Wood is dead - long live shag pile

Flooring in the Nineties has been about parquet, stone and all things cold. But that's about to change. Felicity Cannell pays homage to the fitted carpet

Andrea Gregson, currently fitting out a restored 16th-century smithy in St Albans, weighed up the options for flooring in keeping with a property which comes straight from the pages of Period Living. "It lends itself to slate or natural terracotta tileswhich you then wax and polish yourself. Or flagstones in the hallways, with the two main sitting rooms in reclaimed oak flooring." So what is it to be? "Oh, a nice neutral fitted wool carpet from John Lewis throughout." Aargh!

Price was partly to blame. Natural floors require professional laying, which can cost as much again as the materials. Victorian Woodworks in Stratford, east London, quoted pounds 6,500 for the oak flooring for one largish room. Fit out the entire downstairs areas, plus suitably lavish rugs to complement such an exquisite floor, and you get close to a second mortgage.

But partly, also, Andrea is riding the crest of the Zeitgeist. Marco Pierre White is replicating the parquet floor of Versailles using antique hand-made oak boards for his new restaurant, Mirabelle. But sorry, Marco, you're just a touch out of date. Terence Conran's new restaurant, Sartoria, has the latest in flooring fashion - a lovely fitted carpet. The whispers among the interior design cognoscenti are that wooden floors are passe, unless it's original parquet, as in the actual Palace de Versailles.

The buzz word is Discreet Luxury. You don't get much more luxurious than sinking bare feet into the velvety softness of a fine woollen carpet, laid on a good rubber underlay.

When the fitted carpet was introduced into British homes in the 1950s it provided snug, warm, dust-free rooms. Fitted carpets were perfect for covering any floor - mismatching floorboards, ugly concrete, the odd gap between the boards. So easy to bang a bit of levelling hardboard, cover with carpet and push out of sight the dust and debris of century-old homes.

But over the years, as the fitted carpet transcended the social scale - from council flats to penthouses - so did the household pests and the allergies. Central heating, double glazing, wall-to-wall carpets - give them a hermetically sealed, warm, moist environment and dust mites are breeding like, well, dust mites. The fitted carpet has been made the scapegoat (we still need beds, the biggest harbinger of dust mites), but away from the bedroom, it is still the ideal floor covering.

But it's going to take some convincing for us to chuck in our hard-wood sensibility in favour of wool. The 1990s have been the decade of minimalism. Those wanting severe punishment are now going for bare breeze blocks and concrete. And the equivalent of a hair shirt and sack cloth just has to be sisal or coir matting. It gives unparalleled carpet burns, it smells like old rope, and it's impossible to clean. As one carpet retailer explained, "Coir matting goes in 30-year cycles. Each generation discovers it. Thirty years later the next generation doesn't remember how ghastly it is."

Carpet manufacturers have remained largely unconcerned about the swing towards bare floors over the past few years. "Hard floors still represent a very small proportion of flooring in this country, around four per cent," says Sylvia Herbert of Brintons Carpets. "We are far more affected by cheap imports from countries like Belgium than by trends."

Comfort is an important part of the swing back in their favour. Fired Earth, one of the most well-known stone flooring companies, started by importing terracotta for householders wanting to recreate the feel of their Tuscan villas. The pattern of wet footprints after stepping out of the shower, or walking into a shady flagstone hallway from the baking sun works in Italy in mid-summer. It's rather different in this country in the middle of January. It's not called stone cold for nothing.

Around 20 per cent of household heat is lost with floorboards or tiles. And try playing with toy cars on a stone floor. Watch that egg rise in seconds on your toddler's forehead as he falls face first on to the marble - too cold for bare feet, too slippery in socks. Underfoot (and under forehead), with the exception of wood, natural floors are extremely cold, and very, very hard. Carpets, on the other hand, are cosy, warm and very, very soft.

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