ABOVE: Cork is a naturally renewable material.
From stone to strip flooring, cork to bamboo, the 20th century arguably gave us the broadest choices of any era for flooring. Here are precedents and options to help you choose wisely.
To most of us, a 20th-century floor means vinyl. But it was a pretty long century, one that encompasses the use of linoleum, cork, and vinyl; stone, terrazzo, and concrete; and of course softwood boards and hardwood strip flooring. Then there are the so-called “green” woods: sustainably harvested bamboo and river-recovered pine and cypress.
Linoleum, a mixture of powdered cork and linseed oil, is a classic flooring material, appropriate in any home built between about 1890 and 1930, and a chic interpretation for Modern or even Fifties Ranch houses looking to go upscale. Contemporary cork manufacturers offer the material in tiles or sheets, in mix and match colors that lend themselves to patterns.
Linoleum’s cheaper cousin is, of course, vinyl. Vinyl patterns not only have the benefit of being inexpensive (even attractive vinyl patterns can cost less than $2.50 per square foot), but also are available in colors and striated patterns that used to be found only in period linoleum and (now-obsolete) asbestos tiles. If your home was built in the 1950s, vinyl is a truly authentic flooring material, appropriate for use from the rec room to the kitchen. (Tip: Manufacturers are saving the good stuff for their commercial clients; where residential patterns are only surface deep, long-wearing commercial-grade vinyl patterns usually go straight through the tile from top to bottom.)
While the current fetish for stone floors has its historical antecedents (largely medieval and Roman), there is one style of stone flooring that is true to the 20th century: terrazzo. Terrazzo—invented about 500 years ago in Venice—was the flooring of choice in the Florida building boom of the 1950s and Sixties. It’s composed of marble or stone chips embedded in concrete or cement, then polished to a durable sheen. Terrazzo is no longer inexpensive and it may be hard to find a qualified installer willing to do a residential-sized job. Perhaps that’s why concrete has become so hip these days.
Embraced as a green material by the design cognoscenti (who often don’t realize it’s a problematic material for countertops), concrete floors can be smoothed, stained, and sealed to an even, long-lived finish. Just as walls can be patterned and layered with multiple finishes to create a unique surface, concrete lends itself to decorative patterns and finishes that approach the look of fine stone or marble. Other beautiful yet hard-on-the-dropped-dishware flooring surfaces include stone and mosaic tile.
Ironically, one of the greenest materials for 20th-century houses is actually wood. Remilled boards make an aesthetically appealing, ecologically correct choice for a house with some age on it. These old-growth beams and planks in now-scarce species are reclaimed from demolished houses, barns, and factories. They are resawn into many desirable flooring products, from wide-plank wormy chestnut to “antique” oak strip flooring.
In a similar vein, river-recovered woods are sawn from dense old-growth woods from felled trees that never made it to lumber mills after they were cut, settling to the bottom of rivers in areas logged a century or more ago. Preserved by water, they are an excellent source for hard-to-find woods like heart cypress.
Perhaps bamboo will be the first historic flooring material of the 21st century; in use for barely 10 years now, it is widely popular and appealing as a “sustainable hardwood” (it grows to length in a single season). Whether or not bamboo is a trend or an enduring material remains to be seen.