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Interior Decorating - Floors And Their Coverings

( Originally Published 1919 )

THE usual theory regarding floors is that they are a portion of the background of the room, the other two portions being walls and ceiling. This is quite true, but floors are more than this—they are the Foundation.

For this reason it is evident that they should be darker than the walls, so as to give the effect of stability, as otherwise we should have the effect of the floor flying up into our faces. An apparent exception to this will be noted later on.

The structural floors nowadays commonly provided are of hard wood, finished in a fairly light shade. If it is desired to refinish them in another or darker tone it is necessary to remove the existing finish, which is a rather "large order" and necessitates the absence of furniture while the work is under way. Further-more, many new apartment houses forbid in their leases that this be done.

In the circumstances under which most of us live, therefore, there can be little variety from the usual shade except in houses built to the occupant's order. When that is the case there are many desirable materials and colourings at our service, all of which, as well as the treatment of floors in old houses, will be taken up later in this chapter. It is well for the present to pass on to the subject of floor coverings, not only because the more unusual materials for floors are not available for all readers, but for the special reason that the principles regarding floors are better shown in the discussion of their coverings.


Balance: Upon the floor being darker than the walls the whole balance of the room depends. And by this is immediately condemned the entire series of light cotton rugs, which in the joyous springtime fill the shop windows to the beguilement and sorrow of the unwary householder, particularly when they are full of pattern: for even though they may be slightly darker than a particularly light wall, they are not sufficiently so in effect to lie down in their place.

One of the advantages of light walls is that the tone of even the usual structural floor will generally be found sufficiently dark and quiet to balance those walls, whereas a dark paper would immediately turn the room upside down. We shall in any event wish some rugs for finish and comfort, and if the floor itself is too light for balance and cannot be changed, no resource is left us but largely to cover it.

Colour : We shall soon see that the truer point of view, that the floor is the Foundation, makes for greater truth and beauty in decoration, and emancipates us from some hampering and unnecessary restrictions that are laid down for our use when floors are regarded as backgrounds only. From this way of considering them probably arises the theory that in colour floors must be keyed to the walls. We should say that they may be, or may not be—and often preferably not. There is no objection whatever to theory provided that it be based on all the conditions. The difficulty with some particular theorists is that although they may intimate that the house or apartment should be an entity, they do not practically provide for it. In order that it be an entity the thing in general most needful is that those large surfaces, the walls, should be close in their general effect throughout. If, then, the floors are to key with the walls in colour this would necessitate a close agreement in the colour of rugs over the whole house with a monotonous result. We may rightly wish to use several varieties or colourings of rugs in our rooms and we have already found in the chapter on colour (section "Unity and Variety") how this may be done with perfect harmony.

Some of our best decorators employ an excellent method which secures both unity and variety. The floor is covered throughout with a perfectly plain rich carpet and then upon this Oriental rugs are laid where required. Among the best colours for this carpet are very deep rose, blues, taupes and tans.


In the chapter on walls it was said that they might either be treated as background or as decoration. The same is often true of floors and with them we are some-times still more free to choose which method we shall employ. The floor being darker than the walls, and being in appearance held down by the furniture upon it, has greater apparent artistic stability than the walls, and is less sensitive to disturbance. Further-more, being under our feet and not opposite our eyes, a larger variety of tone and contrast does not so greatly obtrude as it would in a higher position. We may, therefore, regard the floors in either light, and will consider the respective advantages of each method.


There is much to be said in favour of comparatively plain floor coverings. These, with equally simple walls, at once make sure of repose, even though we relieve them with strong colour—in fact, if we wish to use decided and varied colour (for which there is also much to be said) we should first insure the plain surfaces for their necessary balance.

It is evident that the simple rug or carpet presents fewer complications and is easier to manage decoratively than one of more obtrusive nature. It is equally plain that no matter how simple they may be, a number of small rugs upon a strongly contrasting floor is destructive of all repose, and if these be thrown down at angles the result is simply harassing. If simplicity of floor space is needed it will therefore be advisable to use but one or two rugs largely covering it where the room is of moderate dimensions. In a larger room the floor may similarly be largely covered; or it may be left mostly bare, with but a few small rugs; or a proportionate number may be employed if not too various in pattern or colour. If there be an occasion to lay rugs otherwise than parallel to the walls of the room, we have not discovered it. If a triangular china closet occupies the corner of a room, that practically becomes the line of wall at that particular point, and a small rug placed parallel to its front is permissible provided other rugs are not so close as to present interfering lines. The same is true of a rug before a fireplace built into the corner of a room.

