Dark colours are out, white is in. Sleek, modern lines have given way to funkier, vintage styles. But it’s not fashion we’re talking about. It’s wooden flooring. And developers, decorators and homeowners have grown increasingly willing to follow the trends.
“We’ve laid floors worth tens of thousands of pounds that should last at least 300 years for clients who decide a few months later that they want something else,” says Liam Hennessey of Ebony and Co, a wood floor specialist with showrooms in New York, London, Dublin and Moscow. “It’s not uncommon for us to have to then rip them up and put something else down in their place when the fashion moves on.”
In the late 1990s, for example, plain, dark and exotic woods with uniform or imperceptible grains, such as wenge, were popular, because they suited minimalist interiors. One supplier who asked not to be named remembers a London client ordering him to remove all the knots from her expensive new oak floor because “she wanted what she saw as total perfection, only planks without any knotting or too much grain, and therefore without much sign that her floor had ever originated from a tree.”
So what’s hot now? “We’re seeing clients wanting a return to more traditional indigenous woods such as oak or larch,” says Daniel Park of Forest Floor UK. “I think the days when we were installing beautiful oak floors in lovely old country houses and then painting them black to pretend they were wenge are finally over.”
Hennessey agrees. Clients are looking for more decorated, characterful living spaces and want floors with “greater texture and depth” to match, he says. “Antique floors are really coming back and having old wood with wormholes gives it an added, interesting dimension.”
One of the new favourites in this category is unmilled barnwood – eastern white pine, hemlock or spruce, weathered to a rich silvery grey punctuated by knots, saw-marks, nail holes and water stains, that is reclaimed from old barns on the US east coast. “We can’t guarantee the complete absence of splinters,” Hennessey says. But clients don’t seem to mind. One who recently installed barnwood floors throughout his vast New York apartment simply bought a dozen pairs of designer slippers for himself and guests.
US fashion designer Donna Karan chose milled antique oak for her home in East Hampton, New York. Limed and cut into random widths in an arrangement known as “mapping”, the planks give warmth to an otherwise uncompromising, ultra-modern, gallery-like space.
New wood that looks old is another increasingly popular option. Ebony produces one type that is milled roughly, then processed again, with the milling knives dropped on the wood to make impressions that create a worn and handcrafted “hit and miss” effect. London property developer Mike Spink recently put oak floorboards in his Oxfordshire farmhouse but intentionally chose a low grade wood. “Not … the highest as they wouldn’t have looked right,” he says. “Originally, the floor probably wouldn’t even have been oak but a rather inferior pine.”
Another flooring trend associated with the fall of minimalism is old-fashioned pattern – herringbone in a chevron arrangement, for example, or chequerboard with light and dark woods. “We’re doing a piece of marquetry in a house, creating a radial star from the natural grain of South American walnut for the round lobbies on each floor outside the lift,” Spink says.
Counter-intuitive wood and stain choices are also more common now. “In our last project we deliberately chose a light floor in spite of the fact that, or rather because, the house was bathed in light from huge Victorian windows,” Spink says by way of example. “By contrast in darker properties, we generally used darker stains to create more of a mood.”
Of course, one can only go so far in following wood flooring fashions. Suitability and practicality must also always be taken into account. “A satin finish, for example, will be hopeless for a hall straight off the street as it will not stand up to the dirt coming in,” Spink says.
Park says he often steers clients away from ultra-chic cherry because “it’s good for bedrooms but not much else as it won’t stand up to the wear and tear”.
The most recent trend-transcending rule comes from the theoretically impartial Spink: always avoid carpets. “I don’t like them,” he sighs. “Wood is best.”
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