Floored masterpiece

House Style: Like tastes in food, the design of floors is being heavily influenced by the Pacific Rim
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The Independent Culture
"Design is like a language. It is often specific to a place and its overall culture," says Herbert Ypma, whose book Pacific Island, on architecture and interiors in Pacific Rim countries, seems, at first glance, a world away from Britain's period housing. Design is a language, however, that is ever more easily translated in the development of contemporary style, incorporating historical and cultural influences without creating a pastiche or a theme-park feel. The ingredients may be Polynesian images and materials, but the environment is 20th century modern. "Design seems to follow food," says Ypma. "You might have a dish that is Japanese-based, but with a Mexican twist served in an Italian restaurant in London. It's the same as using Mexican terracotta tiles with mosaics from Italy and setting them in Polynesia or in a Maori-influenced pattern."

Julia Whitfield of Castelnau Tiles says: "Now that everyone wants an individual look for their home, and doesn't want everything to look as if it had come from the nearest DIY superstore, you have to go further to find something different." She points out that DIY stores now stock very good ranges of Mediterranean quarry tiling. Fantasy, travel and history are all valid inspirations for house style today, but the greatest challenge is to find unusual designs and adapt them to your own environment.

Yet flooring is one of the areas in the British home that has, until recently, been the area most resistant to this kind of cultural exchange. Having retreated behind the weak excuse of difficult weather, we are now beginning to emerge and borrow floors from elsewhere. "Flooring has become much more relaxed and casual around the Pacific countries," says Ypma, who now sees these styles making an impact on northern Europe. With the Mediterranean terracotta and farmhouse quarry floor standard in kitchens and conservatories, people are prepared to drop their preconceptions about foreign flooring and become more experimental with different effects, such as marble cobbles, patterned insets and mosaics. "Five years ago, there was no demand for mosaics," says Joanna Steel of tile specialists Fired Earth. "Now it's all part of being much more adventurous about colour."

There's a mythology surrounding unconventional floors. "People worry most about the things that aren't relevant," says John Gallagher of Castelnau Tiles. "They think that a tiled floor will be slippery, cold, and that you should only use small tiles in small rooms. None of those things are true. Look at Belgium and Germany, where winters are freezing yet tiled floors are common. And the number of floor tiles being imported to Ireland (with its very British weather) is astonishing - the country must be about to sink under the weight." And tiling doesn't need to be confined to the hall, kitchen and conservatory either. "In very contemporary flats in London, we're laying limestone floors throughout, even in the bedroom," comments Jo O'Grady of stone specialists Stone Age.

Experimentation, of course, is not enough. With something permanent like a floor, you need to feel confident that you won't get bored of it. Robert Manners of the Life Enhancing Tile Company designs encaustic tiles, where the pattern is inlaid and embossed on to the tile before firing, and then shaved smooth, creating a marquetry rather than a painted design. He looks to Polynesian patterns, along with Maya, Aztec, and Persian imagery for inspiration, producing geometric designs that are interesting yet classic. "They're very simple patterns, but striking," he says. " They're less realistic than traditional European images, but somehow have more life." Encaustic tiles can be used in runs on their own, but are also growing more popular as decorative borders, insets, or random occasional patterns set into an otherwise plain stone or terracotta floor. Because they're in the natural colours of the clay, they're unlikely to clash with changes in furniture and upholstery.

Mixing different kinds of tiles together is another steadily growing theme. "Designer Diana Firth takes elements of Polynesian culture and translates them into everyday life by combining them with influences from Mexico and the southern American states," according to Ypma. Her geometric and mosaic tiled floors echo the traditional fabric designs found all over the Pacific. This combination of broken mosaic, contrasting geometric blocks of colour and edging lines uses techniques in a contemporary way that would sit as easily in a bathroom in Penzance as on a Pacific Island. Such insets and mosaic borders are also very cost-effective - mosaics, for example, are expensive to lay so using small amounts is cheaper. You can also buy mosaic in ready-to-lay strips from companies such as World's End Tiles, or in a tile format from Fired Earth, where the mosaic is glazed on to a tile which can be laid in the normal way. "But the best mosaic is when you use pieces of contrasting natural colours of stone, rather than fired ceramic pieces," says Whitfield.

The natural theme is what can pull together a floor inspired by Pacific Islands and make it work in a house in Britain. Limestone, sandstone, unpolished marble and terracotta, in organic shades from almost white, through muddy yellows and oranges and into a soft black, translate into any environment or light in a way that artificial colour does not.

The blurring of inside and outside rooms is another aspect adapted from abroad and slowly gaining acceptance here. "Most conservatories have big doors that can hook or slide back to bring the garden inside the house," says Peter Marston of conservatory specialists Marston & Langinger. "It looks particularly successful to have antique York stone paving outside, running into smooth modern York stone inside." Decking, very much a Pacific influence, is also increasingly fashionable. "It works perfectly in British gardens," says Marston, "because water, and therefore frost, just runs off it. Be careful, however, to check other inside-outside flooring treatments - they do need to be frost-proof."

For the sensible British decorator, still fretting about the weather, the cost, the upkeep and whether it's all going to go out of fashion terribly quickly, there are a few words of comfort. These themes and materials still look good after around 1,000 years in the Pacific. There's a good chance they'll last 20 here

'Pacific Island', by Herbert Ypma, is published by Thames & Hudson, priced at pounds 16.95.

Castelnau Tiles, 0181-741 2452; Fired Earth, 01295 812088, The Life Enhancing Tile Company, 01705 862709: Marston & Langinger, 0171-823 6829