The Evolution of Hardwood: Amazing Trends that Will Reinspire Your Love for Authentic Wood

Photos courtesy of Emily Morrow Finkell.

Understanding hardwood trends requires a high level of awareness of what is being shown in multiple places and sources. It’s a never-ending cycle if you are a trend spotter.

Twenty-plus years ago, hardwood flooring was mainly produced in narrow strip gunstock, red oak in high gloss finishes, and was found on the floors of McMansions and spec homes all across the U.S. That was then, and this is now. What has transpired since has been nothing less than warp-speed innovations and changes, some due in part to all of the global and economic ups and downs, political changes, and even trade agreements.

What we can deduce is that the market has been flooded with endless wood look-alikes. For this article, I will remove all the various and continually expanding categories that look like wood, and just address what is identified as genuine wood.

Wood looks began morphing after the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, around 2008 and 2009. If we created a timeline of this transition, it would also include runway fashion collections in various parts of the world that began to include gray and gray-beige, and no red or reddish-orange. It gradually went from high gloss to medium gloss, to now our matte finish. I’ve said it many times: if we stay in an industry long enough, you can see the pendulum swing one way, and eventually, it will swing back, always with some modernizations made to improve the original versions.

Our tastes and appetites have expanded along with our digital abilities to see the world, experience world cultures, and to lurk into the living spaces of our social media friends. One cannot unsee something they like online, and thanks to the technological advances of digital media, we can “find” and “follow” the things we like more easily.

From the days of solid, glossy, thin, gunstock planks to today’s wider, longer, matte, barn wood gray boards, homes have also changed in size. I referenced the McMansions of the 1990s and early 2000s because they were being built on spec and flipped just before our housing bubble burst. When this was happening, I was practicing interior design in custom built luxury offices and homes and eventually transitioned to leading the color, style, and design of flooring. Large parts of the flooring products were going into the builder’s design showrooms, and as homeowners built homes to be flipped, they worked with materials like travertine and travertine nocce, which was matched perfectly to the carpeting and hardwood flooring.

Hardwood in those days had expanded from the gunstock strip to hand-scraped looks. The scraped looks became “the big thing” as it offered homeowners and designers something different and new that they had not seen before in flooring options. This innovation served as a catalyst for other similar changes across the other flooring categories. We saw Berber flecks and heathered tweeds introduced in carpeting and a lessening of gloss and shine of the fibers. All of these colors fell within the neutral zone of warm golden- and red-based beiges. In hardwood, it was frequently called cider. Once the hand-scraped looks were knocked off by the cheap look-alikes, eventually and slowly, consumers started looking for something new.

That is until the recession hit and all bets were off. We hit the pause button on our taste evolution except to say we all migrated to the safe zones. Consumer big investments moved from home improvements to wardrobe improvements to maintain much-needed jobs in a tough market or to interview for new jobs. Wardrobes became a mix of black, navy blue for reliability, and gray for safe and non-threatening career colors. The grays and navy blues in fashion were so new that the surrounding segments of shoes and accessories had to run to catch up with the clothing. The same changes occurred in the interiors market. Many designers had been let go or had evolved from residential to commercial interiors, taking with them their tastes and strengths.

Meet your new best friend, neutral gray, and get to know it because it’s not going away and will be staying for a while. With this influx of gray, we saw a tidal wave of looks and visuals in furnishings and flooring to match.

Without a doubt, we all fell in love with the looks of Restoration Hardware. Practically everyone received the stacks of massive catalogs beautifully designed to showcase the practicality and beauty of greige, reclaimed wood, and rustic metallics. We saw flooring in these shelter catalogs that looked different from those in our homes of that time, all of a sudden creating an urge to update our looks, finally moving homeowners to make an investment in their homes that they’d fought hard to keep from losing during the housing bubble, and held tightly to their budgets for as long as possible.

The channels to pay attention to had gone from the builders market to retail replacement. Not suddenly, but eventually, we had homeowners looking for higher-end materials for their homes that they’d decided they not only were happy to own, but also wanted to make very personal choices of ways to upgrade its interior.

We saw the launch of upscale programs and collections at price points not seen before, sophisticated de-lustered matte hardwood styles that were clear of most character, in reclaimed grays and gray-browns.

These looks were not hand-scraped, but clean and smooth-ish, not narrow, but mixed widths of three, five, and seven inches to recreate the look of reclaimed at affordable price points with all the bells and whistles of engineered hardwood flooring. Consumers were able to buy hardwood looks in new engineered hardwood introductions that historically were unattainable in solid wood plank because of engineered hardwood’s versatility, multi-ply construction, and superior dimensional stability.

Thanks to advancements in engineered hardwood flooring, consumers were able to use hardwood flooring on slab construction, in basements, and over resilient heated floors, and to find faces in veneers that efficiently used species that would not ordinarily have been available to the average consumer.

Homeowners were delighted to finally replace aged carpet that looked tired, finally releasing pent-up appetites to the plethora of hardwood flooring styles. Here’s when we see carpet lose significant market share to hardwood flooring, and solid hardwood flooring losing position to engineered hardwood flooring, significantly causing all the big companies to shift focus and attention from mostly carpet to hardwood, specifically engineered hardwood. We saw companies make capital investments in hardwood manufacturing across the country and the world.

What’s next?

There has recently been a refinement of design styles. In the U.S., we have evolved from the travertine nocce of the pre-recession era to the timeless and classic Carrara marble’s white-and-gray veining and other similar Carrara-looking composite and natural stones. These interior design refinements are impacting a majority of our hardwood flooring and furniture finishes. That does include special effects, some perhaps so subtle the human eye can barely perceive what it is other than it is beautiful and new. Look to the leaders of special effects, lighting, and accessories companies for these effects, coming soon to a floor near you.

Expect to see more magazine and online editorials about American-made and American-sourced products. In speaking and meeting with members of the media, I hear over and over that readers and viewers want to know where they can find American-made home products.

We can also expect to see darker matte black accents as the opposing trend to the white-filled, cerused, sliced, white oak hardwood grain. There will be an expansion of existing trends; grays will continue to expand into silvery-effects, warm-gold accented grays, and even some more flaxen-gold clean white oak hardwoods for more of the blank canvas options. We will continue to see our skilled and talented installers and designers create more parquetry projects as herringbones and chevrons grow across the U.S.

Homeowners who want to invest in their homes will be specific about purchasing 100 percent genuine hardwood because nothing else looks, sounds, feels, and even smells, quite like hardwood.

Emily Morrow Finkell is an interior designer and CEO of Emily Morrow Home, a subsidiary of EF Floors & Design, LLC in Dalton, Georgia, a provider of hardwood floors and furnishings and an NWFA design contributor. She can be reached by email at emily@emilymorrowhome.com or 1.866.775.3877.

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