Beautiful to the Finish

Courtesy of Emily Morrow Finkell.

There’s a variety of finish options available for hardwood floors. Surface finishes are common, some are for sheen or gloss and are typically oil-based or water-based. It’s generally accepted that a finish is applied to help improve durability, moisture resistance, scratch resistance, and to provide a level of protection across the surface of the wood. In the hardwood flooring world, some think that’s pretty much the short and sweet low-down on finishes.

However, there’s a much broader and more exciting storyline on finishes. When you change the filter of what you’re looking through, like a lens, for example, the view changes. Consider for a moment looking through a lens with a broader view, one that takes into consideration all of the flooring categories as well as the entire interiors world.

I’ve created two very insightful and useful lists of evolving finish trends. These lists are based primarily on cut, clarity, and quality of wood, very much like diamonds. The cleaner, the more precious the cut of the wood, the less you have to do to it to make it beautiful and salable. In the highest end of hardwood, you’ll see more of what’s special and beautiful about hardwood. We’ll call the first list the “A-list,” and it is comprised of looks that you’ll easily spot within the pages of high-end interiors magazines, like Architectural Digest and Elle Decor.

The finishes from the A-list speak to luxury, are neither nichey nor trendy, but instead are timeless, beautiful, salable, and suited perfectly for the upscale market 5/8” cuts, which reveal the most beautiful looks and interesting sections of hardwood…rift, quarter sawn, sliced hardwood flooring. If we compared the A-list to automobiles, they’d be the high-performance luxury cars, which have a limited color line and model styles that rarely change. These products set the standard for timeless luxury and unmatched quality.

The A-list is not made of all the colors and finishes, just the right ones. The A-list finishes include matte, cerused sliced or quarter sawn wood grains, hand-sanded, sanded-down, paint effects, plastery-white or blackened, warm barnwood grays, and driftwood grays, which can have a silvery effect in the right light. In fashion, interiors, and even automobiles, the right application of color and finish must make sense with the specific product’s design. The Pantone Institute’s Director, Leatrice Eiseman, recently shared this as her mindset in making sure products are successful.

The second list, the “B-list,” is comprised of finishes that are very trendy and utilize many variations, looks that might also become time-stamped, and are found in the big middle of the market, an area referred to as the “high-end-of-the-middle” or “low-end-of the high.”

The B-list level could be compared to the car brands that try out every kind of color, finish, and effect. There is a third list, but it’s a list of finishes that would be so long and ever-changing as it represents the less expensive, highly competitive, middle segment of the market. This is the “big middle” and offers these major players a wide berth of looks and finishes at more competitive price points.

This second tier includes some very interesting looks and finishes. The names themselves are fun to say, all playing to the sales associate’s need to have a nickname that they can easily explain. This grouping includes metallics, reactives, reactive-looks, and fumed, as well as air-brushed effects with dramatic highs and lows. This list applies to mid-level hardwood floors; they are typically rotary peeled hardwoods and take advantage of special effects to down-play the busier rotary-peeled cathedral wood grain. When the cut of the wood determines the yield, and rotary yields more and wastes less of the hardwood, there is understandably quite a large segment of manufacturers that employ the various techniques so that their products can hit a price point. Actual reactive finishes, although very cool, are challenging due to their reactive state never stopping. Therefore, many of the reactive looks are designed to look like the actual reactives without the continually changing nature of actual reactive finishes.

In studying the trends, it’s essential to continually work with those who are closest to the cutting edge, i.e., designers and specifiers, or retailers and specialty shops that cater to the design trade. It matters to speak the same language and share a common goal when working with those in the design world, much like Martians and Venusians, designers don’t want to collaborate with someone who’s an outsider who’s trying to be a designer.

At the top of my sources in field research is a lighting and accessory company based in Atlanta, Georgia, but well-known worldwide. Currey and Company’s Cecil Adams and Brownlee Currey graciously offered to give me a design inspiration tour of their High Point showroom outlining their latest trends. Their creative teams travel the world, working in villages and soaking up the native flavor and culture, searching for unique and native art or hand-crafted pieces that they integrate into their collections of chandeliers, pendants, wall sconces, and more. Three years ago, they were among the first to do black finishes in the “Dark Beauty” looks and, five years ago, utilized the mercury glass and champagne silvery gold effects for the bridge from brushed nickel or chrome to the warmer metallics we see so prevalently today. What’s next according to Cecil Adams, Currey and Company’s Creative Director? You’ve already heard me make references to this look in past trend narratives, and it is Finish Trend #1, “Gesso,” plastery whites, which is also referred to as chalky whites. Look for this in spring 2018 introductions.

“Gesso is having a moment, and one of the characteristics I love about this technique is that it adds a handmade quality to anything you cover with it. Typically used as a layer between a substrate and another finish, when you encounter it now it begs the question – am I seeing something that was underneath another layer that has been peeled away, or I am seeing something in a stage of being built up into something else? Gesso is in the middle, so to speak,” said Adams.

In researching finish trends, it’s essential to get to the heart of what designers and specifiers are using in commercial interiors. Commercial design tends to lead the residential world and is a wonderful Petri dish for seeing exactly what works and what doesn’t. Examining various categories like wood, porcelain tiles, natural stones, and glass mosaics, it’s abundantly clear that today, it’s all about texture, dimension, and a handcrafted wood visual. As part of my research, I worked with Nancy Jackson, the president of Architectural Systems Inc. (ASI) in New York City. ASI deals with the NYC Architect and Design community, those who are driving some major trends.

Jackson said their team works with all surfaces ranging from textured and dimensional wood panels that are handcrafted, embossed, and/or reclaimed, to dramatic finishes that reflect luxe leather and skins, metal and glass mosaics to flooring products that include LVT, hardwoods, porcelain, and natural stone. Changes over the last couple of years have been driven by the acceptance of simulated materials into the commercial market. For example, a hotel brand will specifically request a luxury vinyl for the guest rooms and porcelain for the public spaces, that is in part to the advancement of these products looking so realistic.

Gray and warm earthy color palettes are still on trend; mixing them up with hints of metallic is very much on point now. Matte in wood flooring and gloss on dimensional glass mosaics feel fresh, and the direction ASI is going in new product launches.

In the commercial arena, the challenge is always to protect the design intent and be sensitive to the budget while recommending the right product for the application, so it’s never just one part: price, performance, or design. “A product has to look good, perform well, and be competitively priced. Materials need to support the designer for narrative storytelling in a place. Even the workplace has been influenced by hospitality design, and specialty products are being specified to have engaging spaces for employees to collaborate in,” said Jackson.

Final thoughts on finishes, the best indication of a healthy marketplace for consumers is to see and hear that there’s a need for more choice, more variety, and higher quality materials. It has already been an exciting year. Hold on tight and let’s see what the end of the year looks like. Let’s plan on being strong and beautiful to the finish.

Emily Morrow Finkell is an interior designer and CEO of EF Floors & Design, LLC in Dalton, Georgia, a provider of hardwood floors and home furnishings, and NWFA design contributor. She can be reached at

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