Flooring Focus Q&A: Chris Gwyther

Chris Gwyther creative director at Phoenix Wharf, explains why flooring should be given the creative priority that its volumetric size in a project demands...

WITH TODAY’S interior schemes placing more and more emphasis on longevity and sustainability, one area of the specification process that has always been more likely to eschew ‘trends’ in favour of its longlasting and hard-wearing properties is flooring.

In any project, high traffic areas demand materials that will meet the present needs of a space but which are also truly fit for the future. Given the large surface area involved with flooring, there is also a balance to be achieved between surfaces that provides a subtle aesthetic backdrop for the rest of the interior vision, or a surface that makes a deliberate and focal-point contribution to the overall visual impact.

In this special focus on flooring, we find out what fires the creative minds of a number of interiors professionals when it comes to flooring choices. We also cast an inquisitive eye over a varied selection of projects in which the floor plays a decisive role. All that, plus a round-up of some of the latest flooring products that really should be in the armoury of any designer or architect looking to put their best foot forward.

Which flooring materials do you particularly like working with and why?

Like a lot of designers, my instinctive preference would be for natural materials, particularly stone or wood. They deliver a connection to nature and there’s also something about the variability of their tactility and patterning, especially the knots in wood or the veins in stones, that’s impossible to replicate. Depending on the building type – especially within a more industrial-style building, for example – I also really like concrete screed or resin flooring.

From a practical, commercial point of view on hospitality projects, however, LVTs (luxury vinyl tiles) are budgetfriendly, robust, waterproof and incredibly practical for highfootfall areas. Where they once were a definite second-class choice, their quality and colour range just get better and better. Manufacturers have become very adept at making them tick an irresistible number of boxes.

How do you keep up-to-date with the latest flooring products on the market? Is there scope for using some of the very latest material technology in projects or do clients tend to have a preference for more traditional solutions?

Phoenix Wharf’s Bristol location is a blessing and a curse in terms of keeping up-to-date. Unlike a Clerkenwell-based agency, for example, we don’t have a showroom round every corner or reps dropping in with samples every five minutes. We counter that by really wide-ranging and pro-active research, making our non-London location an advantage, in the sense that we don’t take anything for granted and don’t rely on the same resources as our competitors. We put time aside to read a lot of journals and look at other projects globally and not just regionally or nationally. We call in different samples and work directly with manufacturers where possible, albeit with caution around new or untested materials.

Oh So Yum’s screed floor adds to the dessert parlour’s vibrant, pastel aesthetic. Image Credit: Gary Britton

When it comes to our clients, there is indeed often a preference for traditional solutions, as well as a lack of awareness of what’s on the market, but that education is part of our role. There’s also often an unwillingness to give flooring its proper due in terms of budget allocation, so we always fly the flag for the extra properties flooring can bring, as well as advocating a long-term view of value and ensuring flooring choices are in harmony with a client’s brand and building envelope. For the Oh So Yum dessert parlour in Bradford, for example, we fought for a pinky-purple screed floor rather than a vinyl tile to complete the project’s wrapround pastel envelope – and it really works.

How can designers look to exploit the potential of creative flooring, both in terms of design ideas and material choices, in a range of different applications?

Volumetrically, flooring is the single biggest substrate surface in most of our projects, certainly in the hospitality sector, so it’s really important that it’s considered very early on in a project to maximise its creative potential. If you leave it too late, the decision has effectively been taken already by the parameters of the budget application and everything else in the scheme.

We look at flooring choices in terms of added value for acoustics for example, as well as to align sensorially with material values of warmth or coolness or as an impact aid on customer dwell time – whether a space promotes a feeling of cocooned intimacy for a longer dwell time or a harder, noisier feel to encourage faster through-traffic. Creative flooring is also an important element within our toolkit to aid in layout design and spatial zoning.

What would be your dream flooring material and how would it make a difference to your projects?

My dream flooring would be programmable, through some kind of reactive AI. A bit like a tactile LED tile, perhaps using mechanical pins, it could respond intuitively to the vibe of a place or help with a day-to-night transformation. It would be amazing to be able to programme patterns, such as chevrons say, or to change a floor’s colour in a chameleon-like way – and it could be really sustainable too, with that added flexibility ensuring a longer lifespan.

My fantasy flooring could be calibrated to help with wayfinding too or activated on demand to help people with visual impairments, guiding them safely through the space to the bar or bathrooms. www.phoenix-wharf.com

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