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What Lies Beneath

Illustration by Ron Meyers

WE'VE COME A LONG WAY FROM OUR EARLY HOUSING units — simple structures lined with packed earth. Why then, armed with the blazing technology of the 21st century, are we still led like sheep by the real estate agent's banshee cry of "Hardwood floors!"? What's the big deal? Most hardwood floors are thin strips of unstained oak about as colorful as a dirty bra strap. Why do young yuppies dream of houses lined in endless boring flooring that's hard on the eyes and the knees? Wake up, people, and smell the sawdust.

No matter what we walk on — hardwood or soft, cork, brick, slate, ceramic or the currently chic Jerusalem stone shipping out of Israel — the floor is the most defining element of any given space. It's the first thing we're affected by physically when we enter any room. Yet, though floors are overlooked by many and taken for granted by all, the technology of the last 100 years has made flooring choices more exciting than ever. Murky old linoleum has given way to vinyl tile and sheeting that, when used creatively, can transform a room. New terrazzo processes enable us to pour beautiful aggregate floors of marble chips and colored glass. Bamboo is environmentally friendly, and more durable than most woods. But mediocrity being the mother of convention, most everyone seems to want the same old hardwood.

I've loved floors since I was a kid, when, on a school trip to eastern Long Island, I visited an old Vanderbilt estate from the 1930s and discovered a ballroom floor of glass block that was lit from underneath. My boy brain was blown away by flooring so radical. And more epiphanies followed: There was "carnival shag," made by an obscure carpet factory that once a year would throw all the leftover yarns into a machine and make a rainbow-colored carpet. And strolling barefoot at a New York gallery on the most exquisite rug I've ever seen: a waterbedlike transparent piece filled with thousands of assorted curled-up formaldehyde-preserved animal fetuses set in the sophisticated classic kidney motif of an old Persian carpet. There was the 500-year-old villa in Florence with a tight-set red-clay tile that had been waxed for half a millennium and felt like walking on velvet. And the grand Spanish house in L.A. that came complete with hand-hewn (never sanded) mahogany floors. You could still sense the undulating waves of the woodworker's chisel underneath the years and years of wax and varnish.

In fact, wood flooring didn't really take off until around the 13th century. Stone paving had been all the rage previously, and in approximately 4000 B.C. Egyptians started making ceramic tiles. Early on we developed a zeal for creature comforts, lining our caves with animal skins, weaving desert grasses into mats, and gathering dry leaves to make life homier on the floors of damp forests. Smart Persian herders had all this excess animal hair around and wove it into rugs. Terrazzo, my personal favorite, appeared in the 15th century, when Italians went crazy with marble and figured out how to turn all their carving wastes into poured aggregate floor. (By the way, if you have terrazzo floors, rub them with goat's milk — it brings out the color of the stone and gives a great finish.) Rubber tiles first came about around A.D. 12 or 13, but didn't really take off until the end of the 19th century, along with good old linoleum, which has since been replaced by vinyl tiles, self-stick or regular.

If you are stuck with dingy hardwood floors, there's a plethora of great stains to make them stand up and sing. If you're planning to float rugs around the house, nothing is better than a dark walnut stain to bring out the beauty of a good rug. If you want it light and basic, try adding some tint to the various layers of polyurethane, which gives the wood a translucence. Of course, there's always the softwood floor. If you've lucked out with a pine sub-floor, fill in the cracks, sand it, stain it, paint it, seal it, do what you will with it, because nothing is more delicious than a warm pine floor. Sure, over time dents might appear, but think of 'em like the character lines in Sophia Loren's face. Area rugs are great for defining a space, but don't make the mistake of trying to hide a bad floor with lots of little rugs. It's an aesthetic cop-out.

Wall-to-wall carpeting has got a bad rep; there's much more out there than the sleazy industrial stuff featured in cheap condos. Broadloom is better than ever, and these days it's colorful, stainproof and childproof. A good installer can piece different carpets together to make patterns and borders. To add plushness and definition, you can lay an area rug on top. Modernists with a tight budget can have a field day with cheap vinyl tile, which is totally durable, washable and invitingly creative. Besides great expanses of solid color, you can stripe it, checkerboard it, mosaic it, cut in motifs and borders, and so on. Then there are ceramic tiles, which offer endless possibilities; new affordable ways to put on a terrazzo floor are also an option.

You don't need hardwood to make your world a better place to walk on.

For an affordable design adventure, call super floor-layer Michael Nordan, (818) 260-9422, who will bring his portfolio and show you what can be done in linoleum, vinyl tile and carpeting.

Rode Brothers specializes in restoration work on wood floors; (310) 670-0891.

Hermosa Terrazzo Inc. is a couple of young guys (ask for Marv) who have developed an affordable terrazzo technique that is thin enough to use without having to lower your floors; (310) 376-6678.

Check out Dal Tile's line of matte-finished 1-inch and 2-inch tile at Discount Tile: The colors are dreamy, the price is unbeatable, the combinations are endless, and it's the only tile program that has all those wonderful corners, trim pieces, angles, etc., so you can literally tile everything in sight; (310) 202-1915.

For fantastic area rugs, try Expo Design Center in Monrovia; (626) 256-6160 or www.expo.com.


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