Linoleum

by Jane Powell

Published by Gibbs Smith

120 pages, 2004

 


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It’ll Floor You

Reviewed by David Middleton

 

There are aficionados out there. You name it and there is a fetish and fondness for it. I'm not talking about kinky things, but everyday items: glass jars, lamp shades, bowling shoes, old typewriters, buttons, ugly ties, polka records, yadda, yadda, yadda. You get the point. If it can be made by man or found in the wilderness, someone somewhere will give it the love and attention they think it deserves.

Linoleum is one of those things that author Jane Powell thinks has been overlooked by the general public. In her book Linoleum she waxes poetic about the joys and virtues of this much maligned and misunderstood flooring.

But linoleum? Come on! Linoleum? The word conjures up images of gray, dreary, government institutions; of drab lifeless school hallways, utilitarian kitchen floors; curling, cracking squares of indeterminate hue being trod on by countless, faceless people shambling through dim, seedy hotel corridors. Yawn, right? Write about it? Faggedaboudit.

Does what we put on our floors say as much about us as the clothes we wear or the food we eat or the cars we drive? Sure, why not. Our personal taste in underfoot decoration speaks volumes about how we see our world and how it should be covered. Some love the plush warmth of wall-to-wall broadloom, others the earthy comfort of wood or the the satisfying strength of tile and stone. While those of you -- and you know who you are -- love the sound and feel as their shoes clack across a cork and linseed-baked conglomerate. Linoleum. Printed with a map of North America with points of interest marked out in car mufflers, fish and the occasional pig, looking very much as though the cat vomited up a crack smoking cartographer's doodle pad all over Aunt Enid's nice clean kitchen floor, the dirty beast.

From its invention in 1863 by Frederick Walton, through a pretty comprehensive history of the product, Powell takes us on a kitschy but very tasteful tour of the world of linoleum. Linoleum gives us information on everything from product and procedure to manufacture and maintenance. We learn the difference between linoleum, congoleum and marmoleum, and how manufacturers convinced America to get rid of their rugs and lay down rug-patterned lino instead. Its uses, its history, its patterns, its glory. Powell has also done extensive research and wonderfully catalogues some remarkable old lino designs right down to their original pattern number and adds a resource as to where you can get some of this old linoleum all for yourself. And here's something I'll bet you didn't know: Linoleum is 100 per cent recyclable. Not that you would want to shred up any of this wonder material and stick it in a landfill (well, maybe pattern number 8681, only 'cause it gives me the heebie jeebies). Is this more information than you needed to know about something considered by some tres mundane? Maybe, but it sure is fun. Did I just say linoleum is fun? Hell, yes.

I found that from beginning to end Linoleum always brought a smile to my face and kept my interest from waning. Its brightly colored cover drew me in immediately but it was Powell's fun writing style -- outspoken on preserving old things, Powell makes no apologies about about her bad puns and her non-objective views. She says, "...if you don't like them, get over it." -- and Linda Svendsen's crisp evocative photography that really kept me turning pages. This plus reproductions of old lino ads and full page repros of lino patterns -- more interesting that you might think -- come together to make this book more fun than I would have thought possible on a subject that if handled improperly might have come off as drab as some people think linoleum is.

Because of her obvious passion for the material, Powell has made linoleum fascinating. Now here are two words you never thought you'd see together in a sentence: linoleum and fascinating. But that is exactly what Powell has accomplished with Linoleum , made it fascinating. | September 2004

 

David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and linoleum is one of his favorite words.