Floor Show

The latest manifestation of late-nineties taste? A wealth of rare and luxurious materials that create a world at your feet

Anyone who finds the subject of floors pedestrian should talk to Michele Oka Doner. "Floors are part of a great landscape of change," the New York artist declares, launching into a discourse that dances from the packed-earth past to a present rich in material possibilities. For her, a hard (i.e., uncarpeted) floor is a beautiful canvas that can transform a room and its occupants. Of course, she's talking about floors with unusual flair, such as her own exquisite terrazzo compositions. These floors are generally costly, admits the artist. "But what are the real luxuries of life?" she demands. "To walk barefoot on a wonderful floor is a luxury. Good Champagne is never going to be cheap."

Top designers have never overlooked what's underfoot, but the late '90s have simultaneously presented them with more flooring resources than ever before and a new breed of client who is not only informed about all the distinctive possibilities but is also willing and able to pay for them.

"People are realizing that floors are the largest unpainted surface in the house, and they want to make the most of them," says New York architect Jim Biber of Pentagram. "Increasingly, each room in the house has a different flooring design to define its personality," observes Santa Barbara designer Sue Firestone, adding that transitions between materials are a key element. "The floor is only one part of a total design," says New York architect Bill Georgis. "It has to harmonize with what's going on architecturally."

Flooring has followed the up-market vogue for traditional architectural styles. Thus what's new in high-end residential flooring is mostly what's old—old techniques, old or recycled materials, and especially, floors that look old. Chalk this up to greater awareness of design traditions and an appreciation of the sensual potential of flooring materials themselves.

"What has changed is the established American attitude that everything has to look brand-new," comments San Francisco designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy. "People have decided that it's even better if things look old." The showy '80s spawned oceans of glossy wood and highly polished stone (as in Donald Trump's emblematic penthouse, with its eye-popping excess of gold and onyx). "The nineties," says Dallas designer Richard Trimble, "are more about understated elegance—women wear less jewelry, men compete to have the smallest cell phone. Clients are still spending, but they want value for their money."

That means designers and craftsmen across the country are using antique materials or aging new ones with techniques such as scraping, acid-washing, and staining, to make floors that appear transplanted from a venerable East Coast estate, Tuscan villa, or London townhouse. Here's a look at how these materials are being used by the country's best flooring artisans.


Wood Flooring and Marquetry

Wood flooring has long been prized for its natural warmth, comfort, and durability (no wonder it's increasingly used in kitchens and baths). However, as standard strip flooring has become more common, designers at the top of the market are opting for different approaches, such as herringbone and basketweave patterns (especially suitable in scale for large rooms) and wider board widths, which can evoke old-fashioned plank flooring. The lighter tones that prevailed in the early '90s have given way to darker, richer ones or floors that mix both. With a bow to the past, designers are creating striking compositions of wood and stone as well as wood inlay in the form of parquetry and marquetry. (In general, the former consists of precut pieces assembled on site in geometric patterns, while the latter tends to be more intricate—sometimes incorporating metal and other nonwood materials, and is fabricated off site to be installed as a whole in situ.)

"Quarter-sawn white oak used to be the most commonly specified wood," says Roger Berk of New York wood-floor specialists Haywood Berk. "Now about a third of the wood we install is exotic hardwood from South America, Asia, and Africa, such as ipe (pronounced ipay)—which Bill Gates put in his house—wenge, afrormosia, incensio, jatoba, and Brazilian cherry. Their colors are all over the map, from white to black. They have unusual grains, and some, like angelique—from French Guiana—have an iridescent sheen." (It's worth insisting on woods from sustained-yield sources, which are certified by the Rainforest Alliance and cost a bit more than noncertified woods.)

Several companies market laser-cut marquetry, but traditionalists find it too perfect and distractingly busy. Custom marquetry isn't much more expensive, and it has the appeal of hand-cut craftsmanship. Hunterdon Wood Flooring emphasizes traditional designs and techniques. "Marquetry can easily be overdone," states Hunterdon's Tonis Mang. "I often tell people to save the fireworks for the foyer." Noting that marquetry ought to complement furnishings and architectural details, not compete with them, he adds, "I try to create patterns that look as if they came with the house and have been there for years." In the unpatterned floors he installs, he sometimes fits together boards of tapering width and varying length, adding cracks and nail holes for an antique effect.

