By: Jeffrey Steele
“Tile design is not a stepchild to the interior design business.”
Anna Marie Fanelli learned a vital lesson in her early career as an advertising and marketing professional: the only way to give an advertiser what he wanted was to really get a read on that client. Having long since become a design professional, she’s kept that lesson top of mind. That same ability to really listen now helps Fanelli ensure her designs beautifully reflect her client’s unique lifestyles.
“The way one’s home is designed is just as meaningful a style choice, and presentation of oneself, as the way one dresses,” she observes.
“It’s all about how the space comes alive. It’s about energy.”
For Fanelli, the award-winning co-owner of Tenafly, N.J.-based Floor & Décor, making a home come alive means using tile in ways that are as distinctive as they are dramatic. For the past 20 years, she has incorporated tile in groundbreaking home designs for some of the most demanding and discerning clients in New Jersey.
As her legend has grown, Fanelli has been showered with numerous awards, as well as both national and regional recognition. For two years in a row, she was honored by Coverings and Environmental Design + Construction magazine for a green bathroom she designed that captured the “PROJECT: Green” competition. This year, her submission was spotlighted in the PROJECT: Green Onsite Idea Center at Coverings.
She was also one of just 42 female entrepreneurs nationwide to be featured in the book Never Underestimate the Strength of Women (Jas Literary Publishing).
Her work has been highlighted in publications ranging from the New York Times and Newsday to Better Homes & Gardens Kitchen Makeover and Better Homes & Gardens Bath Makeovers. In addition, she has written columns for New York City-area publications and discussed home design as a guest on a number of radio talk shows.
We invite you to be captivated by the entertaining and compelling views of this consummate tile industry professional.
TD: How did you get started with tile?
That was an interesting journey. I was director of marketing for a point of sale advertising agency. And I had lovely Fortune 500 accounts. And I married John, who was in this business. I was traveling a lot and became physically sick, and was given a year sabbatical by the ad agency. I was newly married at the time, and thought it would be a great idea to work in his showroom.
I got exposed to stone and tile, and loved it. I was able to take the creativity I used in another industry and transpose it to this industry. Instead of going back, I stayed in this industry, came into my own, and now really emphasize tile. Tile design is not a stepchild to the interior design business. I really feel it’s not emphasized enough by design magazines. It takes a tremendous talent to put together kitchens, bathrooms, foyers and outdoor areas using tile.
TD: What are your favorite tile uses?
In residential, I love the foyer, because that makes your first couture statement. I’m really into looking at someone’s personal style, and listening to their lifestyle. That should be reflected in their homes. I learn people’s lifestyles before I design. The foyer dictates how the home will evolve.
But I do quirky things. I just designed a 9-foot-high-by-7-foot wide fireplace. My client is Russian, and in Russia they really appreciate tile. This fireplace brought back [to her] her lifestyle of who she was as she grew up in Russia. What I’m so passionate about is we create art every single day.
And it doesn’t matter if you have a budget, because we have so much material we can work with today; there’s no reason you can’t have design, no matter the budget.
TD: Your PR rep says you are “obsessed with tile.” What’s the nature of that obsession?
The nature of the obsession is that at any given time, or any place, in my life I always seem to be designing with tile. Last night, I had to go to Lowe’s to pick up some paint, and while I was there, I gravitated toward the tile department, to see how they merchandised the product. And while there, I designed a powder room for a rental apartment, giving someone I just met four or five different sketches.
TD: If you attended Coverings, what tile trends most interested you?
I have to say, I was most impressed this year with 3-D stone in wave formats and interwoven pieces. There are a lot of porcelains out there that are doing those wave patterns. And there is another porcelain that looks like a stick format, but is actually dimensional. But at the show, I have to say the most beautiful displays were the Waterjet designs. Waterjet is the process, which is so incredibly advanced.
Yes, it’s pricey. It’s not for every income level. It is laser cut material using stone, glass and a combination of stone and glass. But just the process of all the laser cut pieces that are works of art are incredible.
TD: Where is the most distinctive place you have used tile?
I had a client who said she wanted to have all the archways in her home providing her with a Tuscan, a Mediterranean feel. She had a lot of these archways, and I thought of using the archways as a focal point. And I used the 3-D stone as a mosaic, in a brushed finish. The 3-D stone comes from Italy, and there’s a special process to it. It was new construction. I was the designer on the entire project, but she said everyone looks at the archways, because people don’t think of using the archways.
People just want to touch them; they’ve become the conversation pieces in their homes.
I’ve done bathrooms in which the budget just for tile was $150,000.
