The wabi-sabi home – floors and flooring

Flooring is an important part of wabi-sabi – after all, it’s one sixth of the area of every room.

The wabi-sabi home (see previous articles) needs to be uncluttered and free, and one good place to start is with your flooring.

Floors are crucially important to the overall feeling of a house or a room. After all, they take up one sixth of the entire surface.  

In the wabi-sabi house, floors should be as plain as possible (no screaming patterns) and made of smooth, hard materials because these are easy to sweep clean, easy to wash and easy to maintain. Personally, I also hate the noise of the Hoover and would far rather sweep and wash my floors to get them clean. With hard floors, you need have no worries about dirt, or fleas, or stains, or your kids’ asthma, and you can quickly go over them each day with nothing but a brush.

This may go against the grain for some people because most of us in the UK were brought up with the idea of using wall-to-wall carpeting wherever possible (kitchens and bathrooms aside, usually). Indeed, in some flats or apartments, it’s damn near a requirement of the lease that you install carpeting, to reduce noise transferring to tenants below.

But carpeting floors is a very recent idea in interior design. For the majority of history, people made do with simple earthen floors that could be swept out on a daily basis, or – if they were wealthy – with floors made of stone or materials such as terracotta. Carpets were used as wall and table coverings – they were far too precious for floors.

Obviously, even the diehard wabi-sabi enthusiast wouldn’t advocate a return to beaten earth, but I would say think again about carpet.

Carpets are pretty filthy things, especially the wall-to-wall type, where it’s hard to get into the corners. Even rugs can be pretty filthy things. If you’re not sure about that, try taking a smallish rug and vacuuming it ‘clean’, then put it over a washing line and beat the bejasus out of it. The amount of extra dust and crap still in there, even with daily vacuuming, gives one pause for thought. 

Hard floors – throughout the house – needn’t mean unwelcoming by any means. Although ground floors benefit from terracotta, quarry tile or ceramic, most of us prefer slightly warmer flooring on our upper stories. Wood, cork, linoleum and rubber are all finishes that are both natural and hard-wearing, while vinyl sheet or tile feels great underfoot and now comes in a fantastic range of finishes and thicknesses. 

The most wabi kind of floor is probably the self-finished surface that needs no additional treatment – wooden floors that construct the ceilings of the rooms below, or materials such as polished, dyed concrete. If you are ever in the position of being able to commission a house, it’s well worth thinking of a poured finish such as concrete or terrazzo (cement embedded with marble chips). Although expensive to lay, these floors, once in, require virtually zero maintenance and have no nasty cracks and joins where dirt can lurk. They are also beautiful, and the seamless finish makes a small room look larger.

If your budget can stretch to it, real stone floors such as limestone or slate give you a true connection to the earth and a feeling of solidity beneath your feet. Finished slate is easier to clean than stone flagging, though – if you have inherited a flag floor, consider doing what people used to do in times past and wax it very often until a good thick layer has built up: also makes the stone much warmer. 

For the rest of us mere mortals, I’d recommend ceramic tile downstairs and cork or something similar upstairs, using neutral colours such as beige, grey or cream throughout the house. You need finishes that go with everything, as re-laying a floor of this kind is a big fat pain. A colour like biscuit or limestone is very livable-with, no matter what your decorating scheme. 

In my house, the living room takes up the whole ground floor of the house (there’s no dining room or hallway), and it’s floored in terracotta. Although very beautiful, it does stain, so I wouldn’t recommend it to others. Quarry tiles contain more quartz and therefore fire to a harder finish, so they stain less, which makes them preferable to terracotta. Nevertheless, given my druthers, I would relay this floor with white ceramic tiles. Ceramic has a glass-hard finish and is far easier to clean than either quarry or terracotta. Obviously, it also comes in an almost unlimited range of finishes, especially here in France where people don’t generally use carpet. My local DIY shop has ceramic floor tile in fake slate, fake parquet and fake floorboard finishes, among others. 

The upstairs of a house is no less suited to hard floors. While you may prefer to carpet the stairs for noise reasons, for instance, it’s well worth seeing if wooden stairs are as noisy as you think they’ll be. They can look especially pretty with tiled risers and good thick treads in oak or pine, but even a plain painted staircase is attractive. I ripped out my stair carpet a year ago and infinitely prefer the look and ease of maintenance of my white and grey-painted pine stairs. If you absolutely have to carpet, try to choose a natural finish such as coir or seagrass, though be careful to follow manufacturers’ recommendations on slippage. 

With hard floors in bedrooms there are no more grimy areas under the beds or dust bunnies breeding under the wardrobes – everything can be cleaned in five minutes with a vacuum cleaner. Upstairs, here, we were gutted, when we peeled away the previous owner’s carpets, to find nothing but chipboard underneath. We had expected nice oak floorboards, but it was not to be. We thought of installing them but there was also the issue of low ceiling height – about 6′ 6" on our middle floor, so we were reluctant to reduce this even further by inserting thick wooden parquet. What came to the rescue was cork and vinyl tile.

Cork tile comes in a range of different finishes, including colours and white, as well as its natural but pleasing ‘cork’ shade. If you want a pale colour, you can invest in one of the corks that has this built-in or you can paint it yourself with floor or yacht paint. I’d recommend the self-adhesive variety of tile that already has one coat of varnish. With this, once you’ve cleaned your existing floor, you can easily lay a whole room in a couple of hours. A couple of coats of quick-drying varnish to seal the lot and it’s ready for use the next day. Cork is very soundproofing, warm underfoot and works well for bedrooms and other areas that don’t get very heavy traffic.

However, cork tile has proved hard to come by here in France, so for other areas upstairs we have used vinyl tile, and to be honest I find this even better, although it is a less natural product. We chose a very neutral bone colour vinyl with a faint parquet pattern and a satin, rather than shiny finish, and once again, laid a whole room in a few hours, even allowing for cutting-in. The vinyl is much tougher than cork and much more suitable for areas of heavy traffic such as kitchens and workrooms – we have it on our mezzanine and in our office.

Rubber was once considered a very industrial finish but in fact it works well in a practical interior. Friends of ours recently laid a rubber floor, with giant tiles nearly 3ft across, in a variety of colours (it was an end-of-line find). With two small children, they find their rubber floor eminently practical but still soft enough to dump a toddler on.  It also has the advantage that it can be loose-laid, provided the floor is screeded level first, so if an area should get damaged or stained, you can always swap the tiles about. 

The next time you consider buying a new carpet, think again and consider a hard floor instead. I estimate that I’ve reduced my housework time by about 75 per cent just by getting rid of the carpets, and frankly, that’s time I’m glad to have back. 

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