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The wabi-sabi home - floors

Flooring is an important part of wabi-sabi - after all, it's one sixth of the area of every room

The wabi-sabi home (see previous articles) needs to be uncluttered and free, and one good place to start is with your flooring.

Floors are crucially important to the overall feeling of a house or a room. After all, they take up one sixth of the entire surface.  

In the wabi-sabi house, floors should be as plain as possible (no screaming patterns) and made of smooth, hard materials because these are easy to sweep clean, easy to wash and easy to maintain. Personally, I also hate the noise of the Hoover and would far rather sweep and wash my floors to get them clean. With hard floors, you need have no worries about dirt, or fleas, or stains, or your kids' asthma, and you can quickly go over them each day with nothing but a brush.

This may go against the grain for some people because most of us in the UK were brought up with the idea of using wall-to-wall carpeting wherever possible (kitchens and bathrooms aside, usually). Indeed, in some flats or apartments, it's damn near a requirement of the lease that you install carpeting, to reduce noise transferring to tenants below.

But carpeting floors is a very recent idea in interior design. For the majority of history, people made do with simple earthen floors that could be swept out on a daily basis, or - if they were wealthy - with floors made of stone or materials such as terracotta. Carpets were used as wall and table coverings - they were far too precious for floors.

Obviously, even the diehard wabi-sabi enthusiast wouldn't advocate a return to beaten earth, but I would say think again about carpet.

Carpets are pretty filthy things, especially the wall-to-wall type, where it's hard to get into the corners. Even rugs can be pretty filthy things. If you're not sure about that, try taking a smallish rug and vacuuming it 'clean', then put it over a washing line and beat the bejasus out of it. The amount of extra dust and crap still in there, even with daily vacuuming, gives one pause for thought. 

Hard floors - throughout the house - needn't mean unwelcoming by any means. Although ground floors benefit from terracotta, quarry tile or ceramic, most of us prefer slightly warmer flooring on our upper stories. Wood, cork, linoleum and rubber are all finishes that are both natural and hard-wearing, while vinyl sheet or tile feels great underfoot and now comes in a fantastic range of finishes and thicknesses. 

The most wabi kind of floor is probably the self-finished surface that needs no additional treatment - wooden floors that construct the ceilings of the rooms below, or materials such as polished, dyed concrete. If you are ever in the position of being able to commission a house, it's well worth thinking of a poured finish such as concrete or terrazzo (cement embedded with marble chips). Although expensive to lay, these floors, once in, require virtually zero maintenance and have no nasty cracks and joins where dirt can lurk. They are also beautiful, and the seamless finish makes a small room look larger.

If your budget can stretch to it, real stone floors such as limestone or slate give you a true connection to the earth and a feeling of solidity beneath your feet. Finished slate is easier to clean than stone flagging, though - if you have inherited a flag floor, consider doing what people used to do in times past and wax it very often until a good thick layer has built up: also makes the stone much warmer. 

For the rest of us mere mortals, I'd recommend ceramic tile downstairs and cork or something similar upstairs, using neutral colours such as beige, grey or cream throughout the house. You need finishes that go with everything, as re-laying a floor of this kind is a big fat pain. A colour like biscuit or limestone is very livable-with, no matter what your decorating scheme. 

In my house, the living room takes up the whole ground floor of the house (there's no dining room or hallway), and it's floored in terracotta. Although very beautiful, it does stain, so I wouldn't recommend it to others. Quarry tiles contain more quartz and therefore fire to a harder finish, so they stain less, which makes them preferable to terracotta. Nevertheless, given my druthers, I would relay this floor with white ceramic tiles. Ceramic has a glass-hard finish and is far easier to clean than either quarry or terracotta. Obviously, it also comes in an almost unlimited range of finishes, especially here in France where people don't generally use carpet. My local DIY shop has ceramic floor tile in fake slate, fake parquet and fake floorboard finishes, among others. 

The upstairs of a house is no less suited to hard floors. While you may prefer to carpet the stairs for noise reasons, for instance, it's well worth seeing if wooden stairs are as noisy as you think they'll be. They can look especially pretty with tiled risers and good thick treads in oak or pine, but even a plain painted staircase is attractive. I ripped out my stair carpet a year ago and infinitely prefer the look and ease of maintenance of my white and grey-painted pine stairs. If you absolutely have to carpet, try to choose a natural finish such as coir or seagrass, though be careful to follow manufacturers' recommendations on slippage. 

