Outside of funhouses and roller rinks, warped floors are usually considered a defect rather than a virtue. They make it impossible to place furniture (unless you like wobbly tables), are the bane of health and safety nuts (two words: trip hazard) and often warrant a call to a contractor (it’s possible the subfloor needs replacing).
But avant garde architects and interior deisgners have been embracing uneven surfaces for the past few years. It’s partially for the aesthetics — there’s something undeniably striking, even if disconcerting, about a rippling ground plane — and partially for the health benefits. An influential 2005 study by the Oregon Research Institute suggested that walking on uneven terrain lowers blood pressure and improves balance (which diminishes the inherent trip risks). The scholarship only confirmed what practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have long believed — that walking on challenging topography is a good idea (which is why many elderly in China make a routine of strolling, dancing and standing on rugged, cobblestone walking paths).
In terms of design, one of the earliest contemporary proponents of the non-flat floor was late Viennese artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. His own home, built in the mid 1980s, is replete with gently waving surfaces, covered in tiles in myriad shapes and sizes. He thought uniform ground was mind (and feet) numbingly monotonous, and that gentle deviations from the standard, level plane would help stimulate thought and improve physical and mental health. “The uneven walkway becomes a symphony, it is a melody for the feet,” he wrote in 1985. “The walkway makes the whole person vibrate.”
Hundertwasser also hoped his idea would catch on and become a design norm. While that hasn’t happened by any stretch (if for no other reason than standardized, level floors are cheaper and more efficient to install), daring practitioners are incorporating the idea in both subtle and extreme ways. Here, three standout examples at three different levels of extravagance.
Below, three interesting examples.
In this Montecito, Calif., home, a floor of river stones is gently uneven but smooth on the soles. Designer Patrick Sheahan notes that it “creates an awareness of the feet and provides a sense of connection to a natural state of being, such as a walk on a beach.”
The green, lumpy, concrete floor in the Bioscleave House (a.k.a. the Lifespan Extending Villa) has the dramatic indentation of a deflated, spinach soufflé. The designers, artist-architects Arakawa and Madeline Gins, took about a decade to complete the $2-million, Long Island, N.Y., project. It was their conviction that a physically challenging house (one where you had to actively engage your body to get from one room to another) would improve health and lengthen life-span. Anyone daunted by fears of losing balance, rest assured: Fire poles dot the space to provide something to hold onto.
Japan’s 403architecture created a subtly undulating, toe-tantalizing floor by using off-cuts of reclaimed wood, randomly arranged on the ground. It might seem like the bedroom in an apartment in Hamamatsu, Japan, is a giant splinter trap, but each piece of lumber was carefully sanded to get rid of any rough edges.
This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, January 31, 2013.