Over the last handful of years, distressed looks, which mimic the aesthetic and feel of certain natural materials, including wood, stone, cement and concrete, have become some of the most popular items in the market. With the relatively recent introduction of digital inkjet technology, these looks have only continued to evolve, becoming more realistic and convincing. In some cases, it’s even become hard to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

With all of the improvements made over the years, the demand for these products has continued to rise. When they were first introduced, manufacturers focused on creating all types of looks, from the more classic ones inspired by natural woods and stones to other industrial-like types, such as cement- and concrete inspired. However, now that new technology has been introduced, and the design possibilities are seemingly endless, companies are starting to hone their craft, focusing more on mastering certain types of looks that they’ve found are more popular and successful than others.

In today’s marketplace, it seems like emphasis is being placed on wood-look tiles, since that’s where most people seem to be deviating towards, according to Alena Capra, CKD, CBD, owner of Alena Capra Design in East Fort Lauderdale, FL. “The wood-look is definitely the most popular right now,” she said. “I just did the floors in my new office, and the wood I chose is a distressed-looking, old barn wood. I went to large retailers and everyone is starting to sell that look; it’s everywhere.

“I also saw it in Spain [on a recent trip I took] when I visited some factories,” she went on to say. “I saw a lot of reds and blues incorporated into looks of distressed woods. It’s a change from what was first made; there are so many more options now. Everything has more of a mix of colors; there are even gray and white engineered woods. There’s also a new ‘mix and match’ trend; that’s real popular right now.”

Emily Holle, Creative Director of M S International, Inc. (MSI), one of North America’s leading suppliers of natural stone slabs, hardscaping materials, porcelain tiles and ceramic tiles, agreed with Capra, further explaining how the color options for wood looks have really grown, as well as the graphics. “We sell nationally and wood (period) is popular; it’s not going away,” she said. “Everyone was chasing ‘what was the wood-look you’re supposed to have,’ and I would say a variety. You have to have a beautiful and traditional one that looks like hardwood, a distressed wood, and a more modern, sleek wood look. Wood is still popular and still growing, and I think ‘distressed’ is still a part of it.

“In general, we’re definitely seeing wood looks pop up that are much more distressed, aged and worn — ones showing a lot of marks and cross-graining, which has become a lot more pronounced,” Holle went on to explain. “I also think a big thing that’s happening is a shift of color. Everyone [originally] wanted brown. Now, we see a lot of washes — gray washes, white washes (creamy), etc. — so the variety among color has given some life to the wood trend that we’ve seen for so long. They’ve mastered all shades of brown and espresso, but are now moving into ash tones and lighter tones, which are really nice.”

“I’ve also seen a big change [when it comes to colors],” added Capra. I was doing a ton of espresso wood floors. Are they popular? Yes. But, now I’m seeing it change to a lot of mid-tones from dark colors because the colors have gotten better. When wood looks started, there were a lot of cherry woods and things like that. Now, there are a lot of restored and industrial woods, gray and brown woods, and whitewashed wood looks. Everything I’m seeing now has beautiful gray, taupe tones — much less of a dark, wood look. It’s more about showing the beauty of the wood, and I think that’s because digital printing has gotten so good. It almost looks better than real wood.

“Color tones have become more beautiful, and I think that goes with other industries and what they’re tying in (such as furnishings),” Capra went on to say. “I think the trend is more of the tonality of stuff than it was. Espresso is still there, but there are so many options now.”

Like Capra, Holle is also seeing the “mix and match” trend on the rise, where you can take certain wood-look tile lines and mix them with other nature-inspired lines to create a contemporary contrast. “We have a wood look that you can mix with other looks called Forrest Natural. And we also have Capella, which has wood, brick and cotto looks,” said Holle. “For me, the wood part of these lines are exactly what I mean by ‘distressed;’ they’re a great example of what people are looking for — with grain and knots in them, and a slight texture to them on the surface, but not super textural. They have a very subtle texture; it’s very nice.”

