By Mary Ellen Polson
The kitchen floor most of us grew up with was practically invented between 1880 and 1920, with the emergence of linoleum, cork, and the earliest forms of vinyl. These miracle surfaces of the early 20th century remain ideal choices for period-inspired kitchen floors, especially if you choose among today’s freshened palettes and color combinations.
As a class, these are known as resilients: durable, nonabsorbent flooring materials that are able to bounce back from scuffs and abrasions. Don’t confuse a classic resilient like linoleum (a blend of ground cork and linseed oil) with laminates or “residential” grades of vinyl tile. The latter are patterned only on the surface. In linoleum, cork, and commercial grades of vinyl (VCT), the pattern goes all the way through the material from top to bottom. These floorings wear longer—without looking worn.
Resilients also clean up easily. That’s important when you consider what’s inevitably in your floor’s future: dirt, spills from food and sticky beverages, scuffs, heel marks, and possibly worse if you have children and dogs. For that reason, look to pattern and color to camouflage small mishaps. (Check out our article on tile patterns for floors.)
Wood is a timeless classic, even for the kitchen. Go with hardwood, heart pine, or reclaimed wood from old-growth trees, rather than “soft” woods like fir. A “character grade” heart pine or hardwood flooring (the kind with knots or other signs of natural or manmade distress, like saw marks) will look beautiful even as it conceals the inevitable drips and drops of a day’s work in the kitchen. A wood floor may show nicks and scratches, but it has a longevity measured in decades rather than years. It’s also an excellent choice if you want to extend wood flooring from more public spaces, like a living room or family room, into the kitchen. And it warms a white-painted kitchen like nothing else.
Stone is another ageless surface. While stone floors were uncommon for much of the history of domestic interiors, natural stones—including limestone, bluestone, slate, marble, and soapstone—are increasingly popular choices for the kitchen. Subtle variations in pattern or color create a rhythmic flow to the appearance of the floor, adding depth and beauty. Stone surfaces are extremely durable and, like wood, they can be repolished and resealed if they get dirty. Just be sure to choose a stone that’s suitable for flooring. It should be slip-resistant and dense enough to stand up to constant foot traffic.
Ceramic tile has been, historically, a more popular flooring surface for bathrooms. But don’t overlook the possibilities of this colorful, enduring material in the kitchen. Flooring manufacturers have begun to offer ceramic flooring that mimics other materials, including stone. Many of the traditional shapes—hexes, octagons, oblongs, and penny rounds—are now widely available in sizes that range from 1⁄2″ to 1″ dots and also tiles of 6″ to 8″ or more. These versatile shapes lend themselves to many historical patterns, including late Victorian “floor rug” designs. Hand-pressed terra cotta and boldly colored Moorish Revival tiles are available from specialty makers, too.
Concrete, despite its reputation as a cutting-edge material, is also historical material, and a versatile mimic of traditional materials. Concrete can be shaped, molded, or inlaid to produce just as many looks as tile. It can be stained, or polished for a look as smooth as any stone.
Are you the lino type?
Linoleum has gotten a bad rap. True linoleum, invented during the 1860s and relatively inexpensive for a luxury material, has many advantages. It’s colorful (and the color doesn’t wear off), resilient, easy on the feet, and available in different looks.
Made from ground cork and linseed oil with a burlap backing, early designs resembled marble or stone. After 1890, when linoleum use was more widespread, styles ranged from the exuberant flecked, speckled, or striated patterns referred to as Jaspé, to period-specific geometrics and florals. Many of these classic patterns reappeared with the emergence of vinyl tile in the 1940s and ’50s. (That’s perhaps why people confuse vinyl flooring with linoleum.)
Today, linoleum comes in whole palettes of color, from marbleized neutrals to buff and black and vivid reds, greens, and blues—not to mention dozens of border patterns. To create a unique floor, cut pieces from tiles or sheets of different colors or ask an installer to do a custom inlay. Laser-cut companies also will do custom inlays for you.