The floor was an entire custom Waterjet floor with exotic, intricate field material. The back shower walls depict a muse pattern.
When large budgets dictate something unusual, it’s easy to create couture. The challenge is when you have a tight budget, and still need to be creative. I did the entire façade of a restaurant in New York City’s Times Square, and created a façade that used slates, mosaics, glass and all different size formats to create a Tuscan bistro effect.
TD: How do you help your clients select the most appropriate tile for their needs/purposes?
First of all, there’s a specific process. What do you want to accomplish in a space? I want to be very clear on what my objective is.
And once I have that I want to determine my client’s style. It’s about energy, about how they talk, how they express themselves. That dictates color.
If they’re more soft-spoken, I’m not going to throw out wild colors and materials that go against their grain. If someone is really sloppy, I’m not going to recommend white Thassos marble. If you want that white color, I’ll recommend a crystallized white glass that’s maintenance free but provides a similar look.
It can be beautiful at the outset, but if it doesn’t fit their lifestyle, it’s a problem. You have to know their lifestyle, and the product.
You have to take time to listen. That’s critical. That goes back to my advertising days, where you really had to read your client. Today, with the economy, people are just tired. They’re fatigued. And professionals in our industry are fatigued, because materials from Europe are more expensive and everything‘s more expensive. If you can read and understand the client, your task becomes easier.
TD: What do you need from a tile distributor?
I’m a tile, stone and plumbing studio, but what I need from my distributors is for them to be service oriented [and] knowledgeable about the product. I need pricing at my fingertips [and] stock availability. And if something’s out of stock I need a recommendation, so I don’t have to start all over with the process.
I spec’d the tile for a home down the Jersey shore, I’m thinking about timing because the client wants to be in there by summer, the material has to be cost effective, because she has seven bathrooms.
And I’m thinking about shipping costs. But here’s the thing, I needed chair rail, but it’s not available for six months. So I needed to find a different tile that would fit the needs, still be at the same price point, and satisfy the client.
You have to have someone who knows the line and can effectively provide an alternative, someone you can really depend on.
You need someone on your team who can flip material around and really keep your showroom going.
TD: How could distributors do a better job of marketing and selling tile?
I think first of all, when new product is introduced, you should know all aspects. We don’t have time to look at all the price lists. Be up to speed on the new things you’re bringing in. Is it environmentally friendly? How many formats can it offer? Can it be used commercially? If it’s a porcelain tile, does it need to be sealed?
Distributors should do as much homework as possible, not just give you something new, say “this is our new line” and walk away. I want to thoroughly know the product. I want the distributor to provide several different products. If they’re introducing several new lines, I want them to bring in several things at one time.
People are more impatient today. Because of the Internet, it’s instant gratification. It’s all about timing, and anyone who’s on it and can move fast, that gives you the edge. As a design studio, we value our talent and time, and in our case, if you’re coming to us for a new kitchen floor, new construction or renovation project, we recommend setting an appointment with us to review our portfolio of work. A prospective client may always browse our collections of tile, stone and plumbing. Neither my husband nor I will begin the design process unless we have been retained on the particular project. The retainer is applied to a client’s purchases.
You can buy tile anywhere, but you can’t access talent everywhere. Both myself and my husband offer talent and years of experience. And we have won awards. You shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask for a retainer. If you’re not putting a price on your talent, there’s no perceived value.
TD: Do you have additional training in selling or installing tile?
The client is really in a true design environment. We do tile design for kitchens and bathrooms. We specify all your plumbing that goes with the tile design. It’s hand in hand. It’s one design environment, so why separate it?
We can design custom vanities, we can design lighting, we can do the custom shower doors, we can do the installation. And we have a different perspective on the tile, because of the installation background my husband and I both have.
My advice to studios and showrooms throughout the country is the more you offer a client, the better it is for revenues for your studio or showroom. You don’t need 100 clients, because you’re making as much or more from 50 clients.
TD: What’s ahead for you in your use of tile?
My ultimate dream is to have some kind of webcast or some type of TV show that focuses on tile, and focuses on the process. As an advertising girl, I’m into media. There are so many shows out there, but no one really understands our process, and how it evolves to the next step.
They show it done in an hour; it’s not done in an hour.
It’s an aspiration, something I aspire to. Tile is a labor of love.
I have no qualms about helping people with this talent I have, and my skills. I really believe in giving back. Tile fits my personality, because I’m a quirky gal. My work fits my personality.
Anna Marie Fanelli, co-owner
Floor & Décor, Tenafly, NJ