The Modern Minute Exclusive: Remoderning Part 2: Flooring
Last month (March, 2020), I also wrote a piece including general remodeling & restoration information. If you missed that article and you’re a current subscriber, let me know and I’ll send a link to it so that you can read it now.
In my opinion, flooring is one of the most difficult choices to tackle when you’re remodeling a modern home – especially one with classic MCM features and architecture.
Remodeling or Restoring?
One of the first – and biggest – decisions you have to make is whether you’re remodeling your home or restoring it. Restoration typically means that you’re going to try to get the house back to its original state. This can be incredibly challenging and very expensive, because many of the products and materials used in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s aren’t available anymore. This often means trying to find salvage from other homes that are being gutted or torn down, which also means doing lots of research all over the country and even beyond.
With the benefits of modern technology, sometimes vintage elements that are hard to find can be remade, but again, that can be very, very expensive.
If you’re restoring, one of your most valued resources is going to be the original building plans for your home. If you have them, look them over carefully. There are usually “schedules” for things like doors, windows and, yes, flooring. These schedules will often specify exactly what was used and, in the case of things like doors and windows, will have specific materials and dimensions listed, too.
You may also want to do a search online to see if you can find references to your home (especially if it was designed by a prominent architect) in old newspapers and magazines. You might find photos of what your house looked like when it was first built.
Unless you have a home that’s truly architecturally and / or historically significant, most of you are probably thinking about remodeling rather than restoring. You want to bring the home “up to date” in terms of some of the finishes and features, but you want it to be consistent with your home’s architecture.
The reason I feel that flooring is an especially difficult aspect of a modern home remodel is that, as with a number of other elements, our tastes in flooring, culturally, have shifted quite a bit over the decades. Whereas wall-to-wall carpeting was considered very modern and luxurious in the 1950s, people today often prefer hard-surface flooring – usually hardwood – because it’s easier to maintain, easier to clean, less prone to trapping allergens, and many other reasons.
But hardwood flooring wasn’t as common in modern homes in the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century as it is today (although it was quite popular in modern houses in the U.K. and Europe during the same time period), and people in our society today often shudder at the thought of using certain materials that were more commonplace at the time these homes were new. Let’s take a look at some vintage photos of modern homes to see how flooring was handled at the time they were designed and built.
Doing It for Yourself or Doing It to Sell?
The other big question you need to consider is whether you’re remodeling for yourself or to sell one day. If you’re doing it for yourself and don’t care about “resale value” or how the home might be viewed by others, you have a lot more freedom than if you’re remodeling to sell in a few years. While nobody can predict the future, it’s probably a safe bet that certain flooring types that are more economical won’t go over as well in an expensive home in an expensive area the way they would have when they were “new technology” back in the middle of the 20th century.
Wall-to-wall carpeting came about in the 1930s, but it was in the 1950s when it really took off. Considered to be both state-of-the-art and luxurious, carpeting featured prominently in many modern homes, often being specified by the architect.
Carpeting solves a lot of issues in a modern home. It’s uniform in appearance, warm under foot, comes in many different colors and textures, and softens spaces that it’s in, both in terms of the visual appearance and in sound absorption.
Remember, too, that a well-placed area rug can add softness to a room in limited fashion. There are also numerous instances of area rugs being placed over wall-to-wall carpeting, although use that technique judiciously.
Although we mostly think about brick as a wall surface, brick was often used in modern homes in the middle of the 20th century as a flooring material as well. Brick offers fantastic texture, added geometry and is both durable and relatively easy to keep clean.
Sealing a brick floor is probably a necessity, but using a sealer that has more of a matte, rather than glossy, finish will likely work better in a modern home setting.
Because brick is also commonly used on home exteriors, it’s also a great flooring material to use when you want to continue the surface from inside to outside, keeping that material continuity. And think about what kind of look you want: Laying the brick in a straight stack configuration will look a lot different than in a running bond type of configuration.
Brick also presents a great opportunity to define different living spaces with area rugs.
Vinyl is definitely one of those surfaces that would be harder for a lot of people to swallow today, where it’s typically used in installations when cost is of a primary importance. But in the ’50s and ’60s, it was a fantastic new alternative to other flooring options.
Vinyl and other plastic flooring materials came in many different colors, textures and patterns, making it possible to have consistency of materials but many variations in colors throughout a home.
