WaterShapes

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The Science of Selection

The availability of new and different materials has been a driving force behind the design revolution that has defined the watershaping industry for the past ten years.  One key to that development, observes Kirk Butler of Cactus Stone & Tile, has been the willingness of suppliers to step into more progressive roles as purveyors of unique products that have blown the creative process wide open for watershape designers and builders – and their clients.
The availability of new and different materials has been a driving force behind the design revolution that has defined the watershaping industry for the past ten years. One key to that development, observes Kirk Butler of Cactus Stone & Tile, has been the willingness of suppliers to step into more progressive roles as purveyors of unique products that have blown the creative process wide open for watershape designers and builders – and their clients.
By Kirk Butler

The availability of new and different materials has been a driving force behind the design revolution that has defined the watershaping industry for the past ten years.  One key to that development, observes Kirk Butler of Cactus Stone & Tile, has been the willingness of suppliers to step into more progressive roles as purveyors of unique products that have blown the creative process wide open for watershape designers and builders – and their clients.

In our business as a stone and tile supplier, we’ve often heard in the past 35 years that designers and contractors get tired of repetition:  They come to us, they say, hoping to find things that inspire them to create projects that are new, unique and exciting.

Frankly, we on the supply side are subject to the same sentiment:  While we may be intimately familiar with materials our designers and builders have used over and over again and have no objection to working with the tried and true, we’re restless, too, and are always trying to find something new to bring to the table.  Whether we’re working with a pool designer, a landscape architect, an interior designer, a home builder or even a homeowner, we believe everyone benefits from access to a wide array of quality products and materials.

In our case at Cactus Stone & Tile (Phoenix, Ariz.), this means we literally travel the world to find and procure the widest possible range of hard-surface products, be it stone or tile.  We beat the bushes across Europe and Asia and visit the far reaches of South America, dropping in on trade shows and fairs, introducing ourselves at quarries and processing facilities and doing whatever it takes to make connections with suppliers of various materials.  In doing so, we aim at developing an understanding of what they have to offer, how their materials can be used and how those products perform once installed.

Not only do we make this broad palette of materials available to our clientele in the United States, but we also, with our experience and knowledge base, often collaborate with designers and contractors by providing information, ideas and technical assistance to them as they work with their residential and commercial clients.  All of this takes a substantial investment of time and energy, but it also makes our business far more interesting – and a lot more fun.

 STRIKING BALANCES

The biggest challenge we face – and I’m certain this is one we share with other like-minded suppliers – comes in the educated guesswork we use in deciding which new materials to stock.  Not only do we have to negotiate with our sources and figure out logistically how to bring cumbersome shipments to our Arizona facilities, but we also have to determine how much to stock to meet the foreseeable demand and then price everything accordingly.

Trying to anticipate demand is a particularly tricky exercise, and we’ve certainly endured our share of miscalculations through the years.  We’re constantly asking ourselves, “If a material becomes popular, can we resupply our stocks six months or a year down the road?”  It’s almost beside the point that the level of the demand is entirely unpredictable:  As we see it, no matter the nature of the material, there’s simply no point in developing an ongoing demand for a product if you can’t continue to meet it.

On the flip side, we also know we’re dealing with natural materials – so of course nature has a role to play in determining what we do and how we do it.  In the case of a granite material with unusual visual patterning or a Travertine of an exceptional color, we know these won’t be mass-scale products we can stock and restock for years.  As a result, we must decide up front if we think the material will prove interesting enough to a few clients that it’s a good idea to take a leap and make available something that’s both unique and precious.  

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Our quest for great materials has taken us all over the world, from sites in India and Mexico to the Irish quarry seen at the top of this article.  The relationships we’ve carefully built through the years give us the inside track when it comes to obtaining unique materials from a wide range of stone and tile sources.

It is, in short, a risky game, but our mission is to proceed sensibly and work with what we know our professional clients will welcome along with their residential and commercial contacts.

As part of a global network of companies that have declared an interest in finding the unusual, we hear about unique materials on a fairly frequent basis – and that’s as true with tile as it is with stone.  As a result of our explorations, we’ve established relationships with a wide array of companies that are on the same page as we are, and rarely does a week go by when I don’t receive an e-mail from someone who wants to draw our attention to something new.

That constant flow of possibilities keeps us on our toes as we try to make the best decisions about what will gain traction in the design/construction marketplace.  Along the way, we’ve developed a great deal of awareness of what appeals to different companies and even what seems to work best in distinct, localized markets.  We know, for example, that Las Vegas has a constant demand for red materials.  We don’t know quite why this is so, but we know that when we find an exotic red stone of just about any kind, all we need to do is make it known to our Las Vegas contacts; on the other side of the coin, there doesn’t seem to be any demand at all for crimson-toned products in the Midwest.

