Attribute it to age group, mindset or simply national schizophrenia, but laminate manufacturers are finding that today's consumers are often pulling in two different directions.

On one hand, there are those who want the surfaces around them to be warm, dark, relaxing and reflective of nature. For those buyers, stone looks, rich woods and distressed materials are on their short list.

On the other hand are those consumers who are reaching back to the mid-twentieth century for designs. For some, retro designs are hip and cool. For others, the designs may simply recall memories of a less hectic time.

In any case, laminate manufacturers are watching these trends closely, and doing what they can to meet consumer demands no matter what they are.

Mark Smith, design manager for Schattdecor/Decor USA, says he's noticed a type of country, rustic trend among wood laminates. In fact, Schattdecor/Decor USA's recent exhibit in Las Vegas was called "The Wild West Area" which featured exotic wood grain patterns that were strongly tilted to the brown spectrum.

At home with coffee

"A big part of the market this year was the hand-scraped looks, which tend to be the thing that a lot of customers want in their homes," Smith says. "As far as the woods, we have panga-panga, which is similar to a wenge-style. It's a very dark, chocolate color. That's partly because the chocolates and the cocoas and the coffee browns those real dark, heavy browns are very popular and are continuing to grow in numbers."

Smith also notes that distressed looks are becoming more common and that more and more designers are coordinating laminate textures to decors.

At Tafisa, Christian Tremblay, marketing coordinator, says trends within wood laminates are definitely moving to medium and dark. "We have a lot of maple, cherry, walnut, mahogany, some oaks and some exotic woods in our collection," Tremblay says. "The trend is in dark colors, and in terms of species, it is in the cherry."

At Chemetal, Leslie Schaefer, principal and vice president of marketing, says they have noticed that not only darker woods are in, but they are also seeing an Asian trend with a lot of horizontal cross grain.

In their metal laminates, Schaefer says that "warmer metals" such as copper are getting some attention. "We're seeing some movement toward copper, but primarily an oxidized copper, so it's pulled back slightly. It's not just bright, in-your-face penny copper," Schaefer observes.

Eclectic mixing

Mixing is the name of the game in laminate designs, according to Terrie O'Dell, senior design manager for Nevamar. She sees more mixing of cool materials and colors with warm materials and the return of some grays. "We're going to see the return of grays in what feels natural. It's really all about nature's inspiration," O'Dell says.

O'Dell sees the current interest in older or retro looks as a mixing dynamic as well. "If you're tracking design trends in general, you see a whole lot of eclectic mixing," O'Dell says. "So you're seeing a tendency to mingle vintage-quality furnishings with traditional and even modern furnishings. Certain age groups didn't live through the '60s, '70s and even the '80s, and so that's very cool, new and hip to them, so even those colors are coming back. There's definitely a segment of the market that is hooked on retro."

The aspirational kitchen

Renee Hytry, senior vice president global design for Formica, likes to use the term "aspirational kitchen." An aspirational kitchen contains granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and cherry cabinets and woodwork.

Hytry believes that once consumers have their aspirational kitchen and begin buying second homes, they are ready to move into something more contemporary, and she sees stone as a transition.

"Consumers are in love with natural materials," Hytry says. "And if they're in love with the real materials and they're on a budget, or want a durable, cleanable, easily maintainable product, then they want it to look as close to the real material as possible, and that's really where the style trends are."

Formica's etching series mimics textures that look like real granite. According to Hytry, trends seem to follow that of real stones. First the demand was for shiny granite, and then it was for limestone and travertine, which have a softer, lower-gloss finish. Formica's products that duplicate these looks have been very successful.

The retro kitchen

Hytry also observes that children who grew up in homes with the classic aspirational kitchen often don't want one for themselves, and, in fact, want something different. "They don't want their parents' kitchen, they want something new," Hytry says. "We actually found great consumer interest in our retro designs. We came out with this wonderful, whimsical Boomerang series last year which was actually designed for us back in the early '50s."

Formica has had a great deal of success with Boomerang, particularly with younger age groups. "They don't need to do the stone and wood and stainless, so they're allowing laminate to be laminate," Hytry says.

"It's really been interesting. There's been this split the aspirational customer who likes natural materials, and the young or second-home customer who wants something cool and fun."

Surroundings as retreat

Brenda White, public relations coordinator for Wilsonart, admits that in the last few years there have been some retro looks going on, but believes it is a niche market. "People who are a little more adventurous will do something like the brush series, but the average residential consumer is still pretty conservative overall," White says.

On the residential side, White believes that the design trend is still a lot of stone looks and natural materials. "People are not afraid to use darker tones on their countertops now," White says. "We offer a lot of black tones and variegated colors with darker tones."

White says there is a reason behind consumer design choices. "With all of the things that have happened in the world the last several years, when we go home, we definitely want that to be a place of comfort," White says. "Really, we almost want it to feel like a retreat."

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