With hard floors in bedrooms there are no more grimy areas under the beds or dust bunnies breeding under the wardrobes - everything can be cleaned in five minutes with a vacuum cleaner. Upstairs, here, we were gutted, when we peeled away the previous owner's carpets, to find nothing but chipboard underneath. We had expected nice oak floorboards, but it was not to be. We thought of installing them but there was also the issue of low ceiling height - about 6' 6" on our middle floor, so we were reluctant to reduce this even further by inserting thick wooden parquet. What came to the rescue was cork and vinyl tile.

Cork tile comes in a range of different finishes, including colours and white, as well as its natural but pleasing 'cork' shade. If you want a pale colour, you can invest in one of the corks that has this built-in or you can paint it yourself with floor or yacht paint. I'd recommend the self-adhesive variety of tile that already has one coat of varnish. With this, once you've cleaned your existing floor, you can easily lay a whole room in a couple of hours. A couple of coats of quick-drying varnish to seal the lot and it's ready for use the next day. Cork is very soundproofing, warm underfoot and works well for bedrooms and other areas that don't get very heavy traffic.

However, cork tile has proved hard to come by here in France, so for other areas upstairs we have used vinyl tile, and to be honest I find this even better, although it is a less natural product. We chose a very neutral bone colour vinyl with a faint parquet pattern and a satin, rather than shiny finish, and once again, laid a whole room in a few hours, even allowing for cutting-in. The vinyl is much tougher than cork and much more suitable for areas of heavy traffic such as kitchens and workrooms - we have it on our mezzanine and in our office.

Rubber was once considered a very industrial finish but in fact it works well in a practical interior. Friends of ours recently laid a rubber floor, with giant tiles nearly 3ft across, in a variety of colours (it was an end-of-line find). With two small children, they find their rubber floor eminently practical but still soft enough to dump a toddler on.  It also has the advantage that it can be loose-laid, provided the floor is screeded level first, so if an area should get damaged or stained, you can always swap the tiles about. 

The next time you consider buying a new carpet, think again and consider a hard floor instead. I estimate that I've reduced my housework time by about 75 per cent just by getting rid of the carpets, and frankly, that's time I'm glad to have back. 

The Wabi-sabi home - surfaces

If you want a cleaner, less cluttered, more relaxed environment, wabi-sabi is the way to go

Wabi-sabi arose from Zen Buddhism but it enables you to live a simpler and less-cluttered life whatever your situation or beliefs. Earlier I wrote about the tokonoma, a special alcove or area that you can have in a room as a focal point, but here I'll deal with surfaces.

In wabi-sabi, it's very basic: you keep your surfaces clear, and if you can't, you limit the number of things on them to three. Just follow this 'rule' and you'll find it all comes together easily.

To start, look around your typical living room and count how many surfaces there are. In mine, which is a living-dining room, there are eight:

* a centrally placed sideboard used as a room divider

* a sideboard in one corner

* a coffee table

* a dining table

* a marble-topped buffet running along one wall

* and three deep windowsills (this is a French house and the windows open inwards)

All of them just asking to get filled up with tat.

The marble-top buffet had all the CDs and DVDs on top of it, which was fine as long as they were neatly arranged in their storage units. Problem is, they never were - they were stacked up 10 deep, constantly waiting to be refiled. My sideboards seemed to have the habit of collecting whatever was meant to be stored in their drawers and cupboards, while my coffee table, like many people's, rather defied description, piled high with books, magazines, coffee cups, wine bottles and God-knows-what else.

All this is by way of saying that I am by no means naturally tidy, nor clean, and that my approach to housekeeping is - um - relaxed, to say the least. Nor do I get much help from the DH in this, as he simply doesn't notice mess.

My biggest sin, though, was one committed by many of us - cluttering the windowsills. Which of us doesn't want more light in our rooms? Certainly not me. My house is old, with thick walls and tiny windows and every scrap of light is precious. Why, then, did I persist in putting pot plants and flower arrangements and candles and wotnot on my windowsills? I suppose I thought it added character. Well it doesn't.

As a first step to wabi-sabi, CLEAR your windowsills. Don't put anything there - not lamps, not ornaments, not candles (and matches and incense-stick holders...). It will take a couple of weeks to get used to how bare this looks, but once you get your eye in, it looks completely natural - you will benefit enormously from the light, and it also makes the windows much easier to both clean and open. Whatever you do from now on, don't block your windows. (For purists, this is in fact more of a Zen approach than Wabi-sabi, but we'll go into that another time.)

From your windows, progress outwards into the room. If there's one piece of furniture that you look OVER as you enter the room, this is the next important thing to keep clear. In my case, it's a green-painted sideboard to the left of the door as you enter the room.

