Real Hardwood Floors: Understanding and Assisting Interior Designers

It is so beneficial for our industry to reach out and work directly with designers on their flooring selection process. Being a part of the design trade gives you entirely different eyes and ears than those who work with them as outsiders. In the words of the old American Express catchphrase, “Membership has its privileges.”

Let me share some of my personal insights with you and hopefully you’ll find a few surprises, enjoy a little laughter, and perhaps groan with the joys and pains of working with the design trade.

Having both a designer’s and an installer’s experience on specific projects can be beneficial. They can keep the project manager informed of the progress and the material needs, asking great questions like: “can we get custom matched stain for the random unfinished wood trim that wasn’t included in the initial order?”

First of all, interior designers are among the nicest, most gracious group of professionals you will ever meet, even though they regularly have to please some of the pickiest clients. By trade, a designer’s goal is to please clients by bringing them exclusive products that are not available at the retail level. They also must provide a level of expertise that demonstrates that their recommendations are most appropriate. 

I currently am working with several designers on the hardwood flooring portion of their projects. One, in particular, is a joy to work with. I met her a few years ago at a designer event during which I gave a CEU presentation on designing with hardwood flooring. As she joined the EMH Designer Pro-Gram, I began to pay very close attention to her extremely impressive projects. Her specification of flooring has included custom herringbone hardwood, custom-matched trims, et cetera.

We’ve endured some trying moments together, such as when our delivery truck arrived at the site, but there weren’t enough workers to unload the pallets, there wasn’t a pallet lift, nor was there a lift truck, nor a dock door. This is part of the challenge of working with designers and drop shipping to their projects. Once the material finally was unloaded, she later discovered boxes of flooring had been damaged in transit. We then had a phone call during which we came up with solutions. Having been in similar situations, I could relate to her concerns and I was happy to offer guidance.

In her preparation for the job, she hired a skilled installer who did the take-off on the flooring and trims. On this specific project, I was especially grateful for both the designer’s and the installer’s experience. They kept me informed of the progress and the material needs, asking great questions like: “can we get custom-matched stain for the random unfinished wood trim that we didn’t include in our initial order?” or “what’s the mix of long and short boards in the carton?” and my favorite: “How quickly can we get more of this flooring made? My client loves it so much they want to use it in the other spaces.”

Beyond this particular designer, I genuinely love the direct connection that my company offers. Every question I receive reveals there’s a giant void of information that we as an industry must fill. Some questions are more technical than others. It’s one thing to explain why engineered hardwood is “real hardwood,” or the difference between solid and engineered hardwood, but another altogether when someone asks whether sliced face is better than sawn face.

When it comes down to perceived value and aesthetic differences, interior designers can grasp these concepts far better than you might imagine, as long as we use plain language, rather than industry vernacular. I’ve learned that our industry terminology can needlessly muddy the water and create confusion. For example, in hardwood flooring, “character” means one thing to the industry and another thing to the designer and homeowner. Character connotes positive traits in the outside world while in our industry, it indicates grade (see nwfa.org/nofma-grade-photos/).

What constitutes a hardwood product can also be confusing, since so many of them claim to be “waterproof” and are not wood at all. Others are actual hardwood on the surface but have a rigid core. Then, there are engineered and solid hardwood floors. They too can be water-resistant and endure a whole host of abuse. Typically, moisture is the enemy of wood, but if the product is protected on the front, back, sides, and ends, then it is indeed safeguarded from moisture, especially if the installer treats any cut ends with silicone, making for an entirely water-resistant installation.

If we lived in a perfect world, all retail sales associates would feel confident that hardwood flooring will be a painless process from selling to installing it. We don’t live in a perfect world, but we don’t want to live in a plasticized world, which is the easier sell and certainly less complicated. It’s worth noting that 100 percent authentic hardwood flooring is certainly an easier option to recommend than it was a few decades ago…it’s easier to find the right style, species, or color, easier to install, easier to care for, and easier to love years from now, as long as the decision is well-informed.

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 an NWFA design contributor. She can be reached at emily@emilymorrowhome.com.

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