Simple rugs may be of solid colour with or without a border, or they may be of two tones of the same col-our, or of two or more colours, providing that the pat-tern, where it exists, is not large or too strongly contrasting to be simple (Plates 79 and 80 B) Borders on rugs of solid colours may likewise be of two tones or colours if not too prominent. In a painting by Oswald Birley of an interior at James Prydes', the London artist, there is a solid colour rug of rich rose with a border of soft green, and just within its outline on each side a narrow band of rose. Such a rug has considerable colour quality without being obtrusive. Another British rug, with a block border, is shown in Plate 66 B.

Needless to say, rug designs should always be conventional. We have the metaphor "Sleeping upon a bed of roses," but no one cares to walk upon roses, either literally or naturalistically displayed upon a car-pet : when sufficiently conventionalised these and other natural objects become merely decorative motifs based upon nature and the objection no longer holds.

These simple rugs are to be found in both imported and domestic goods and in most of the colours we may desire. There are also the hand-woven rugs in both wool and cotton, and some of the makers will dye and weave these in any shade desired (Plate 59). Braided rugs, rag carpets, and rugs made therefrom are appropriate for "old-time" rooms and cottage use.

Rugs are more convenient and sanatory than carpets, because they may easily be removed; and, as they do not need tacking down, the flooring is not marred.

A rather serious objection to the perfectly plain rug, especially in first-floor rooms, is its showing every mark and stain. Where there are children running in and out, each dusty little footprint is evident; and if there is sewing done every thread left upon the floor is visible. For rooms subject to constant use it is better to choose rugs which have a considerable, though not necessarily a strongly contrasting, pattern (Plate 92 B). It may be observed that many patterned and colourful rugs—even many Oriental ones—may be classed as simple for purposes of present consideration; the sole test being: is it quiet enough not to interfere with the other decorative materials we shall use?

Furnishings to accompany simple rugs.—As has been noted the use of simple rugs with simple walls allows the utmost freedom in the choice of fabrics : they may be marked in both colour and pattern provided that the first is harmonious and the second proper in both scale and character. Colour and pattern, rightly employed, are never splashy nor offensive; on the contrary they add to beauty, happiness and the joy of living. The remark is frequently sounded in our ears : " My taste runs to plainness ! " when a glance at the costume and surroundings of the speaker tells us that it runs simply to mediocrity. If some of these drab souls were transplanted to more cheerful surroundings their outlook on life might be improved. Violence must, of course, be avoided and good taste should always obtain.

If it is insisted that plain solid colours be used for coverings and hangings as well as for rugs, at least let our upholstery have pattern in the weave, so as to give variety and avoid the bareness which would otherwise ensue. Also for variety's sake, if the fabrics and rugs are to match as to colour it is better that they be not of the same shade of that colour but either lighter or darker, the harmony being preserved.


Oriental rugs, which first demand attention, have been subjected to alternate laudation and detraction: let us give them unprejudiced consideration.

There are some bad and cheap modern Oriental rugs, as we shall find to be the case with everything else, and, as with such other things, we may dismiss them without delay. Rugs with zigzag lines (they are but few) may go with them, as they but distract. Those with diagonal stripes are also difficult to manage successfully. Very large and spreading patterns are usually to be avoided, though it would take all the strength of design and colour of a Kazak to redeem from drabness the " symphony in mud and mustard " we have previously described. A large pattern in a very large rug is naturally not so evident. They, therefore, have their use in spacious offices, corridors, halls, and the like.

We may now consider those rugs that are adaptable for general household use, and weigh the supposed demerits that have been urged against them. The fore-most cause of offending in the eye of many is their strength of colour, and yet anyone familiar with the subject knows that almost every rug imported into America (and probably also the western portion of Europe) is "washed" to reduce its colour. When we remember not only this but the fact that in our western "civilisation" a rug cannot lie upon the floor two weeks without its shades being subdued by the soil of shoe leather and accumulating dust—be we as cleanly house-keepers as we may—the question comes seriously to the front whether the rugs are at fault or whether our culture is not growing too pale, too anomie, for whole-some and robust man-and-womanhood. We use the word "seriously" in all advisability, for even straws are indicators, and this is a question affecting not merely decoration but character.

In any event sufficiently quiet rugs can be found among the Orientals. We all realise that in good examples the blending of tones in the Oriental rug is beyond western ability, and as there is an infinite variety from which to choose, if the rug is not successful upon the floor usually the fault is ours. If a rug to be purchased is for a certain position it should not be purchased away from that position—in other words, such rugs should be sent on approval, seen in their place, and well considered before payment is, made. In the chapter on Textiles (section Hints on Purchasing) this whole subject of trying things "in loco" is discussed.

