Property: Walking on water made easy

You may crave a wooden floor but fear the effect on

your neighbours. Good news is at hand. Cork tiles

have gone upmarket, and you can cover your floor

with pretty designs.

Choosing flooring must be one of the few home decor decisions that is likely to have as much impact on your neighbours as it does on your own property. Ask any flat owner.

The noise of adults, boisterous toddlers and dogs clattering around overhead on fashionable wood strip flooring can be intensely irritating. In fact some leases stipulate that floors must be carpeted to minimise un-neighbourly nuisance.

But there are stylish alternatives to wall-to-wall carpet.

Cork tiles - once as appealing as kipper ties and Hessian wallpaper - have been reinvented dramatically and have moved upmarket.

Art school graduate Alice Balfour was twiddling her thumbs waiting for Sotheby's to offer her a full-time job when she came up with her Great Idea. Despite grumbles from her father at being barred from using his own loo for two days, she set about re-decorating the lavatory floor. Alice laid cut-out pictures of gold coins and medals on a red cork background on the floor and varnished it. Everyone admired the result, including an old friend who told her she had great ideas but was hopeless at business.

While Alice spent two years developing her product, the friend, Mark Findlay, went off and did an MBA business course. Now the pair design, produce and sell Harvey Maria floor tiles and have moved from a kitchen- table operation into proper offices and a fully fledged business.

Their decorative tiles are unlike most others you are likely to see.

Imaginative and amusing, the Outdoor and Manor collections have a cork base and photographic laminate finish, while the Eastern collection has a hand-painted and lacquered finish.

The Manor collection includes Library, hand-cut letters on paper textures, and Gallery, Dutch Old Master portraits set in a traditional 15th century floor tile design.

"The Old Masters tiles were inspired by the time I spent working on an arts course at Sotheby's," says Alice, a trained silversmith.

Access to old catalogues with pictures by Vermeer produced the idea for the Old Master tiles. They look perfect in a hallway, especially in a Victorian house, but some buyers have been sensitive about treading on the portraits' faces.

These tiles cost pounds 38.18 per pack of nine (a square yard). The Outdoor collection comprises clever photo-montage designs of pebbles, sand and shells, a grassy meadow and glittering sea with ghostly underwater fish (pounds 34.66 per pack). The tiles are quite warm and - as well as providing a degree of sound-proofing - a great deal more forgiving than ceramic or terracotta, should a bottle of wine be dropped on them.

Harvey Maria will accept commissions from buyers who would like to choose their own photographic image under UV lacquer, but that is likely to be an expensive option for a domestic customer.

It is also possible to have a wooden floor that deadens sound. Wickanders makes a rubber-cork underlay that can be fitted underneath its own wooden flooring.

Wickanders claims it significantly reduces impact sound. It also makes tongue and groove interlocking planks with an inner cork core. Wood-O- Floor is a floating floor, designed to fit over the top of an existing floor without being fixed to it, which avoids having to dig up tiles or slabs. The range includes maple, cherry, beech and red oak finishes. Wickanders advises using a professional fitter (it will supply a list on request) and having the floor checked for damp before the floating floor is laid. It costs pounds 49.99 per square metre, which is rather more expensive than top-of-the-range carpet, but it does carry a warranty for 10 years. And think what it'll do for neighbour relations.

Harvey Maria 0181 516 7789; Wickanders 01403 710001

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