America's preeminent master of marquetry, Eugene Klotz (who has won the wood-floor industry's equivalent of the Oscar eight times), specializes in period designs: delicately detailed Baroque, Renaissance, and Regency patterns. In the San Francisco workshop of his Renaissance Floor In-Lays, Klotz and company hand-cut medallions, rosettes, and fancy borders, some one-of-a-kind (like the orchid medallion they made for a Thai royal palace), some based on a catalog of more than 50 designs (including floral, musical, and geographical motifs), that can be customized as to size and choice of woods.

"We fabricate other designers' patterns as well as mine, and often draw inspiration from other elements in a house, like architectural moldings or marquetry furniture," says Klotz, who trained in Poland. "Five hundred years ago they used pedal- driven scroll saws; we can still cut more intricate patterns with our scroll saws than others can with lasers." He notes that the patterns may look delicate but aren't. "Paradoxically, because it's made up of smaller pieces mounted on a solid backing, marquetry is more stable than board flooring and can outlast the surrounding floor."

Randy Yost had his flooring epiphany when he saw the parquet de Versailles in The Metropolitan Museum's French period rooms while studying at Parsons School of Design. For the last 35 years his Houston-based company, Yost Flagship Flooring, has been putting fine custom floors in grand houses, starting at $120 a square foot. "We often combine wood with stone and other materials," he says. "Because we do everything by hand, we get close tolerances." Like other designers, Yost likes old wood, which has greater hardness and larger dimensions than managed-harvest timber. Rather than using antique wood flooring, which is difficult to rework, he'll salvage timber from old buildings or even riverbeds. "We have worked with big, all-heart pine recovered from river bottoms, where it was perfectly preserved," Yost says. "We can get eighteen-inch widths from salvaged timber, but by the time it's cut it looks new, so we have to make it look old all over again."

That's par for the course in the Yost workshop, where each piece of wood or stone is given a slightly crowned surface; the softened edges result in a natural, worn-over-time appearance. Yost does not employ hand scraping, an aging technique that many installers use extensively, but admits that it can produce an appealing finish. He also acknowledges that matte-finish oil-based and urethane sealants can be suitable for old-look wood floors. But, he says, "We've always used a wax finish, which can range from matte to very high gloss. We use a buffer to drive a sealant into the wood, then burnish it and protect it with wax. If part of the floor is marred, you can spot-seal and wax it so that it blends perfectly with the rest of the floor. A urethane finish is harder to repair—you usually have to sand the entire floor and refinish it." On the other hand, maintaining a pre-finished solid hardwood floor involves nothing more than vacuuming and wiping with a damp cloth; an oiled floor should be lightly reoiled once or twice a year. A wax floor, in contrast, requires more labor: regular buffing, and once or twice a year a complete stripping and the application of a new coat to prevent yellowing.


Stone and Mosaic Flooring

With polished granite and marble cropping up in mid-range housing the top of the market has shifted to unshiny finishes such as honed or tumbled stone (achieved, as the name suggests, in a dryerlike machine), with a stain sometimes applied for an aged look. Limestone is much in favor for its warm, elegant but relaxed character, as are slate and travertine. (For actual warmth, in-floor heating is always an option with all three.) More exotic stones are often used as cabochons (jewellike accents) in floors and borders. "We did Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' library," says Yost. "The floor took about a day and a half to put down, the border about three weeks. That border combined brass, ebony, and black-and-gold marble, as well as afrormosia and quarter-sawn lacewood."

Richard Trimble has seen an increase in stone floors inlaid with wood or terra-cotta, or truffled with inlaid accents of semiprecious stones like malachite, lapis lazuli, rose quartz—even industrial-grade rubies, in one lavish floor fit for Dorothy's famous slippers. (Regardless of the price of the stone, as in any floor, installation accounts for much of the cost.)

The quarries that supplied stone for the great churches and monuments of the Old World are now paving some of the New World's poshest houses. Through Paris Ceramics, for example, you can purchase the same blue limestone used in Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey or the golden limestone used for Lincoln Cathedral. You can even acquire floors with an authentic patina: Paris Ceramics, Ann Sacks, Stone Selection, and Exquisite Surfaces all sell antique stone imported from Europe.

But it's also possible to go one better than this. By the time Alexander the Great was raising his first army, mosaic had elevated floors to the level of art, utilizing tonal gradations, surface texture, and varied patterns. New York's L'Antiquaire & The Connoisseur sells sections of mosaic floors dating from the first to the fifth centuries (among the buyers: Yoko Ono and Jann Wenner). "The mosaics that we have were all legally exported from Syria, from the area around Antioch," says L'Antiquaire's Helen Fioratti. "We have several—including geometric patterns and a lovely hunting scene—but unfortunately we won't be able to get any more from this source, and I'm not sure we'll be able to replace them."

