Real Living: The new rubber fetishists ...

Nineties modernists are choosing shiny rubber as a chic alternative to those ubiquitous wood floors.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Mention rubber flooring, and most people think of airport terminals or those squeaky mats from aerobics classes. It's hardly the stuff of dreams, but now rubber is enjoying a renaissance as a floor covering for the most stylish of homes.

The last time rubber was cool was in the hi-tech Seventies. The only colours available were black, grey and the odd primary shade, and it was mainly the preserve of architects and designers. But now rubber's been given the green light, as Nineties minimalism is more about colour than monochrome and those who like to stay one step ahead are after an alternative to the ubiquitous natural wood and seagrass.

"Nowadays, rubber flooring lacks any hint of the factory floor," says Elizabeth Wilhide, author of The Flooring Book. "Modern technology means you are rid of that nasty rubbery smell. There is also a slight misconception that rubber flooring is natural. In fact, it's synthetic. It was originally used in places where there is a lot of pedestrian traffic, so it has to be tough."

"Rubber's about the only flooring material that offers you a choice of solid, glossy colour so it really has a contemporary feel," says Julie Mellor of rubber manufacturers, Dalsouple. "Rubber will take dye extremely well, unlike other smooth flooring such as vinyl and linoleum, where block colour tends to be marbled or streaked. The colour range is incredible - from neutrals and pastels to vibrant colours like rich deep pink or strong greens."

But rubber is not only attractive but practical. "It is anti-slip and extremely tough," continues Julie. "You would never wear out a rubber floor and, unlike vinyl, you cannot damage it with a burn." Stub a fag out on it, and you can just scrub off the nicotine stain. How's that for the perfect party floor?

At the same time, rubber can actually be quite cosy: it's warmer and softer to walk on than linoleum, and is rather springy underfoot, so it has a comfortable give. Rubber floors are not cheap - First Floor in South London sell rubber tiles from pounds 41 per square metre - so they're hardly ideal as a transient fashion choice. But they certainly last. You can't buy rubber sheeting (it would be a nightmare to install anyway) but tiles are just as good. As the rubber settles it expands, so the joins between same-colour tiles become less distinctive over time. The tiles are also more flexible than lino so they are easier to fit.

As Elizabeth Wilhide explains, even the worst DIY disaster area can find rubber easy to manipulate and cut around pipework in kitchen and bathrooms. You can even buy tiles with fabric or foam rubber backing which makes it easier to install, but it can still be a messy business. "You have to stick contact adhesive on the floor and onto the flooring and bring the two surfaces together," she explains. "It should be laid over a dry, flat floor - either floorboards covered with hardboard or plywood. Concrete and ground-level floors should be damp-proofed."

Once it's down, you can achieve a glossy finish by polishing it with water-soluble wax emulsion. "After installing, it's best to leave about four full days before polishing," Elizabeth says.

The strongest disadvantage is that rubber can become slippery in functional areas which can become wet, such as bathrooms and kitchens. Modern designers have got over that by creating tread-plate relief patterns such as lozenge- shaped bumps which break up the smooth surface. "With silver-blue rubber you can get a wonderful effect of metal flooring but which is comfortable to walk on," says Elizabeth. "Flecks are also good, as they are great dirt disguisers."

Tread-plate rubber flooring is not for the house-proud, though, because dirt can get stuck around the relief patterns, and manufacturers suggest you use a sealer or polish for extra resistance to staining.

"The beauty of rubber flooring is that it is not just confined to the minimalist home," enthuses Elizabeth. "Used in the bathroom, it can add a bit of spice to period home." And if you don't like the thought of a one-colour glossy floor, you can buy tiles individually and design your own multi-coloured floor, or paint them to look like oak flooring.

If rubber sounds too wild, linoleum is the nearest alternative. It, too, has been re-vamped by modern manufacturing processes and gone are its tile-curling and toe-curling propensities. It's anti-static and anti-bacterial (hence it's synonymous with hospital floors). You can also get strange patterns like gingham and plaid as well as traditional marbling. But for glamour, go for a glossy rubber floor.

'The Flooring Book' by ElizabethWilhide is published by Ryland Peters & Small, pounds 25. First Floor, 174 Wandsworth Bridge Road, London SW6, telephone 0171 736 1123. (Mail order takes three to four weeks' delivery.) Dalsouple stockists outside London: Chickenhead, Maidstone telephone: 01622 203161 and Millers, Edinburgh, telephone: 0131 554 2408.

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