Americans love wood. At the intersection of this affinity for real wood, the rising popularity of modern design and innovations in engineered wood surfaces, forces of change are sweeping through the forest bed. Modern engineered wood surfaces are increasing year after year as the material of choice in new kitchens. They have yet to significantly impact the tradition of real wood in American furniture production, but they will.
Why am I so certain of this? What we’re seeing in our edgebanding business is that if it’s woodgrain, it’s textured. The embossing that used to be an enhancement is now standard. There’s very little edgebanding going into kitchen cabinets, so it’s going somewhere else in our interior spaces.
While visiting Austria three years ago, REHAU Sales Engineer Doug Harkless says embossed woods – both HPL and TFL – were everywhere. The powerhouses of texture have been European TFL brands who have upped their color and embossing quality.
These surfaces are pattern-matched, so if you can see a knot or split in the wood, you can feel it. When you’re holding a board with a well-matched edgeband, it’s like you’re holding a piece of wood. Perceived as the highest quality short of real wood, HPL surfaces have taken on texture more slowly, with REHAU RAUVISIO terra bringing broader exposure in the U.S. market since 2017.
Traditional kitchen cabinets feature crown moldings and finishing details that are far easier to form in real wood. As sleek European-style frameless cabinetry gains a foothold, many shops have found that it is much more cost effective to offer that coveted wood look using engineered surfaces.
Open floorplans are a catalyst for engineered wood to spread its roots from the kitchen to living areas, providing a foundation for an integrated color pallet throughout the entire home.
REHAU Sales Director Brian Hill describes the built-ins he saw recently by Designed Cabinets Inc. for Robert Thomas Homes, in Minneapolis as “eye opening.” This high-end multifamily builder is using the same deeply textured RAUVISIO terra surface from the kitchen cabinets to credenzas to built-in desks to a wall panel surrounding the fireplace, and even to ceiling slats in their trend-setting downtown showroom.
Another customer, Fineline Architectural Millwork in Costa Mesa, California, is using RAUVISIO terra for interior sliding doors in high-end homes.
Closets and shelving
The streamlined look of closets and shelving is fertile ground for engineered wood. While white TFL dominates closets, even here, anything that is wood-look has texture; it’s a little more forgiving.
Engineered wood, with its added durability, is also taking hold in high-end dressing rooms that once were walnut or cherry as well as in commercial spaces. In 2018, the Chicago White Sox remodeled their visitor’s clubhouse with lockers and wall panels in RAUVISIO terra Mountain Oak.
During a tour of the St. George Utah Parade of Homes two years ago, I visited a home where every floating shelf, every built-in piece was engineered wood, bringing warmth throughout the home and creating the perfect atmosphere for gathering.
Office and commercial
From offices to hotels and retail stores, in both vertical and horizontal applications, Harkless found that embossed woods were everywhere in Europe.
Subsequent conversations with designers at leading U.S. office furniture manufacturers confirmed that textured is about to take root. Designers are beginning to replace veneer credenzas and boardroom tables with soft, textured HPL surfaces.
As companies try to coax employees back into the office, designers are adding homey elements that reduce the formality of the workplace. What comes to office furniture will certainly spill over into higher-end home offices. All of this bodes well for embossed surfaces.
Real wood is beautiful and very versatile, so heirloom or individual custom pieces still have their place. For shops that are mass producing, engineered wood can create a very authentic design that features even more texture and typically costs less than solid wood.
The forces of change in textured surfaces
We’ve established that engineered woods can compete with real wood on visual and tactile appeal. Now, the main factors that will continue to drive this trend are finishing labor costs, pattern consistency, sustainability and grounded design that will support our emergence from the pandemic.
While there’s debate about whether boards cost more or less, there’s no question when it comes to end product cost: Finishing engineered wood takes a quarter of the time of real wood. Larger millwork shops are set-up to automate portions of the finishing, so mid-sized to small companies might move more quickly to replace wood. Building a piece out of finished boards is much less labor intensive – just a little routing and a few holes for dowels and it’s done. The higher cost of labor is something many in the finishing world don’t think about.
For similar reasons that quartz has overtaken granite in countertops, the consistency and durability of engineered wood is in demand. High-quality balanced HPL boards resist warping, scratches, stains and UV light damage. Design and production are easier because the patterns and textures are predictable. You can have even more texture than real wood, but without deep crevices. Buyers reject a lot of real wood because it’s inconsistent with their designs.
Environmental awareness is emerging a key driver of material choices, especially among architects. The MDF core of an HPL board is essentially made of wood scraps, yet the end product is far more durable. With engineered wood, you can have furniture that looks as good as walnut or oak without cutting down the forest. We say, “RAUVISIO terra allows you to touch the forest, guilt free.”
In the literature of interior design, much is being said about creating spaces that resemble nature, to satisfy our instinctual need to ground and center ourselves. We’ve reacted to the pandemic by seeking refuge in our homes and surrounding ourselves with pleasing sensory experiences. People who’ve never had a green thumb are adding house plants to bring nature inside. Earthenware with a powdery soft finish and matte silicone water bottles are filling the shelves at every big-box store. In millwork and cabinetry, the serenity of wood looks and matte finishes is trending. There’s also a subtle shift in color tones underway. While the grey-washed hues of Whiskey Oak and Loft Oak still command the market, honey-natural hues such as Craft Elm and Mission Maple are on the rise, with up-and-comers Lakefront Elm and Harvest Walnut at their heels.
From streamlined modern kitchens to steel and brick loft interiors, from hotel lobbies to reinvented post-pandemic workplaces, materials that harken to our experiences of nature are in demand. With its warmth, velvety touch and rugged durability, textured engineered wood is tuning the heads of designers and consumers; it’s certain to turn the heads of millworkers with its manufacturability.
The forest is thriving, budding in our hearts and homes, while ancient trees stand tall, sheltering and inviting us to revel in the playground below.
By Jesse Collins, Director of Marketing and Communications Manager