To hear Max Wong talk, one would think she is describing some fabulous possession in her 1924 bungalow in Silver Lake. "Every day I look at it when I come home. It's like a piece of art to me. I don't get tired of it."
Her art is not hanging on a wall, decorating a shelf or even standing on the floor.
It is the floor. Linoleum, no less.
Wong's kitchen floor is covered with black linoleum with an inlaid red border and bamboo motif detailed right down to life-size dragonflies. The film producer, who works at Beacon Communications in Santa Monica, says, "My floor rocks."
This is linoleum? Yes the floor covering that in its heyday from the 1930s through the '50s was a kitchen floor requisite (also used in other areas like bathrooms) is reclaiming its place in the home after being cast aside as dingy in the 1960s for shiny vinyl floors.
Designers are creating intricate custom linoleum floors. Others are doing linoleum area "rugs." Some like the flooring for its environmental features or its vintage look. It's been rediscovered by 20-somethings, who think it's cool.
MTV Networks loves the linoleum floors at its Santa Monica offices. Martha Stewart used linoleum for her NYC studio apartment. Karen Lloyd Wright Robertson, a great-granddaughter of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, has ordered a linoleum rug from two Los Angeles craftsmen.
"L.A. is a major trendsetter. Twenty- and 30-year-olds walk into our showroom and we show them this product, which is new to them even though it's been around," explained Susan Mannes, a general manager at Hollywood's Linoleum City, a family-owned business since 1948. "And they go, 'Wow, what is this new material?' "
Invented in 1863 by English manufacturer Frederick Walton, linoleum is made of linseed oil, rosin, limestone and wood or cork "flour," pigments with Jute backing. The environmentally conscientious appreciate its "green" properties. Mannes said sales for all of the store's natural products (linoleum, cork, sisal) have increased since the early 1990s.
In the last 10 years, linoleum has reclaimed a place as a flooring material, according to both Forbo Industries, a major manufacturer of residential linoleum based in Hazelton, Pa., and Armstrong World Industries, which resumed linoleum production in 1998 after a 24-year hiatus.
Linoleum this time around is more than wall to wall. Laurie Crogan decided to make custom "floor art" a business nearly a decade ago. Crogan, who designed the custom $6,000 bamboo pattern floor for Wong's 140-square-foot kitchen, works out of her sister Cyndy's house in West Hollywood where she lives. She drafts her designs at their grandmother's wrought-iron-and-glass table in the backyard. Josie the cat meanders around the pieces of linoleum strewn along a cement walkway.
Wong had long admired artistic linoleum pieces such as a Texaco logo star she saw on the floor of a "period" Texaco station on Highland Avenue, as well as the plaid floor in the movie "Pleasantville."
"I have a lot of Asian antiques. I'm a big gardener," said Wong. "So, I thought it would be cool to have a floor look like a Japanese screen. I bought a book of Japanese family crests . . . and that's when I found a Japanese brush painting of bamboo and Laurie agreed that would be a really cool floor."
Once the client agrees to a particular design, the 44-year-old Crogan uses 12-by-12-inch linoleum tiles that are glued down (preferably to unvarnished plywood) to create a background. Then she uses an English industrial knife to hand cut the intricate designs to be inlaid into the background. so that the entire finished product is smooth.
"Her work is extremely fine," Wong noted. "So perfect, people think the design is painted on."
"People think it's a stencil effect," Cristi Walden observed of her linoleum kitchen floor, also designed by Crogan. Walden, a self-employed manufacturers representative, and her husband, Rick Walden, an attorney and sports agent, own a 1929 Spanish-style home in West Los Angeles.
They chose a Hawaiian-themed floor for their kitchen. It was inspired by Cristi's interest in "Hawaiiana," which began when her grandfather, who died in 1972, left her six Matson Line cruise ship menus decorated with colorful Hawaiian art. The menus, framed in bamboo and hanging in the kitchen, started Crogan thinking about a Hawaiian feel for the floor pattern that continues into a kitchen nook and a service porch where three dogs run in and out all day.
"The floor amazes people . . . even the forest-green squiggles that go around the hibiscus. They can't believe that someone can do that. I love my floor. It's probably the best thing I've done to the house."
Crogan takes into consideration possible "instant distress" on a linoleum floor from children playing and dogs' claws. Wong said that she did see instant scratches from her border collie, Chloe.