In the Eighties, people seeking the sleek warehouse feel to an interior would tear up the carpets and sand the existing floorboards. But any flooring expert will tell you that floorboards were not made to be walked on. They are often mismatched and have gaping drafty holes in them. Even a good varnish will not stop them from being bruised and scratched by heels, furniture and natural wear and tear. These days the darling of the fashion- conscious interior is natural hardwood flooring; smooth, blond and beautiful, it is now so universally popular that newly converted flats commonly feature it in place of the formerly ubiquitous neutral loop-pile carpets.
Solid hardwood flooring, of the type found in older American houses, is prohibitively expensive - up to pounds 100 per square metre, excluding installation. But that doesn't mean the wooden floor effect is beyond most people's budgets. Veneers and laminates are easily available and affordable. Wood veneers consist of a thin veneer of wood, laid in traditional block patterns onto planks which slot closely together so that when it's in place you can barely see the join. They give you all the warmth and beauty of wood - but all of its natural fragility, too (although they come ready varnished, it's worth considering adding a couple of extra coats, especially in bathrooms or high traffic areas).
Purists will shrink from the idea of laminates - entirely synthetic wood- effect floors - but they have become so sophisticated and realistic that you are urged to inspect them before you dismiss them. Allied sells one called Marvella for only pounds 24.99 per sq yd (pounds 45 inclusive of all fitting). It is fantastically hard-wearing, slightly springy when fitted and, says Allied, "because the flooring is photo-processed, we can match the colour of the wood perfectly. It will not bruise and we could match up another room in exactly the same tone." Ikea also does laminates in nine different finishes at pounds 28.80 per pack (1.92 square metres). Its veneers are among the best and most reasonable, in three different finishes, at pounds 49.30 per pack (1.7 square metres).
If hardwood is the floor of the present, lino is the floor of the future. Linoleum is the stuff Thora Hird's slippers clack against in gritty Sixties dramas. It is also one of the most practical, smart and versatile materials in contemporary design. Where cork floors may scream Seventies, lino has moved with the times. Most of what you think of as lino is not lino at all, but vinyl. Real lino is a natural material that is incredibly easy on the feet and eye and lasts for years.
The traditional chequered lino floor is making a comeback in kitchens. Peter Jones in Sloane Square has an excellent selection of square tiles to order at pounds 28 per square metre, including the classic ivory/black marble- effect type. It also does lino on rolls for only pounds 22.50 per square metre. But if you plump for lino, you might as well seize the opportunity to create a really individual design. Because lino is relatively easy to cut, there is no limit to the patterns on offer.
London-based "bespoke flooring" company Sinclair Till has been at the forefront of the lino renaissance for ten years. Partners Alastair Till and Suzie Sinclair have elevated lino floors to an art form. They specialise in inlaid lino, creating elaborate designs based on 18th-century marble floors, trompe l'oeil geometrics, crisp gingham and tartan designs (like the one above, in a converted south London school) and good old black and white checks. "The colour range has made a big impact on lino's popularity," says Till. "We use a Scottish manufacturer who produces over 60 colourways."
Depending on the intricacy of the pattern, their floors can cost up to pounds 50 per square metre, with "couture" patterns by quotation. "If you compare lino with a solid wood floor, you're talking about a fraction of the cost," says Till. "Seagrass is fashionable and cheap (pounds 10 per square metre), but it's not durable. Put seagrass on your stairs and it will have worn through in a couple of years."
Nevertheless, seagrass, a plaited, rope-like fibre, and sisal (rough, woven flooring) continue to be fashionable. The effect is pleasingly natural and looks equally at home in a minimalist or a rustically cluttered setting. Seagrass and sisal are not, however, kind to feet (or to the knees of small people) and have an unfortunate tendency to collect dust.
There are those, of course, for whom life without toes being caressed by good old woolly carpets is simply not worth living. And for them, we bring good tidings: carpets are the Next Big Thing. "Comfort meeting luxury is the big story now," says Sue Skeen of design magazine Elle Decoration. "And there is nothing more luxurious than soft, 100 per cent wool carpet."