Linoleum never really gained the popularity of other flooring options, but it was a colorful option for sure. And it’s still available! One of the best things about it is that it’s a natural material that’s considered sustainable. The one thing you need to consider with linoleum flooring is that while it wears exceptionally, it doesn’t deal with water as well as something like vinyl, so it’s probably best not to use it in kitchens, bathrooms and laundry spaces.
Tile is and has been a popular flooring choice for decades. One of the biggest issues with tile is that specific styles tend to come and go rather quickly. If you look at tile shops today, most of what you’ll find is stone or glass, but ceramic tile was most popular in the middle of the 20th century.
Terra Cotta tile is another type that was often found in modern homes. Usually found either in squares or hex patterns, terra cotta is another great, natural material that lends warmth (in terms of color and tone) to a space.
Although colder and harder under foot than something like wood, tile is often a preferred surface in kitchens, where potential spills make cleaning up easy. Plus, tile is generally impervious to water.
Another natural material that was used extensively in the ’50s and ’60s as a flooring material, cork is still available as flooring today, although it’s more typically found in plank form rather than squares. I prefer the squares, though, since it feels more appropriately mid-century in its geometry.
If there’s one word related to MCM homes that really gets people excited, this might be it. Terrazzo is a very old technique where chips of marble are placed in a layer of concrete over a bed of sand. Today, there’s also epoxy terrazzo, which requires less floor depth, is available in many additional colors, and is a bit less expensive than poured sand cushion terrazzo.
Expense is terrazzo’s biggest issue: Expect to pay $35 per square foot minimum for epoxy terrazzo flooring, and probably anywhere from $45 per square foot up to over $100 per square foot for poured terrazzo. On the upside, it lasts and lasts and lasts and is a truly beautiful surface with many different color, tone and aggregate material combinations possible. If you already have terrazzo flooring, remember that it can be refinished (polished) to restore it to its original glory. Whatever you do, don’t remove it or cover it! It’s easily the most coveted of flooring types, especially in modern homes.
Favored by Frank Lloyd Wright and used by many other architects, polished concrete is a great alternative to terrazzo. New installations of it (which also do require some depth), can use aggregate material in much the same way terrazzo does, but the materials and process aren’t quite as expensive. You can have polished concrete floors poured and finished (including sealing) for well under $20 per square foot, depending on how simple or fancy you want to go. And it’s a natural material that can be very beautiful. Remember that you can control whether the finish is more matte or glossy, and I always recommend matte for modern homes.
Stone is another beautiful natural material and includes things like the random, broken style shown above as well as more square or rectangular formats in materials such as slate and bluestone, which was used extensively by architects such as Dennis Blair in this area.
Using a rectangular or squared stone floor, keep in mind that you can achieve many different patterns and, as a result, looks, based on the rest of your space and what you’re trying to achieve. I feel that random sizes are better when you already have a lot of geometric regularity. If you want to create a strong sense of geometry, however, consider squares aligned in straight fashion.
Of course wood flooring was used in the mid-century, although it seems that it wasn’t quite as popular as it is today in our era of concern over things like allergies and ease of maintenance. Wood floors predominantly were in three different styles in the ’50s and ’60s. Plank wood floors are what we’re mostly accustomed to today, and in the U.S., were often laid with narrow planks, which is primarily what was available at the time. One of the issues we have today is that oak, as a material in general, has fallen out of favor. Woods that were more commonly associated with the mid-century, such as walnut and teak, are very expensive as a flooring material. Birch is an option, but isn’t widely available as a flooring material.
Wood parquet was also widely used in many modern homes. The most common format was squares made of small wood strips, as in the above example. There were also squares made of smaller squares, which were more expensive and are more difficult to find today. One good thing if you decide to use wood parquet today is that there are companies that will custom-make parquet flooring for you in just about any species and format you’d want. Keep in mind that can get expensive quickly, but if you’re in a house where it was specified and you’re going for more of a restoration, it’s an option.
Sometimes, wood floors were literally just sheets of stained plywood. It was a higher grade plywood, more like that used to make some types of furniture, but it was specified as flooring in numerous modern homes in the ’40s and ’50s in particular. This is one of the types of flooring I was referring to earlier in this piece when I wrote that there are some types of flooring options that people would shudder at today.
Next month I’ll get into more specifics about another aspect of remodeling a modern home, and will continue for the next few months after that.
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