Bold or subtle, an alternative to the area rug

Posted: August 03, 2007

The kitchen in Marley Stein's home has neutral floors, neutral cabinets, neutral countertops - and a boldly colorful floorcloth right in the middle of the workspace.

"Adding the floorcloth brought excitement into the room," Stein says, referring to the piece in blocks of reds, oranges and blues over turquoise that artist Fran Rubinstein created for the Steins' Milwaukee home.

"It also was a way of introducing art into an area that didn't have much wall space," Stein adds.

Floorcloths have a way of making a statement, whether traditional or contemporary, bold or subtle. An alternative to area rugs, they are made of heavyweight cotton canvas that is painted with latex or acrylics and then sealed with many coats of a clear protectant for durability.

You can find them in historic homes at Colonial Williamsburg as well as at some of today's most contemporary art venues and homes. But you probably won't find them in stores. Floorcloths generally are created by experienced artists who sell them, and amateurs who dabble just for fun.

Rubinstein, who calls her business Divine Inspirations, developed an interest in floorcloths after moving to a new home in 1979.

"I needed something to cover our floors and bought some canvas . . . to paint," she says. "I didn't know much about floorcloths, but I found that it was just another art form for me, with a very practical side."

Some people buy floorcloths because they want something different and special for the floor, Rubinstein says. "Others just do it because they have a bad floor and want to cover it up. And some people don't even put them on the floor, but hang them on the wall instead."

Though it helps to have an artistic side, amateurs can create floorcloths, too.

"If you can paint a wall, you can paint a floorcloth," says Lisa Curry Mair, an artist and author of the 2001 book Floorcloth Magic, a guide to creating floorcloths that are perfect for their settings.

Stenciling, sponging and stamping designs are some of the ways the artistically challenged can get started. Some people replicate patterns from a wallpaper print or border or use quilt-type patterns, Mair says.

"Geometrics and stencils are totally appropriate," she says. "And checkerboard borders or using computer-generated designs are fine, too.

"The thing about floorcloths is that they are very forgiving," Mair says. "If you don't like something, just paint over it."

If you see floorcloths as a DIY project, "it's best to begin small, so that you can do it on a table," Mair says.

"The most popular size for someone just starting out is a 2-by-3-foot rug that can be placed in front of the kitchen sink." Then people gradually work up to a larger rug.

The sheer size of some of the floorcloths done by artist Natalie Browne-Gutnik eventually discouraged her from continuing in the form.

"It was fun for me to take a floorcloth from a blank canvas, literally, to a colorful and creative finished product. But . . . it's hard to work on a 10-by-14-foot rug for a dining room, though they are beautiful when they are done."

Here are Mair's recommended steps for creating a lasting floorcloth.

Cut a piece of canvas slightly larger than the desired finished size. Mair uses No. 4 canvas; the higher the number, the lighter the canvas.

Soak the canvas and let it air dry so that it shrinks. Prime one side first with latex paint.

Cut it to size, allowing for a hem at least 11/2 inches wide.

Fold and press the hem. Use a mitered corner so that all the rough edges are contained. The hem is noticeable, so it must be straight (though it can be worked into a patterned border). Stitch the whole thing all the way around the edge.

Paint the base or background color; use several coats.

Lay out your design, making sure it's centered.

Start painting from the middle to the outside, from the background to the foreground. Use several coats of paint if necessary. Do the border last.

Let dry for about one week.

Start the protective finish process. Mair's preference is Minwax Polycrylic, which doesn't yellow over time. Use four coats of semigloss and one coat of satin finish.

Allow to dry completely between coats, at least 24 hours if the weather is humid.

After the final coat, allow it to dry one week before putting it on the floor.

If you want to cheat a bit, Mair says, an easier way to produce a floorcloth is to cut a piece of vinyl flooring to size and paint the reverse side. It's smooth and doesn't require hemming or other special preparations.

After you apply the base color, lay out and paint your design, then finish it as you would a canvas floorcloth, using polyurethane or Minwax Polycrylic.

The downside is that you can't produce the same subtle paint effects that you can with canvas. But the process is quicker.

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