Wood that’s not made of wood
by Michiko Wemmje | Jan 29, 2014
(left to right). Photo © Mathias Dürr

Mimicry is a phenomenon that is rather widespread in the animal kingdom. The hoverfly, for instance, pretends to be a honeybee, in other words, it emulates the appearance of its rival, flaunting features it doesn’t actually possess. A similar trend has been making inroads into the world of floor coverings for some time now. One example is synthetic floor coverings that look just like genuine timber flooring – it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. And not just in terms of appearance. Thanks to their uneven surface structures they feel like the real thing, too. But can the charm and coziness of natural flooring really be transferred to a new product?

A cornucopia of products with altered functions

At this year’s Domotex we learned that the question of authenticity, and the conditions that make us perceive things as genuine, are by no means limited to imitations only, in other words, a laminate floor pretending to be real timber parquet. The main reason for this is that among this year’s innovations we are finding a whole host of products that combine different material properties, so in a sense they go beyond simply emulating a particular feature of the original material. Take natural slate flooring, for example, which is resilient and warm to the touch thanks to underfloor layers made of cork and synthetics, vinyl floors with a textile structure that thanks to cutting-edge technology can be printed with any motif you wish. Even waterproof carpet panels that can simply be clicked into place, timber or bamboo modules that are equally suitable for floors and walls and, last but not least, hand-tufted carpets made of used V-belts or newspapers testify to the massive surge in new functions.

Are we craving authenticity more than ever?

So to what extent are we able to stretch a material’s aesthetic and functional boundaries and what significance do we attach to things we deem authentic? These and other questions were explored in conjunction with the “Innovations@Domotex Talks”. Lars Krückeberg (Graft Architekten, Berlin) debated with his fellow architects Titus Bernhard (Titus Bernhard Architekten, Augsburg), Günter Katherl (Caramel Architekten, Vienna) and Dirk Zweering (Kadawittfeldarchitektur, Aachen). Architectural critic Angelika Fitz moderated the event.

In today’s world of digitalization, shaped by permanent change and constant updates, we more than ever seem to long for things natural and authentic. However, is it therefore wrong to copy specific material properties? Or could it be that doggedly holding on to authenticity at all costs may cloud our vision for new and exciting things, the fruits of rethinking and pushing boundaries? In the debate, the architects were swift to agree on their preference for “authentic” things over copies, but said that they above all cherished the experience of a particular material, not its authenticity. Dirk Zweering explained it thus: “Authenticity works only to an extent – including people’s personal experiences is what’s important here. So the question is: What materials should I use to create the most comfortable ambiance?” However, the feelings we attach to a particular material can diverge considerably, with cultural preferences playing a role that should not be underestimated. While timber and plaster, for example, enjoy predominantly positive connotations in our culture, people from other cultural spheres may associate entirely different things with these materials. How we experience a particular material is therefore closely bound up with the cultural context in which it exists. Moreover, the fact whether or not we regard something as authentic depends on if and how the properties of the material have been explained to us.

Architects are welcome to think outside the box

“After all, it is the architects who decide on the authenticity of a material – it all depends on our reasoning,” Günther Katherl noted. “We tend to condemn laminate for its efforts to look like wood,” Krückeberg said, adding that materials should be thought of and used in their own right as much as possible – depending on requirements and contexts. In some situations, he argued, laminate may well be the most suitable and therefore optimal product. Architects are therefore well advised to respond to people’s individual needs. “If a timber floor is out of the question for someone who has cats, it’s time for a rethink, so why not cover the entire apartment with cat litter?” Krückeberg suggested, with a smile.

Rethinking or perceiving something from a different vantage point requires courage – and the willingness to engage with clients, builders and manufacturers who may not wish to take risks with their investments. Those participating in the debate nodded in agreement with Krückeberg’s remark that shaping tastes is an architect’s responsibility: “It’s the architect’s job to think outside the box. It’s in his power to change opinions. The industry and builders want to make money. So it’s down to the architect to sharpen our awareness and establish new ways of thinking.”

Imitations are more durable, cost-efficient andlower maintenance

Following the debate and browsing the stands at the Domotex, we could not help but notice that in the real world things take on more grounded, as in pragmatic, tone. Effectiveness is what counts here. People want floor coverings that look good, are low maintenance, warm to the touch, resilient and not overly expensive. While most of us dream of real parquet flooring, more than 80 percent of buyers eventually opt for alternatives such as laminate or other floor coverings with a natural wood look, explains Dirk Steinmeier, Marketing Director at MeisterWerke, Rüthen. There are countless reasons for this: Imitations tend to be harder wearing, easier to maintain and, above all, cheaper. “Today’s customers prefer not having to invest much time and effort in maintenance. That said, of all the products in a house, the flooring is replaced the least frequently. So we need to pay special attention to ensure that its properties match our requirements.”

After yet another tour of the Domotex and with the debate in mind, we can say this much about “authenticity and dissociation”: It’s essential that we view the craving for natural and authentic materials in relation to the wish for low-maintenance products that are used effectively. Sometimes a natural material we perceive as authentic may rise in our opinion when compared to its imitation. Whether genuine or fake, authentic or recreated, in the vast world of floor coverings we have long since stopped thinking in terms of “either/or”.

Vinyl-flooring „Dream Klick“ by Beauflor. Photo © Mathias Dürr
Make old of new: Vintage-carpet at Jan Kath. Photo © Martina Metzner
Jan Kath. Photo © Martina Metzner
Lars Krückeberg, Graft Architekten, at the Talk: “We tend to condemn laminate for its efforts to look like wood.” Photo © Mathias Dürr
Concreate Modular produces panels with a real concrete surface, that can be layered easily. Photo © Martina Metzner
Concreate Modular can put together with other panels. Photo © Martina Metzner
Looks like parquet flooring: laminate by Hadi Teherani for Parador. Photo © Martina Metzner
Clickable cork-flooring by Li&Co with schist surface. Photo © Mathias Dürr