On top of all this, we have to be aware of broader design trends.  For whatever reason, materials move in and out of vogue, and what’s hot one year might be completely out of the picture the next.  There are no shortcuts here:  Following the trend lines means paying extremely close attention to what designers and contractors tell us they want and how they read their clients’ tastes and tendencies.  Again, there’s no escaping a certain amount of guesswork, but when we do have to take those leaps, we always try to make them while armed with as much specific information as possible.

GIVE AND TAKE

Through the years, we’ve found that one of the fascinating aspects of working with truly creative designers is how opinionated they tend to be and how strong their ideas are about what they want by way of materials.  With that in mind, we frequently walk something of a tightrope in working with them, because we know that they can’t have fully informed opinions until and unless we let them know what’s available at any given time.

That may seem a self-evident point, but what it means is that, while we’re constantly listening to their ideas about various materials to meet a current need, we’re also thinking about alternative materials that might be an even better fit in a given situation.  In many cases, this becomes a wonderfully creative give and take, but it involves a measured approach on our part to make certain the information and support we offer is a help and not a distraction.

It’s ironic:  Lots of people seem to think suppliers are in the business of dictating what’s available, but in truth, we’re in the business of responding to demand.  If at any point we stop listening or even simply fail to listen effectively, we run the risk of making incorrect assumptions – something we do all we can to avoid.

So in addition to maintaining dialogues with individual designers and contractors, we also constantly observe trends in other industries, especially when it comes to colors.  

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We trace our corporate origins to 1973 and a bedroom in my parents’ home, where I took my first cracks at figuring out how to install terra cotta tile in the backyard.  The 1958 Chevy seen here was our first company vehicle:  For many years we rented or leased trucks for our runs to pick up Mexican tile and stone.

When we see the paint, clothing, textile and auto industries moving toward warm colors, for example, that informs our explorations as we visit stone quarries and tile factories around the world.  It’s never an exact science, but we have found that preferences for colors in the construction-related industries do tend to follow trends found elsewhere in society.

With all that in mind, however, we still try on a fairly regular basis to “wow” the public with truly unusual offerings.  Anyone who works in a custom design field, interior or exterior, knows that their clients quite often want something that no one else has.  This means that, for all our careful monitoring of the markets, we keep our eyes open and frequently take chances on unusual products.  

Sometimes we strike out; other times we hit it out of the park – and we never know how things will play out until after we’ve made our choices.  These aren’t small investments on our part, so it can be nerve-wracking.  But it’s also thrilling when we see our clients light up when they first learn about a new product.

One of the strongest examples we’ve ever seen of a material simply catching fire in a particular application is what’s been happening with glass tile in swimming pools.  We came to the watershaping market unaware of its potential, but in listening to what leading designers have been telling us, we’ve been able to move in a wonderful new direction and have seen the emergence of a whole new design vocabulary.

IN CONTEXT

Given the fact that we absorb information about our marketplace from every available source (and not just watershapers), we’ve learned a lot from our clients about the value not only of providing unusual stone and tile products, but also of demonstrating how they can be used in various design environments. This is why our showrooms feature elaborate design vignettes in which combinations of materials are used to create aesthetic statements.

This has proved to be a powerful tool.  In fact, we’ve found that even if someone doesn’t particularly like the design of a particular vignette, they still respond favorably to seeing materials in context and juxtaposed with one another.

That’s especially true when it comes to textures, which has been something of a surprise to us because we originally thought that color combinations would be the most important sensory element.  Instead, most comments seem to flow in response to seeing and touching smooth or highly polished materials set against those with rougher textures or reliefs.  As a result, now we almost always try to include textural contrasts in our vignettes.

In a sense, we’re taking our cues here from the realm of exterior design, where the contrasts of stone or tile with plants and water lend tremendous appeal to given settings.  Beyond this, what we’re finding is that, more than ever before, designers are linking indoor and outdoor environments by means of materials.  There was a time when exteriors were treated as something completely separate and apart from interiors, but now in many custom homes we’re seeing areas in which large windows and doors open fully with stone or tile flooring that flows continuously from “interior” spaces out onto “exterior” decks and patios and watershapes.

Working with that visual flow, in many situations we’ve provided designers and builders with stone that might be polished smooth for indoor applications but has a roughened texture outdoors where slip-resistance is a greater concern, especially around watershapes.  

That ability to work such transitions is one of the best qualities of many types of stone – a versatility that gives designers and builders a broad set of options.  From our perspective, this is all a wonderful breath of fresh air:  It’s exciting from our perspective to watch as the visual and spatial distinctions between indoors and outdoors are being redefined with complete integration as the design goal.   

