Autumn interiors: floors and walls

It’s time for an interior upgrade and to do this it’s wise to strip away the decorative layers and go back to basics – that means assessing the style impact of walls and floors, says Emma Clegg

One problem about living in a flat or house is that once it’s decorated and furnished to your taste, it’s easy to develop a careless appreciation of a thing done well. Any walls that have been knocked down, any spaces reshaped, the addition of Velux windows, sliding doors, log burners and clever lighting systems along with colour schemes, wallpaper choices and furnishing styles were well-admired after their unveiling. But their novelty has receded, the freshness gone and a style blindness on the part of all who live there has ensued.

Pictures become invisible through familiarity, new bookshelves pop up to house new possessions, colour matching becomes dissonant through the introduction of additional accessories. More seriously, things are looking a bit shabby: the vinyl flooring has developed raised bumps and cracks where the sunshine falls, the carpet has lost its bouncy pile and its evenness of colour, tiles are cracked in the bathroom and the grout is grubby.

A wise approach if your room needs a style refresh is to go back to basics, and that means stripping back and rethinking your walls and floors. Now, you might think that walls and floors form just the simple architectural structure of a room and it’s what you put within these planes that matter. But you’d be wrong, because there are multiple design options and material choices available and every element contributes to the whole. Making decisions about these will be essential in creating a meaningful three-dimensional space.

Going back to basics is totally fashionable nowadays. Take earthen floors. This was the very first kind of floor, common in most houses until the mid-14th century in Europe. But they are no longer archived in the past and have had a resurgence in recent years with the green movement where an earthen floor is sealed with linseed oil to protect it. Natural stone floors have that same close-to-the-elements quality, materials such as marble and granite formed beneath the earth under intense heat and pressure. From pyramids to castles, kitchens to garden paving, stone has never lost its lure. Flagstones, slate and brushed limestone tiles, exposed stonework, stone in unusual shades such as pink and green, and tumbled travertine are all trending now.

Tiles are another versatile option, first used around 4000bc. Tiled floors, mosaics and sophisticated underfloor heating were the luxurious go-to for the Romans. Decorative tiles resurged in the 12th century to create patterns in churches, monasteries and palaces and have evolved constantly. Recent favourites have seen terracotta tiles, matte tiles, Moroccan style designs, terrazzo and Art Deco in the mix.

Hardwood floors – using wood from a broad-leaved tree – appeared in 1600ad but they tended to be simple and workaday and it took until the Baroque era before they became elegant and highly finished. In the Industrial Revolution, floors divided rich and poor, with the wealthy having floors of sanded hardwood and solid flagstones, and the poor having cheap wooden floorboards liable to damp. Wooden floors are now a more egalitarian favourite; practical, natural and sustainable, and if they are not part of the structure of the house there are plenty of engineered alternatives in finishes from oiled and waxed to lacquered and distressed.

Warm floor coverings have always been an essential household accessory, with animal hides and furs previously providing a warm spot in the most primitive and unheated of households. Carpets themselves – floor coverings made from thick woven fabrics – go back to 5000bc, although they were primarily used as wall or table coverings before the popularity of the Persian rug in the early 17th century. These were so valuable that, in the Middle East, carpets were common currency for payment of dowries, to buy livestock or to pay off taxes. Nowadays wool, sisal and jute natural fibres, and warm, earthy tones remain favourites as well as bold colours and jewel tones and geometric patterns for the more adventurous.

When it comes to walls, a coat of emulsion in any colour shade is an easy transformative makeover. Painting our environment is an important psychological statement of ownership – early artists used the natural materials available to them, such as calcite, charcoal, hematite, and manganese oxide, to define and decorate their environment and tell visual stories. Later, paints were handmade from ground-up mineral-based pigments such as charcoal, blood, sap, berry juice; and ochre, rust and iron hydroxides and mixed with bases of water, saliva, urine, or animal fats to create paint. The first pre-mixed wall paints, by Sherwin-Williams in 1867, revolutionised the options and since the 1940s technological advances have resulted in synthetic pigments and chemical processes enabling the easier preparation of paint in myriad colours. Recent years have seen strong trends for grounding natural colours driven by the eco movement and natural environment, then warm and cossetting colours to give emotional connections with comfort, security and protection in pandemic times.

Wallpapers came later, in the 16th century, initially used to decorate the insides of cupboards and smaller rooms in merchants’ houses. Improvements in block-printing processes meant that by the middle of the 18th century patterns could be printed in many colours and in 1839 the first wallpaper-printing machine was patented. At the beginning of the 20th century, wallpaper was ubiquitous in poor and wealthy homes alike. In the 1970s, linked to the oil crisis and competition from paint companies, wallpaper took more of a back seat, but recent decades have seen a big upturn in its popularity with digital printing techniques and modern designers such as Tracey Kendall and Timorous Beasties introducing new visions of modern wall coverings that continue to dazzle and inspire.

Approaches to walls
• A dado or picture rail makes a good visual divider on a wall – position the line according the room’s features.
• Introduce a gallery wall for personality and colour with a framed collection of art or photographs.
• Paint two thirds of the wall with a colour and leave the top third white to help visually raise the ceiling height.
• Grouping wall-mounted artwork in a three is an impactful way to make a big statement.
• Add a romantic, antique feel to your room by using a high-impact wallpaper, perhaps as a feature wall.

Flooring decisions
• For kitchen flooring, aim for durability and ease of cleaning. Good choices are linoleum, ceramic tile and wood.
• Bathrooms have more moisture, and linoleum, ceramic tile, limestone, marble and granite are all good flooring choices.
• Oak, extremely hard-wearing and with an attractive grain,
is often the first choice for wooden flooring, while maple, birch, and pine are also widely used.

Stone flooring: the advantages, by Natural Stone Consulting 
– from their new showroom in North Somerset.
• Natural stone can be used almost anywhere; floors, paving, driveways, skirting, cladding, staircases and swimming pools.
• The finish applied to natural stone has a critical effect on how the material looks and can change how light or dark it is.
• With connotations of beauty and luxury attached to natural stone, its installation in a property will help add value and will ensure it remains at a high standard for years.
• A stone tile will warm up quickly and stay warm for longer than most flooring materials, so is efficient with underfloor heating.
• Few materials have the longevity of natural stone and it’s considered a product with the best possible lifecycle.
• Intricate details found in stone, including shells, fossils and veining, cannot be truly replicated in a manmade material.
• Every piece is unique. Natural stone, formed over many years, is full of history – no two pieces are exactly the same.
• Natural stone has been used for centuries due to its ability to withstand all that life throws at it for a long time. Even centuries-old stone can be restored to its original glory.
• Stone is easily maintained. Day-to-day cleaning can be carried out with soapy water, while a wide range of products make occasional cleaning and resealing simple.
• The durability of many natural stone tiles means they can be used for internal and external spaces to help create a consistent flow between different areas.