Fortunately, there's a large selection of materials to feed the burgeoning interest in mosaics. Versatile and long-lasting—and best laid on a concrete subfloor—mosaics are composed of tesserae, small tiles traditionally made of marble and other stone as well as terra-cotta. Firms like Country Floors, Ann Sacks, and Paris Ceramics offer preassembled patterns as well as individual tiles in a wide spectrum of colors, and work with designers to create custom mosaics. Preassembled floors are also available from the Ancient Venetian Floor Company, which achieves opulent effects with designs of richly colored inlaid stone in geometric patterns.

"We've been seeing designers mixing mosaic and wood, putting mosaic medallions and borders in wood surrounds," states Ancient Venetian's Saad Chehabi. "We do a lot of borders for people who don't want a whole floor." While mosaics are generally associated with classical style, they can also make a contemporary statement, particularly with the use of shimmering glass tiles (some with metallic tones), produced by companies like Italy's Bisazza and Brazil's Vidrotil.

New York-based Michael Golden is known for his artful mosaic and intarsia floors; among his clients are Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds and Mohamed Al-Fayed, owner of the Paris Ritz, who's hired Golden to replicate the hotel pool's mosaics in the pool of his American residence. "With mosaics you must consider not only color and cut but surface finish, which can range from rough to glossy, and the relation of the foreground to the background," Golden says. Like many top designers, he works only with hand-cut tesserae, shunning the uniform look of those sliced with high-pressure water jets. But, he adds, "Much of the cost is in fitting the mosaic to the field around it. For a decorative-stone surround we use a water jet to cut the contours around a hand-cut mosaic, then ship the entire floor so it can be laid down by a competent installer."


Tile

Although tile has its own centuries-old tradition, many designers reject it in favor of costlier materials. But tile is terra firma—a transmuting of earth into an infinite array of colors and finishes—its diversity of pattern, texture, and mood unsurpassed."There's nothing ignoble about tile," says New York architect Peter Marino. "I use handmade Tuscan terra-cotta tiles polished for twenty-plus hours. You find them in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and they've looked great for centuries."

New York-based Solar Antique Tiles sells original antique tiles as well as reproductions of unusual antique designs. (Exquisite Surfaces and Stone Selection also sell reclaimed tiles from France.) "Antique tiles are expensive and hard to find," says Solar's Pedro Leitao. "We have tiles from the sixteenth century to early in this century, from Portugal, Italy, Holland, France, and other countries. Some have low-fired glazes that will show wear if laid in high-traffic areas" (which some designers like). Glazed tiles of all sorts may be used as borders as well as accents, but to stand up to years of wear, glazed tiles should be high-fired.

One of the most unusual types of tile is leather. It's handsome, resilient, and suitable for any but high-moisture rooms like baths and kitchens. The top supplier, Teddy & Arthur Edelman, Ltd., tans choice, unblemished hides in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy and aniline-dyes them all the way through so scratches and nicks do not show. Custom colors and sizes extend an extensive range of finishes and grains, including cowhide stamped to mimic ostrich and crocodile or silk-screened to resemble leopard, zebra, or jaguar skin. Laid like tile and finished with carnauba wax, leather floors wear beautifully.

"They're very good for dressing rooms," says Peter Marino, citing a checkerboard floor he designed in espresso brown and oxblood. "One of the things I like about leather is that it so quickly becomes aged-looking," notes Randy Yost. "In 1985 the Crescent Club in Dallas installed a leather dance floor. In about three weeks it had picked up a fantastic patina, like a beautiful old leather trunk or catcher's mitt."


Terrazzo

Though it's associated with contemporary architecture, terrazzo was used in the floors of Renaissance palazzos. It typically consists of chips of marble or glass that have been mixed with cement or epoxy, poured in place, and then ground smooth. A hard-wearing material, it can be self-effacing or splashy, as monochromatic as travertine or as colorful as confetti, and is only slightly cheaper than high-quality stone.

Most terrazzo floors go into commercial buildings, notes Michael Magnan, whose company, D. Magnan & Co., installed the terrazzo flooring in Philip Johnson's landmark Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. "But," Magnan adds, "terrazzo is not cost-effective unless you have at least five hundred square feet." (Terrazzo tiles are an alternative for smaller spaces.)

