it is you can do things in porcelain now that you’d never be able to do with a real wood product,” Waldrep said. “You can show chatter marks and saw marks—things that might not be comfortable on your feet and would not make for a structurally beneficial floor.”
Crossville’s Reclamation line speaks to this idea by combining wood and concrete to make an industrial, urban look that evokes wood, but it is something one would never find in a real hardwood floor.
The possibilities of different combinations and visual graphics are seemingly limitless with the advancements in digital printing. “These new technologies allow us to leverage different types of glazes,” explained Lori Kirk-Rolley, vice president of brand marketing for Dal-Tile, “resulting in unique and beautiful visual combinations, such as concrete, veining and metallics as well as textured highs and lows in graphics or subtle patterns.”
Waldrep also mentioned that metallic in wood tile is an incoming trend she would be excited to see in the industry. “It’s a trend that started in candleholders and then went to pillows and then wallpaper. Where is that going to come into play in the flooring industry? Porcelain and ceramic have the capability to do that and real wood doesn’t, and that would be another way of evoking but not mimicking [the look of natural hardwood].”
This notion of “evoking, not mimicking” nature is made possible by both the technology available and the ability that technology gives designers to reach new frontiers in creativity. “Due to the advances in digital printing technology, at times we are able to scan an actual image of wood to serve as the base of our design,” Kirk-Rolley said. “Then our designers have the ability to highlight or remove certain elements to make the look unique. In that way we are inspired by nature but enhanced by the imagination and artistic capabilities of our designers.”
For example, at Cersaie 2014 in Italy, manufacturers featured graphic patterns printed over wood grain tile, colored wood, color accents and even mirrored wood grain looks.
Looking into the future
Now that most tile manufacturers are on the inkjet technology bandwagon, what is the next step in the evolution of wood-look tile? Marchetta believes the category is starting to move into more refined, subtle looks. “When people get ahold of inkjet technology and they realize they can replicate things, they end up trying to go over and above to show what they can do. Now it’s, ‘Well, OK, we’ve saturated the market with that. Let’s sit back a little and make this more realistic [for today’s market] and livable.’
“By refining these looks,” she continued, “the consumer will find these products will grow with their homes and move with the trends, picking up the ever-changing colors you’re seeing with accessories. [The floor] acts as more of a backdrop that sets the stage for everything else in the room, which, I think, gives it more of an elegant feel.”
Waldrep predicts seeing more high-definition texture emerging that evokes and exaggerates today’s hand-scraped wood looks. She added while inkjet digital technology has revolutionized the industry, it is just another tool that manufacturers can use to create exceptional products. Crossville, for example, utilizes a combination of digital printing and traditional glazing techniques to create their looks.
“When you’re developing something, whether you’re a painter or a sculptor, you have more than one tool in your toolbox to create the finished product. We don’t limit ourselves to one thing. It’s about what we have as craftsmen, as artists, as makers, to bring out the best of the look we’re trying to go for.”