A stunning sofa or a beautiful wall color might catch your eye when you enter someone's home. But flooring is the key to any room, says interior designer Elina Cardet.
As the visual base for every other design choice, "flooring is the most important decision," says Cardet, interior design director at Perkins and Will's Miami office. Beauty matters, as does durability and also comfort: "You're going to be barefoot on this floor," she points out.
Recent technological innovations have created a wide variety of flooring options today.
Cardet and two other interior design experts—Lauren Rottet of Rottet Studio in Houston and Jacqueline Touzet of Touzet Studio in Miami—offer advice on making this key design decision:
There are many synthetic versions of hardwood floors these days—products that promise to look and feel like solid wood but cost less. Some can look lovely, these designers agree. But they advise moving cautiously.
"There's not enough history to know if it's going to hold up," says Rottet, whereas hardwood offers durability and longevity. "A beautiful wood floor is classic."
Cardet suggests that "if it's possible and your budget allows it, to try to invest in hardwoods that are certified, to make sure it comes from a forest that was well managed."
Which style of hardwood should you choose? Wide plank floors are popular right now. But Rottet points out that since they have fewer joints than narrower plank floors, there is less opportunity for the floor to expand and contract over time. The occasional crack might happen, depending on your climate, and may need to be patched with wood putty and re-stained. Wide planks also tend to be more expensive.
So the traditional, narrower wood planks can be a more practical choice.
Cerusing is a technique involving sanding the wood, putting white paint on it, and then sanding it again to create contrast and draw attention to the beauty of the grain. It creates what these designers describe as a "smoky" look.
You can also find wood floors that have been "smoked" through a traditional process from the arts and crafts movement that involves adding ammonia to the air when the wood is being processed. Touzet says the result gives the flooring a range of colors.
What shade of stain should you choose?
Light-colored floors can make a room feel larger, but Rottet says some light oak floors can fade to a yellowish color. Gray is also popular for wood floors right now. But "you have to be careful with gray," she says, "because it can bleach toward green."
Keep in mind that a floor that gets lots of direct light may change appearance over time.
Dark brown, nearly black shades can also be beautiful, Rottet says. Just be aware that you may need to sweep often. Darker shades, whether in wood or ceramic tile, will also help a space feel warmer, Cardet says.
Overall, Cardet suggests making conservative choices with flooring colors and styles, then getting creative with area rugs.
CONSIDERING CONCRETE AND TILE
Concrete floors are trendy and can be beautiful. But over time, cracks can form, and there's little that can be done to prevent them. Some people don't mind the look, so use concrete only if cracks won't bother you.
Concrete floors also don't absorb sound well.
Another option is large porcelain tiles that look similar to concrete or stone.
"We love terrazzo instead of concrete," Touzet says. "It's been around for centuries, and you can get the aggregates pretty fine, so it almost looks like a concrete floor."
Porcelain is generally durable, although it can chip. Cardet recommends "through-body" tile, which is made of the same material all the way through. It can be more expensive, but because the color isn't just on the surface, the look of the floor isn't ruined if there are chips.
In choosing tile or stone, many customers are increasingly aware of durability. "We have been seeing less of limestones that are super-precious and soft," Touzet says. "People want an ease of living with their floor, not constantly maintaining it, putting a sealant on it."
If you don't have the budget to do an entire room in hardwood but wish you could, Rottet has a creative solution: Put down carpeting throughout the room, but add a wood border that's several inches thick around the edges of the room. It will appear as though your carpeting is actually a rug sitting on top of hardwood.
Carpeting is less popular these days, Touzet says, because of concerns about dust and air quality. But you can find a low-pile carpet and choose natural materials such as wool to avoid those issues.
And one affordable, retro trend that may be returning: high-end vinyl floors with the look of stone or wood.