In her terrazzo floors for public places, such as Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport and Miami International Airport, Michele Oka Doner has used cast-metal motifs to symbolic effect. A Florida residence boasts a lighter version of the airport floor, complete with bronze marinelife forms and glittering mother-of-pearl chips. "These floors have a sense of movement and energy," remarks the artist. "The initial cost is high, but they last forever."


Other Materials

The impact of wear and tear on flooring has been joined by a concern for flooring's impact on the environment. One recently developed "green" material is tongue-and-groove flooring made from fast-growing bamboo; offered in various wood tones and colors, the hard, laminated strips are installed much like wood flooring. Another is Environ, a hard substance improbably fabricated from soybean resin and recycled paper, which looks like stone but can be worked like wood and is available as tongue-and-groove flooring and accent strips. Visit the Center for Sustainability in San Francisco's Presidio and you will find Terra Green tiles, made from recycled glass, in both glazed and matte finishes.

Some of the materials exciting interest are neither new nor luxurious. Infinitely renewable, cement has become more popular for floors as designers have learned to achieve various effects with integral pigmentation, stains, wax, and finishes ranging from rustic to glassy. "Cement floors can be beautiful in traditional as well as contemporary-style homes," comments Orlando Diaz-Azcuy, who recently put one in a high-budget Napa Valley house. And humble, durable linoleum—first produced more than a century ago—is drawing attention as a natural material (made of linseed oil, pine resin, cork, and jute) with an appeal at once retro and modern. Furthermore, it's antibacterial and antistatic.

Ultimately, it falls to the design community to master the growing universe of flooring materials. The best designers are dedicated to creating solutions uniquely tailored to their clients—and, notes Sue Firestone, "That doesn't necessarily mean using the most expensive or exotic materials." As Richard Trimble says, "A well-designed house is just like a well-dressed woman. You shouldn't notice any particular detail, but the overall effect should give a sense of well-being and continuity." In other words, the right floor makes an interior perfect from the ground up.


Flooring Resource Directory

The Designers

Orlando Diaz-Azcuy Designs 45 Maiden Lane, San Francisco, CA 94108; 415-362-4500; fax 415-788-2311.

Paul A. Dierkes, Architect 428 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014; 212-255-4545; fax 212-255-2452.

Michele Oka Doner 94 Mercer Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-334-9056; fax 212-334-9236.

Sue Firestone & Associates 5383 Hollister Avenue, Suite 140, Santa Barbara, CA 93111; 805-692-1948; fax 805-692-9293.

William T. Georgis, Architect 41 Fifth Avenue, Suite 9F, New York, NY 10003; 212-529-5153; fax 212-529-5258

Michael R. Golden Design 37 West 20th Street, Suite 303, New York, NY 10011; 212-645-3001; fax 212-645-3003.

Peter Marino & Associates, Architects 150 East 58th Street, 36th Floor, New York, NY 10022; 212-752-5444; fax 212-759-3727.

Pentagram 204 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010; 212-683-7000; fax 212-532-0181; www.pentagram.com.

Richard Trimble & Associates, Inc. 6517 Hillcrest Road, Suite 318, Dallas, TX 75205; 214-363-2283; fax 214-363-6364.

Dealers, Manufacturers, and Installers

Ancient Venetian Floor Company 1516 Edison Street, Dallas, TX 75207; 214-741-4555; fax 214-741-4147. Makers of hand-crafted, classically inspired stone and mosaic floor medallions, wall panels, and borders of marble and semiprecious stones.

Ann Sacks Tile & Stone 8120 Northeast Thirty-third Drive, Portland, OR 97211; 800-278-8453; fax 503-287-8807; www.annsackstile.com. In addition to fabricating tile and stone at her Northwest facility, the "Queen of Tile" imports tile, marble, and limestone from 10 countries. Among the company's offerings are stone (antique and newly quarried), terra-cotta, architectural and relief tiles, and unusual artist-designed tiles.

Bisazza North America 8530 Northwest 30th Terrace, Miami, FL 33122; 305-597-4099; fax 305-597-9844; www.bisazzausa.com. Italian-based manufacturers of glass mosaic tiles in a rainbow of colors and semiprecious-stone finishes, as well as terrazzo tiles.

California Art Tile 8687 Melrose Avenue, Suite B447, Los Angeles, CA 90069; 310-659-2614; fax 310-854-6502; www.californiaarttile.com. Vidrotil glass tiles, distinctive artisan tiles, encaustic tiles from Mexico, as well as stone.

Country Floors 8735 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90069; 310-657-0510; fax 310-657-2172. A top source of stone, glazed, and terra-cotta tiles, including superb accent tiles.