Michael Mariutto, President and CEO of Mediterranea, a major manufacturer of porcelain tile in the U.S. and Italy, has observed the “mix and match” trend as well, helping create several lines for the company to cater to the growing demand. “Without a doubt inkjet technology has revolutionized the design process for all porcelain tiles — both distressed and more modern looks,” he explained. “It also gives us the opportunity to offer new ‘hybrid’ graphics, mixing elements from wood, cement and stone, for example. These hybrid graphics can best be seen in our popular series, Bayside and Urban Stone.”


Rustic brick finishes gain popularity

Mariutto feels people are still drawn to the wood- and stone-look tiles, but also believes that other distressed looks are beginning to take the main stage, including contemporary and rustic brick-look tiles. “Rustic wood looks continue to be in demand, especially in the residential market. However, the last couple of years have seen a surge in rustic brick looks, a trend that started last year with the introduction of Mediterranea’s Chicago series,” he said. “Rustic brick looks continue to make inroads.”

Holle is also seeing the brick-look grow in popularity, as if the tiles were extracted from an old bungalow. And, while the trend begins to shift to other distressed looks, such as brick-inspired ones, Holle doesn’t think other trending distressed looks, including those inspired by concrete and cement, have hit their peak just yet like the stone and wood looks. “We see them a lot in commercial world, but most of our products end up in residential homes, so I don’t see those looks being as popular,” she said. “We have a cement look — and I think everyone should have one — but it’s not as mainstream yet. There’s a contemporary swing going on across the U.S.; we’re seeing some pops of this trend in places like the Northeast, Metro and urban areas, but it hasn’t hit where it will ultimately for the whole U.S.”

On the contrary, Italian companies, such as Monocibec of the Fincibec Group and Ceramiche Brennero, are seeing the exact opposite — with cement-inspired looks on the rise. “The ceramic collections with an antique effect or distressed look are part of a wider trend involving the world of interior design,” explained Vittorio Borelli, CEO of Fincibec Group. “Stone-, concrete- and wood-effect porcelain stoneware have been widely used in major projects and commercial spaces, but in private residential projects, where tastes emerge more clearly, there is a greater emphasis on details. To adequately respond to this need, we have proposed innovative collections, such as Monocibec’s Eclipse, which mixes the aesthetics of earthenware and cement with a realistic antique finish.

“Monocibec has a long tradition of products with outstanding aesthetic value,” Borelli went on to say. “The introduction of digital technology has even further enhanced our ability to experiment and thus create collections that are ever new and in step or ahead of the today’s trends.”

Anna Ruggi, President at Ceramiche Brennero, who travels extensively to find inspiration for the company’s new collections, piggybacked Borelli’s comments, stating how Brennero’s objective is to find the finest natural materials and replicate them to the best degree for its customers. “For us, wood and stone looks are still the most popular and best-selling collections, but we are convinced that people desire to find new materials,” she said. “For this reason, we have conceived this line, Terra, which takes inspiration from the colors of nature, and we believe that people will like it, as it interprets the most beloved colors, but with a contemporary key.”


Natural materials still inspire

Sander Nauenberg, Director of Sales & Marketing at Island Stone North America, a leading manufacturer of pebble, glass, mosaic and natural stone tiles, who works with customers from all over the world, has seen an assortment of distressed looks and trends throughout the last eight to 10 years. He has grouped the looks into two distinctive groups. “The ‘distressed look’ is gaining more mainstream popularity (i.e. wood-look, cement-look, etc.), while the ‘refined look’ is one step ahead,” he explained. “We’re seeing it at the commercial level and in more modern markets.

“There’s still a huge market for the rustic look; it just has become more mainstream,” Nauenberg went on to say. “But, in the real cutting edge markets, we’re seeing a liking for really refined looks. It’s a little bit of two different schools of look. I wouldn’t group them together — they’re ‘distinctly different targets;’ customers are really aimed at a clean finish or a stone finish.”