The second objection to Oriental rugs is pattern, and this objection is at least partly justified. There are worrying, "wormy," angular and badly proportioned designs in Oriental rugs even when otherwise of merit, and such rugs should be avoided for domestic use, though they may be valued by a collector. There are other patterns that are excellent for our purposes. The Mina Khani designs found in Kurdistan Rugs are admirable, and these rugs are among the best for general household use. The Herati and Pear designs are good if we avoid those that are too small and monotonous. When we add that many of Turkish and Persian designs are most pleasing, it will be seen that we have practically said that there are good styles in all Oriental Rugs—it is our part to avoid the bad ones. The fact that by far the larger number of handsome mod-ern interiors illustrated in Part II of this book show Oriental and Chinese rugs upon the floors certainly has its weight.

The durability of Oriental Rugs for our Western use has perhaps been exaggerated and under the constant wear of leather footgear they will hardly last the traditional lifetime. When, however, the pile is of a fair length, they are among the best floor coverings we have.

Most Chinese rugs are of good pattern and colour and there are very good reproductions to be had at reasonable prices. The Chinese products are of great variety and yet, almost without exception, they possess the happy quality of harmonising with nearly every environment. A Chinese rug, excellent in both pattern and scale, will be seen in Plate 8. The Korean rug shown in Plate 111 is decidedly attractive. The colouring of this example is whitish-grey, yellow and blue.

Domestics. The East has been the inspiration for most of the best Saxony and Wilton rugs, but there are some good ones in conventional patterns. In the cheaper grades of Wiltons and Brussels the inspiration, to use a phrase of Mr. Kipling's, has "gone very far wrong, indeed," and nothing could be more hideous than some specimens with their raw greens and reds interspersed with light cream.

Occasionally one may come across specimens of the old cross-stitch rug. Some of these are ugly, but others are good in design and colour, especially those with black ground and flowered design and border.

Certain period carpets, such as the Aubussons and Savonneries, are colourful in medium shades and are appropriate when the room is of the proper period. Too large patterns—some of them are very sweeping —should be avoided if the room is small.


The tendency here is toward simplicity of design, though violent or at least strong colouring is used here as elsewhere. Block borders and sometimes block patterns are favourites, and unless these are closely harmonised there is nothing more insistent.

Oriental rugs are apparently largely taboo, owing to their pattern, and yet Chinese rugs, in which the design is simple but often more aggressive, are frequently employed.

The woodwork of the floors is sometimes painted to accord with the walls, but rather darker in shade, and sometimes stained or painted. Often black floors are used (and there is nothing better) (Plate 125) and sometimes black rugs when relieved with plenty of colour elsewhere in the room.


The regarding of the floor as Foundation will be found particularly appropriate when we consider such Structural Floors as light-coloured tile (Plate 81), white marble, mosaic and cement, all of which are deficient in depth of colour. Fortunately, we not only possess a colour-sense but also that which appreciates weight, and in these instances we so feel the solidity of the Foundation that the balance is supplied to the weakness of "value." Even then if we use floors so light in tone we shall usually need to keep the walls light and quiet in effect, though here as elsewhere the old masters of decoration surmounted every obstacle and solved all problems of balance (see Plate 139).

Red tiles make excellent flooring of good colour value, but we shall here need to use caution as to the tones of reds we employ in rugs, draperies, etc., so as to avoid conflict.

Cement floors may be successfully executed by incorporating borders of polychrome tiles or medallion-like inlays at certain intervals. The illustration (Plate 81 A) shows part of a cement floor in an oval breakfast room with tile border and polychrome tile medallions at ends and sides.

From such examples as the above we see that we may employ resources which come near to opposing usual principles, provided that we frankly recognise the difficulty and offset it by proper action in other directions. The wide-boarded floors are so obviously structural that they convey to the eye a satisfying sense of adequate foundation, despite their colour, but with very light-toned hardwood floors of narrow boards we do not feel the helpful sense of weight, and if they are lighter than the walls and cannot be darkened, they should be fairly well covered with rugs which are some-what darker. But here again we must go with caution : if we laid down upon such a floor but a few small rugs as dark and heavy as the Beluchistans, for instance, we should then have such violent contrast that the result would probably be more upsetting than the original floor. Rugs, therefore, in such conditions should be of but medium strength, or else the light flooring should be almost covered with one or two larger rugs or a carpet.

Finish : Waxing is usually recommended as the best treatment for hardwood floors, but their slipperiness is the cause of painful and even fatal accidents. Shellac is also commonly used.

In old houses the flooring is often of wide boards (a survival of the Colonial method) sometimes coarse and badly worn. If not too hopeless, staining and shellacking will give good results ; if very bad the cracks and crevices may be filled with putty and the floor painted and varnished. Sometimes nothing remains but to carpet them entirely, or to cover with a "filling" or matting, in which case rugs can be used over this preliminary surface.

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