Today, cork flooring is a rare sight. You might even think it’s a novel approach to flooring options. But cork flooring has been around since as early as 1870– in fact the US Library of Congress which was built in 1897 is rather famous for it’s still-intact cork floors.

Cork’s use as an common flooring option really came about in US homes in the 1920s through the 1940s and the post war housing boom in the 1950s paved the way for cork being a popular choice for early mid century modern homes. Cork along with linoleum were among the most common flooring choices for post-war bungalows. And modernists at the time were attracted to cork’s durability and affordability. Frank Lloyd Wright might be one of the most famous proponents of cork flooring. He loved both it’s strength and it’s beauty and used it in many of his projects but probably most notably at Fallingwater. Joseph Eichler preferred cork too– cork flooring was prominently touted in the sales brochures for his homes. 

Austin and San Antonio-based design firm Clayton & Little—Paul Clayton, Principal, and Emily Little, FAIA– chose cork for this renovation in this 1956 mid mod in Austin. Photo by Nick Simonite, Courtesy of Clayton & Little

The Benefits of Cork Flooring

Cork is making a resurgence today thanks to its aforementioned long-lasting qualities. It’s a wonderful choice for mid century homes where you want a warmer and softer more period-appropriate feel. And since cork is a classic, it’ll stand the test of time compared to other trends.

Price

At around$2 per square foot, cork flooring  is comparable to hardwood. But unlike wood, cork is naturally fire resistant and termite resistant. You can thank the mediterranean climate in which these trees thrive and to which it adapted these protective qualities.

a worker harvesting cork bark from the cork oak to make cork flooring
Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak. The outer layers of the bark are shaved by hand and the tree is left intact. A new layer of cork will grow back in about 9 years. Photo by By Cazalla Montijano, Juan Carlos – Instituto Andaluz del Patrimonio Histórico.

Eco- friendly and sustainable

Cork comes from the cork oak, a tree native to Southwest Europe and Northwest Africa. Though these days cork oak is grown grown is the western United States, too.

With properly harvested cork, the trees aren’t cut down. Rather the outer layers of it’s bark are shaved and left to regrow.  A single tree can be reshaved about 12 times in it’s lifetime and the trees can live for 200 years or more. And since cork is lightweight and compact, shipping this product to manufacturers around the world can be done efficiently lessening it’s carbon footprint compared to other materials like wood and stone.

Cork flooring is great for allergies too. Cork does not absorb dust or harbor mites like other materials do.

Naturally insulating, cork is not only cozy underfoot–especially in winter or in colder climates (beats stepping onto concrete or stone in the December or January)– cork maintains it’s temperature remarkably consistently which pays off in other ways.

Lastly, since cork is seemingly so impervious to the elements, cork simply has to be pressed and baked in order to prepare it for use as flooring which means it’s not treated with a host of chemicals and preservatives the way some other materials wood and carpet sometimes has to.

The cork tiles that Paul Clayton, Principal, and Emily Little, FAIA of Clayton & Little glows in the natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows of this Austin mid mod. The sound dampening quality of cork flooring makes it a wonderful choice for bedrooms. Photo by Nick Simonite, Courtesy of Clayton & Little.

Easy Care

There’s a reason cork is used for wine bottles. It’s water resistant and won’t mold. So cork can be a great option for bathrooms and kitchens. Or, if you live in a tropical climate where humidity can be an issue. Cork is also scratch and dent resistant with regular resealing every 5-6 years so your flooring can last a very long time (again, see: US Library of Congress). Everyday cleaning consists simply of vacuuming or sweeping and the occasional mopping.

cork flooring in a hallway
Cork is surprisingly durable. The owner of this Palmer/ Krisel condo in Palm Spring’s Mesquite Canyon Estates says his cork floors stand up to the wear and tear of his Golden Retriever. In fact, he’s likes cork flooring so much he’s used it in two of his mid mod home renovations. Photo by Jickie Torres.

Luxe to the Touch

Some of the best benefits of cork are more qualitative. Due to it’s hexagonal cell structure, cork is naturally buoyant, flexible and shock absorbent. This means it feels soft underfoot and therefore much quieter than stone, wood or tile. And because it’s naturally self temperature-controlling, cork flooring feels warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

closeup of the texture of cork flooring
A closeup of this beautiful high-texture cork tile reveals the unique graining and pitting which gives cork it’s inimitable look. Photo by Jickie Torres.

Cork Flooring: The Cons

Though cork is quite durable and long lasting, because it’s a minimally treated natural material, most manufacturers will only offer guarantees for it up to 15 years.

Installation can be tricky too. The sub flooring needs to be carefully leveled and even for smooth application  Traditionally, cork flooring is glued down which means proper and meticulous application is key. Cork flooring is available in click-and-lock tiles, too. While that will the price up a bit it means that if you needed to repair a damaged area, you could simply replace the tile. To repair glued-down cork, you would cut and scrape away the damaged area and patch it with more cork or for tiny nicks, you can fill with wood filler and paint the area to disguise the repair.

Looking for more flooring info? Check out this overview of the most common flooring types for mid century modern home.

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