While Nauenberg is seeing a shift towards natural materials, Capra said it really depends on the location and particular taste of the client, which is what she’s observed from working with clients from up and down the East Coast. “In New York City, I don’t do ‘wood’ tile as much. I do real wood,” she said. “In bathrooms, yes, I do wood-look tile. But, for main flooring, real wood is what it is [the majority of the time].

“However, for my market down here in South Florida [where I live], I use tile for most of the floors I do,” Capra went on to say. “About 90% of my clients choose tile over wood [or natural materials, such as stone]. It’s not as suitable in our climate and whatever else. And, when it comes to longevity, it doesn’t scratch, stain, etc. I’m finding my clients are also more educated. Now, they all know a lot more about the wood-look tile, so people request it and ask for it.”


Investing to keep up with the demand

In order to keep up with the growing demand for these products, manufacturers and distributors have had to make new investments over the last couple of years. “We are constantly investing in machinery and technology to stay ahead of the curve,” said Nauenberg. “As a company, we invest in machinery to create the unique looks. As far as the rustic look, it’s easier to create than the honed look; rough surfaces are easier than getting a refined, clean surface. Wood is the same way — easier from a manufacturing standpoint to create a rustic finish than a fine-honed finish.”

“To produce the highest-quality, distressed, wood planks, we feature rectified edges on these products, allowing installations with the minimal grout joints that customers want,” added Mariutto. “To meet demand, our U.S. factory has invested in additional rectification equipment over the years. We feel this gives us a quality edge over the competition.”

MSI, which doesn’t manufacture, but distributes products, has adapted by sourcing some products themselves, and also finding some new people to work with because of their production limitations. “We’ve had to shift the factories we’re going to because we need ones that can produce larger sizes, and even mosaic sizes,” said Holle. “We’ve had to go out and look for new factories to supply new sizes coming into play.”


Staying ahead of the trend

To stay on top of this ever-growing trend, it seems each manufacturer has either developed a research team within its company or devoted a certain individual to seeking inspiration for new collections. “I head up the design team, and I can tell you it’s a combination of everything for us,” said Holle. “I do a lot of research, I watch the commercial industry, look at restaurants, travel to trade shows and do some overseas travel; I’m more of the gatherer and researcher. We have a team that works with social media platforms — looking to get reviews — and then goes back to our consumers and tells them what we’re seeing a lot of. We search for inspiration, go all around and gather information, and [ultimately] put together a trend document that we share internally for our buyers, which we use to design, buy and create new tiles for our customers.

“I think a strength of ours, because we sell countertops and backsplashes, is that we have a holistic idea,” she added. “White marble in countertops and white quartz countertops are really popular — so when we see a big spike in something like that, we improve those products. We can get a good snapshot of hard surfaces in general and that helps guide the products we develop. We learn a lot internally for product lines we sell for different surface applications.”

“I travel extensively and always keep my eye open for design inspiration,” added Mariutto. “Whenever possible, I visit art exhibits and home shows — any venue for home and architectural design. I try to always be on the lookout for new colors and concepts that could be incorporated in a future tile project.”

Nauenberg, who also travels like Mariutto, explained that Island Stone also has two separate design teams, which were developed to help target broader and niche markets, and which he believes set the company apart from other competitors. “We have our domestic design team and international design team overseas who are traveling around, joining us at the tradeshows, and also doing their own development and design work,” he explained. “With tile, especially natural stone tile, it’s the looks that you’re trying to achieve with the machinery you’re trying to achieve them with. To achieve some of our new looks/designs that we just launched, we had to retrofit existing machinery to actually do what we wanted to do. New designs required them to retrofit machinery to cut specific angles and curves — and it was quite a process. Then, the minute you start working on designs that aren’t 90-degree angles, you’re required to get very high tolerances to make things fix. These are the things we’ve been focused on to differentiate ourselves.”