Teddy & Arthur Edelman, Ltd. 28 Hawleyville Road, Hawleyville, CT 06440; 800-886-8339; fax 203-426-3840. Fine, European-tanned leather flooring in a variety of colors and grains. Exquisite Surfaces 731 North La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069; 310-659-4580; fax 310-659-4585. Importers of antique European stone, terra-cotta, and architectural elements.

Forbo Industries, Inc. Box 667, Humboldt Industrial Park, Hazelton, PA 18201; 800-842-7839; fax 717-450-0258; www.forbo-industries.com. A major source for linoleum.

Gerbert Limited 715 Fountain Avenue, Lancaster, PA 17604; 717-299-5035; fax 717-394-1937. Linoleum in many colors and patterns.

Haywood Berk Floor Company 180 Varick Street, New York, NY 10014; 212-242-0047; fax 212-242-0995. Top-quality wood flooring, with an emphasis on traditional patterns.

Hunterdon Wood Flooring 16 Water Street, Clinton, NJ 08809; 908-735-8760; fax 908-735-4811. Specialists in traditional wood flooring and handmade marquetry.

L'Antiquaire & The Connoisseur Inc. 36 East 73rd Street, New York, NY 10021; 212-517-9176; fax 212-988-5674. Roman and Byzantine mosaics; stone from Europe and Africa.

D. Magnan & Co., Inc. 32 Cortlandt Street, Mount Vernon, NY 10550; 914-664-0700; fax 914-664-4499. Installers of terrazzo floors.

Mintec Corporation 100 East Pennsylvania Avenue, Towson, MD 21286; 888-964-6832; fax 410-296-6693. Suppliers of Bamtex bamboo flooring, laminated tongue-and-groove strips made of this highly renewable resource.

New York Flooring 129 East 124th Street, New York, NY 10035; 212-427-6262; fax 212-410-1348; www.nyflooring.com. All aspects of hardwood flooring, from sanding and finishing of existing floors to custom installations.

Paris Ceramics (U.S.A.) 150 East 58th Street, Seventh Floor, New York, NY 10155; 212-644-2782; fax 212-644-2785. Purveyors of antique stone and terra-cotta, European limestone, mosaic, glazed, and special decorative tiles.

Phenix Biocomposites, Inc. Box 609, Mankato, MN 56002-0609; 800-324-8187; fax 507-931-5573; www.phenixmfg.com. Manufacturer of Environ flooring, made of recycled materials.

Rainforest Alliance 65 Bleecker Street, Sixth Floor, New York, NY 10012; 212-677-1900; fax 212-677-2187; www.rainforest-alliance.org.

Renaissance Floor In-Lays 1330 Egbert Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94124; 415-822-3379; fax 415-822-1501. Award-winning hand-cut marquetry by Eugene Klotz, in both stock and custom designs, primarily in traditional styles.

Solar Antique Tiles 306 East 61st Street, New York, NY 10021; 212-755-2403; fax 212-980-2649; www.solarantiquetiles.com. Antique and reproduction tiles from various countries, dating from the 16th to 20th centuries.

Stone Selection, Inc. 3382 Enterprise Avenue, Hayward, CA 94545; 510-782-3000; fax 510-782-1383; www.stoneselection.com. Importers and fabricators of limestone and other stones from France, as well as antique French limestone and terra-cotta pavers.

Studium V 150 East 58th Street, Seventh floor, New York, NY 10155; 212-486-1811; fax 212-486-0898. Stone and tile flooring; custom design and installation of fine mosaics.

Terra Green Ceramics, Inc. 1650 Progress Drive, Richmond, IN 47374; 765-935-4760; fax 765-935-3971; www.terragreenceramics.com. Makers of high-wear tiles, each style available in 16 colors and matte or glazed finishes.

Tiles A Refined Selection 42 West 15th Street, New York, NY 10011; 212-255-4450; fax 212-727-3851. Tiles in many materials and finishes.

Yost Flagship Flooring 2212 Woodhead, Houston, TX 77019; 713-526-3434; fax 713-526-4660. Designers and installers of one-of-a-kind floors in a wide range of materials.

Walker & Zanger 8901 Bradley Avenue, Sun Valley, CA 91352; 818-504-0235; fax 818-504-2226; www.marblestone.com. Source of high-end ceramic and stone, including Mexican shellstone and Jerusalem stone, prefabricated and custom mosaics and decorative-stone intarsia, and designs from artisans and smaller manufacturers geared to handle custom orders.