Again, following this trend has prompted us to think differently about the range of textures we’ll stock for certain types of stone.  It has also led us to take customization to new levels:  In many cases, we’re now procuring special pieces from stone suppliers to meet specifications for a single, unique project.  (Those situations don’t come along every day, but when they do, it’s great fun to collaborate on that kind of direct, creative level.)

GROUND UP

What’s interesting from my perspective is how this creative expansion of the exterior design field tracks back to (and in some ways coincides with) the concept that led to formation of Cactus Stone & Tile more than 35 years ago.  

When I was 22 back in 1973, I was working in the concrete business and was busy one day installing a deck around a swimming pool.  The client was an older gentleman who had a very specific idea how he wanted his finished backyard to look but had been frustrated because he wasn’t able to find a specific terracotta floor tile he’d seen in Mexico.  

Even then, I knew what his frustration as all about:  Although I knew almost nothing about tile, I decided to help him out by trying to find the material.

Enlisting my brother as a companion, I set off in my pickup truck and crossed the border into Mexico at Yuma, Ariz.  We started out in San Luis and worked our way southeast to Saltillo, just south of Laredo, Texas.  Here we found a terracotta tile with the unusual reddish-yellow coloration we were after.  The locals used an indigenous clay to create their wonderful tiles, but we saw nothing that was a direct match for what our client wanted.  After more investigating, we picked up a lead on a tile maker up in the nearby mountains and finally found exactly what we were after.

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Experience has showed us that helping designers and their clients visualize the possibilities is often the key to advancing the decision-making process, so we’ve filled both our retail spaces and warehouses with elaborate, museum-style displays that tell stories about what might be done with well-selected materials – alone or in combinations.

We had a truck load of the material shipped to us back in Arizona, so it was time for me to learn what I needed to know about installing tile.  Starting small, I set up a makeshift “showroom” in my parents’ backyard that consisted of two-by-two foot slabs I used to display the tile.  I also made it a habit to follow tile installers around to see how they plied their trade.  After a few weeks, I was ready:  I finally installed the terracotta tile in my client’s backyard and it looked terrific.

The entire experience taught me several important lessons – about listening to clients’ ideas, about the determination involved in hunting for the right material, about the importance of knowing the physical characteristics of the material and, rewardingly, about how beautiful the right material can look in a proper setting.  By 1979, I’d branched out to include a much broader set of products, investing almost every dime of profit in building up the list of what the company had to offer, including our first line of Italian tile.

At that time, I was still acting as a contractor and installing tile on my own.  As a result, I ran into some resistance on the part of other contractors who were wary of buying product from a competitor.  Those awkward encounters persisted through our first several years in business, but before long I was able to convince the contracting community that we offered the best material available to all comers – and slowly but surely our sales to these contractors began to grow.   

It was a very different business environment back in those days:  My belief is that if someone tried this same approach today, they wouldn’t get very far.   

SETTING SALES

One of the things I learned early and in a big way was that when you have product immediately available, your chances of getting it specified are far greater than if you simply show someone a sample and let them know you can track it down for them.  With foreign sources, of course, that process of obtaining materials can take many months – a factor that endlessly frustrates homeowners in particular.

This realization led me to develop a purchasing philosophy and methodology that dictates acquiring a chosen product in large enough quantities that the demand can be met in a timely fashion.

That approach of providing a ready stock of available products has informed the entire organization that grew atop the small company I’d started.  For years now, we’ve stressed the notion that our efforts must be driven by our ability not only to listen to clients and canvass the world for stone and tile products, but also to anticipate needs and keep product flowing as freely and rapidly as possible.  

Frankly, this might be an approach others suppliers use, but I’ve never worked anywhere else so I can’t say that for certain.  As I see it, our approach makes what we do all the more enjoyable because gratification comes much more quickly to homeowners and commercial enterprises, making everyone involved more excited and instilling pride of ownership at a much earlier point than usual in the process.

Atop all that, I love the fact that stone and tile have a permanence that other types of products and materials don’t often have.  These are products that, in the case of many stone materials, have existed for millions of years already and will last on project sites for generations to come.

We hear much about how disposability is an undesirable quality of our society.  In our own small way, we offer an antidote to that impermanence and take seriously our responsibility to offer materials that are worth keeping and enjoying indefinitely.

   

Kirk Butler is president and founder of Cactus Stone & Tile, a supplier of glass and ceramic tile and a variety of stone materials in Phoenix.  He started the company in 1973, working initially out of a 1958 pick-up truck and a small dirt yard with a single line of ceramic tile imported from Saltillo, Mexico.  Since then, Butler has developed the business to include scores of tile and stone products procured from manufacturers and quarries around the world and has aimed his entire operation at providing designers, contractors and their clients with a broad spectrum of products that fuel creative designs and installations.

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