An Ode to Painted Floors
Before she became a household name, Elsie de Wolfe leased and decorated a house with Elizabeth Marbury on Irving Place and East 17th Street. It would become the scene of many famed Sunday salons circa 1897. Amid their literati-filled drawing room, a large cabinet housed de Wolfe’s personal collection of shoes worn by notable women throughout history. Among these curios were a pair of white silk slippers, bedecked with silver embroidery, that belonged to Marie Antoinette.
It comes as no surprise that many among the interior design set also love a well-adorned house shoe. (After all, why not let your love for hand-embroidery carry over from your bed linens to your Sunday smoking slippers?) But as we step over the threshold that officially leads into summer, we’re increasingly tempted to ditch our socks and soles altogether; ceding our attachment to our favorite slides in favor of feeling the grass or the sand between our toes.
Which leads us to today’s topic: Entrances and interiors with painted and stenciled wood floors, which are not only well-suited for walking on barefoot, but also promise something fabulous to be admired when we look down. Year-round, no matter our footwear.
“As far back as the early 1700s, floor boards in the North were painted to resemble black and white squares of marble (a small area of marbling of this type is now preserved at the Van Cortland Manor house in Tarrytown, New York.) In addition, floor cloths made of canvas and painted with intricate marble patterns were popular in the North all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”
- From Professional Painted Finishes: A Guide to the Art and Business of Decorative Painting by Ina Brosseau, Allen and Robert Marx
The practice of covering the floor with a canvas cloth originated in 15th-century France and was later adopted in the American colonies in the early 18th-century. Recycled and readily-available ship sails became the material of choice (and of convenience) for covering dirt or wooden floors in early American homes. Using hand-cut stencils and freehand painting, the lady of the house would often assume the responsibility of adorning these floor cloths, also known as oyl (or oil) cloths and crumb cloths when used under dining tables. They were then laid on top of the existing flooring and sealed with varnish.
Though stenciling and faux painting techniques later took hold, the first designs were quite simple. Records show that George Washington purchased a floor cloth for Mount Vernon in 1796. At Monticello, a site Bunny often recalls visiting when growing up in Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson opted for a grass-green floor cloth for his entrance hall. The suggestion came from portraitist Gilbert Stuart, who had painted his own floors this shade in an effort to bring the outdoors in. After leaving Stuart’s studio, hand-mixed paint chip in hand, Jefferson sent instructions to Monticello’s joiner James Dinmore in a note dated June 8, 1805:
“I asked him to give me a specimen of the colour, which he instantly mixed up to his mind, and I spreed it with a knife on the inclosed paper. Be so good therefore as to give it to Mr. Barry as the model of the colour I wish to have the hall floor painted of. The painters here talk of putting a japan varnish over the painted floor and floor-cloth after the paint is dry, which they say will prevent it’s being sticky & will bear washing.”
Up until this time, a majority of floor cloths were imported from England. At the turn of the 18th century, however, professional painters in America were producing floorcloths for wealthy patrons domestically, and the need to have them sent from abroad decreased. In the early 1800s, in New England especially, itinerant stencil artists traveled from town to town decorating the walls and floors of country homes.
Using oiled paper cutouts of motifs that included pineapples, liberty bells, and flower bouquets, they applied them with linseed oil or milk-based pigment paint in vibrant colors to combat the poor quality of indoor lighting. The most well-recorded of these artists was Moses Eaton, whose son, Moses Eaton, Jr., also assumed his craft.
Although initially a practical, low-cost solution for decorating one’s floors, faux painting, graining and marbling became an increasingly advanced art form. Compass rose designs (a nod to floor cloths’ maritime origins) mimicked elaborate wood inlay and refined borders added elegance. By the mid-1800’s, the introduction of linoleum as a flooring material began to decrease the popularity of floor cloths in America. Their association with early American and rural houses, particularly those in New England, still survives, as does our admiration for the art form.
Bunny is a longtime, self-professed fan of painted floors, and so we’ve no shortage of examples of how she’s used them in rooms throughout the years. In no particular order, we’ve included some of our favorites below, almost all of which were skillfully executed by painter Franklin Tartaglione and his team.
“For one formal Georgian house in Connecticut, I painted the wood floors to simulate squares of marble. The sound and feel of walking on the wood is softer than walking on stone, but the faux marble gives a hall a dignified elegance.”
“I decorate rooms from the bottom up, so I always begin with the floors. It’s a mistake to think you must live with the floors that come with your house or apartment. Floors have a profound effect on the ambience of a home. If they are not beautiful, there are many ways to make them special.”
In Bunny’s bedroom in New York, a white and grey pattern of diamonds and squares incorporates small sections of faux marbling.
“The floor in the entrance hall is especially important, as it should relate to the material of the house. As entrance halls are usually sparsely furnished, the floor becomes the focal point.”
In an entry hall in an Atlanta project, a stenciled pattern adds visual excitement. Rosettes are centered in each square section, and a greek key border in contrasting light and dark stains outlines the space.
“In warmer climes, painted wood floors provide a light, cool sensibility. Stenciling and paint can often transform a bad wood floor into something special.”
In an East Hampton entrance hall, a simple checkerboard pattern is executed in a casual washed white and pale blue-gray.
A stenciled pattern on top of herringbone floorboards lends the look of more ornate parquetry with different wood species.
In a Delaware dining room, a grey and white pattern incorporates curves, setting the stage for a large circular dining table.
A New York living room gets a high-contrast, geometric design that mixes black and white paint with various wood stains.
Cover Image: Detail from a stenciled floor in an entry hall in Atlanta, Photo by Francesco Lagnese.