In former days, this usually had three wooden bowls on it. I loved them, but somehow they always collected companions - unpaid bills, bank statements, letters to be posted, gloves, the dog lead. Now I work hard to keep that sideboard completely empty even if I don't have time for anything else. Gloves go in the drawers in the front of it. The dog lead's been given a hook by the door. If my husband dumps a bill or a letter on this sideboard, I immediately remove it to the dining table where it's less noticeable (the dining table remains a bit of a disaster area, as I do my beadwork on it, but nothing in life is perfect).

For many people, the coffee table is just a clutter magnet, so buying a table with two layers is a good move. The detritus that builds up on the top shelf can easily be cleared to the lower shelf each day and then you can deal with the whole mess later in the week. Be practical about this if housework isn't your idea of a good time. A glass top is all very well, but it shows every fingermark and you can still see all the rubbish underneath, whereas if you choose a natural wood finish that is not highly polished, or a white or grey distressed finish, you can hide a multitude of sins. We don't have a two-layer table, though I aspire to one, but we have one with two sliding sections, made by my husband's father, which enables us to hide the remotes, etc.

For surfaces against walls, such as sideboards, console tables or tallboys, you can afford to be less strict. These surfaces are usually not USED as such, but they are in your sightline as you enter a room, or as you sit on the soft furnishings. If you lack the discipline to keep these completely clear, try to limit your items to three in number - for instance a lamp, an ornament you really love, and a flower arrangement that reflects the season. That gives you a simple still-life that adds texture, colour and light to a room without overwhelming it.

In my own home, the clutter on the marble-top unit required the most thought. The problem was really lack of storage, and this was dealt with by the DH taking all our CDs and ripping them into I-Tunes, then discarding the ones that we never played (let's face it, with most albums you only really love a few tracks, not the whole thing). This freed up about a third of the space in the CD racks, leaving plenty of room for a 'refile' section into which I can quickly pop any loose CDs prior to refiling them properly.

Voila, clean surfaces that are easy to dust and wipe down without having to move anything - and that means they get cleaned more often.

The Wabi-sabi home - the tokonoma

When I wrote about wabi-sabi in your home, since there was such a strong response, I thought I'd elaborate on it a little.

blog imageWabi-sabi, of course, arose in Japan, so to apply it in your home, it helps to know a little about what a traditional Japanese house looks like, though very few Japanese still live in them.

A traditional Japanese house is modular and most of the wall space is taken up either by floor-to-ceiling built-in furniture that stores the family's clothes, bedding, etc, or by sliding doors. The doors, called fusuma, can be opened up to create one big space, or closed to create smaller spaces.

blog imageThis modular construction has affected the way rooms are decorated. You can't hang paintings on a wall of storage furniture, and large sliding doors tend to look rather boring left as they are. Therefore the Japanese paint their doors, as you can see at right, rather than hanging paintings on the walls, while the walls are left entirely empty - no pictures, no paintings, no photos of loved ones.

This can leave an interior looking very bare to a Western eye, which is more accustomed to having something - or preferably lots of things - to look at, but the Japanese attitude to art is different. They don't keep their things on permanent display. Instead, they take them out and use them and put them away again.

As an analogy, think of how you take out the Christmas decorations each year, and how pleased you are to see them and how nice the living room looks when the decorations are up. Think too of how bare the room looks without them when you put them away again. But very quickly your eye adjusts to it and you get used to the room looking as it usually does.

blog imageIn order to have somewhere to display art, the Japanese came up with an alcove known as the tokonoma. This is based on the shrine found in Zen temples, which would contain a statue of Buddha, with offerings and candles etc. The tokonoma is basically just one corner of the room set aside. Sometimes it has a rough wood pillar at the open corner, and the floor is often raised like a dais.

Here, the Japanese display a hanging scroll with calligraphy and perhaps a painting relevant to the season, and an ikebana flower arrangement. Sometimes there might be a bowl or a statue or a bonsai tree, but usually there are no more than three things. They then change these items on a monthly, weekly or daily basis.

The tokonoma idea is one that can easily be incorporated into a Western home, and here's how to do it.

Remove all your paintings, pictures, wall art and photographs from a room, and set aside one area - preferably a corner. You could choose to paint this area a slightly different colour from the rest of the wall, or mark it off in paint like a frame. Place a table, or buffet or a chest of drawers there, and on it place a vase of flowers picked from the garden. Behind, hang your favourite painting or photograph. That's it - nothing else.

blog imageNow look at it. When it's the only thing in the room to fix on, you'll find you pay much more attention to it. But after a week or a few weeks, you'll also realise that you're looking at it less. This is the time to change the art, just as you would change the flowers as they dry and wither.

Try this approach at home and see how you get on - by cycling the things you own, you'll generally find that you need fewer things but that you build a deeper appreciation of each one individually.