One question we often hear at Make it Mid-Century is about flooring; especially, "What flooring should I choose?" We're going to give you a little food for thought right now about what materials are appropriate for your mid-century home with more examples than you can shake a stick at. Ready to dive into our first contender?
Cork has a long history of use as a building material throughout time. It had its use as an insulator in houses, soles of ancient shoes, as well as for shipbuilding due to its inherent buoyancy. Cork has been found in ancient Egypt, as well as in the Greek and Roman empires. It was the Greeks who realized that the cork oak trees indigenous to Spain, Portugal, and northern Africa could be stripped of a layer of bark without harming the tree and the material was then used without the need for processing.
The turn of the century in the United States saw the installation of cork floors in several notable buildings of the era: The First Congregational Church of Chicago in 1890, the Library of Congress in 1897, and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota in 1912. It was found that the cork structure that gives it its insulating factors and buoyancy also provided a cushion of comfort to building inhabitants where people were often on their feet.
During the post-war housing boom, cork again his a resurgence in popularity. It was less expensive than many other options of the time and had an aesthetically modern look. Eichler homes had an option for cork floors and Frank Lloyd Wright used cork in a number of his home designs. Cork and linoleum were the two most popular mid-century flooring options.
Horticulture and Harvesting
As noted earlier, the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) is native to western Europe and northern Africa and thrives in the Mediterranean ecosystem. With the vast production and industrialization of cork products, cork oak forests are very carefully maintained and replanted as needed to continue to supply the amount of cork used throughout the world. Today, there are a few cork oak tree farms in the western United States, but almost 50% of all cork grown comes from Portugal, with an additional 30% from Spain.
The first harvest of a cork oak takes place when the tree is about 24" around (about 25 years old). The same tree can then be harvested every 9-10 years. Throughout their lifetime of around 200-300 years, each tree can be harvested a minimum of 12-13 times. The cork is typically harvested in the early summer; June and July. Cork harvesting is still done mainly by hand using a specialized ax to first slit an opening up the trunk of the tree and then using the opposite end to carefully peel back the cork from around the trunk.
Cork is then dried naturally over a period of months. When it is ready to process, the cork is washed in a water bath to remove surface contaminants (cork naturally resists water absorption) and then processed into its final form. The majority of raw cork is made into bottle corks, but the leftover pieces are just as important and are ground into fine granules and glued together for other uses such as bulletin boards, cork shoes, and flooring, or added to other materials such as rubber to make insulators and other industrial products. Cork is even a part of the manufacture of Linoleum - a mid-century flooring product that we'll cover in another installment.
Cork comes in a wide variety of looks, colors, and patterns. It also comes in sheets or tiles. Tiles come in two types: direct glue-down or floating cork floors on a backer board. Glue-down installation and sheet goods may be best left for professionals. Click-lock style tiles are a little more installation-friendly and can be installed by an industrious DIY homeowner. The other benefit of click-lock tiles is that they are much more easily replaced if damage occurs than glue-down systems.
Cork has many properties that make it ideal for flooring. It is ecologically friendly as there is virtually no waste in the cork product. It is also a renewable resource. While the majority of cork is coming from overseas, the cork is so lightweight that transportation costs are significantly less than other imported flooring options. In fact, 50% of cork is actually air, leading to the elasticity of the material and the comfort underfoot. Cork is also quite durable. Cork flooring is often prefinished which makes it an easy product to maintain. (Periodic refinishing may be required depending on wear.) It is also impervious to water and spills as well as fire-resistant. It is also quiet - footfalls on cork are much less perceptible than standard hard floors and also serve to dampen sound reverberation within a room. (Great for teenagers?) Last, cork is great for those with allergies.
Cork does have some cons as well. One of the downfalls of cork flooring is that it can be damaged by sharp objects (including pets) and heavy furniture. It also has a propensity to fade over time in bright light. There are cork topcoats that are said to help with fading, but it is not fade-proof. If you are drawn to dark corks, know that they will be best used in rooms without a lot of sun exposure. Also, realize that maintenance may be more than other mid-century flooring options. Cork can be installed in wet areas such as kitchens or baths, but when using click-lock tiles, the substrate of the tile must be impervious to water.
Where to Buy
Cork flooring comes in all sorts of textures and colors. Where do you buy cork flooring? There are a number of manufacturers to check out. We've listed several of them here, showing a range of various styles.
Do you have cork floors? Looking for cork floors? Hopefully, this helped you understand a little more about what to look for in cork flooring for mid-century homes. Stay tuned: part 2 will cover terrazzo flooring.