Concrete Flooring — So Chic It Hurts -

Concrete Flooring - So Chic It Hurts -

Concrete Flooring: So Chic It Hurts

Published: August 12, 1999

NEW YORKERS are comfortable with sidewalks. So comfortable, in fact, that they’re bringing them indoors.

Concrete — the soot-gray sidewalk variety — is making an inside appearance as fashionable flooring in Chelsea art galleries, retail spaces like Versace on Madison Avenue and Banana Republic in SoHo and now residences from downtown lofts to uptown town houses. Street culture has taken a literal turn.

Concrete and cement, the limey stuff that’s at the heart of it, might have had an image problem — mobster men’s wear — but no more. The ex-taxi garages and industrial buildings with the heavy-duty concrete floors that now house upscale businesses like Jeffrey, a 10,000-square-foot boutique that arrived in the meat-packing district last week (stepping over the chicken-blood stains in the sidewalk) have provoked a wave of new floor-pouring.

Stuart Parr opened a 5,000-square-foot modern design gallery with a troweled concrete floor on West 20th Street in May. »I can’t tell you how many people have come in, with their architects, to see my floor,» he said. »It’s like floor envy — it’s so silly.»

Mr. Parr delayed the opening of his space several months, as two consultants and a second crew with terrazzo-polishing machines massaged the floor to get the surface right. It cost him an extra $7,600.

»We’re talking about the oldest, dumbest surface, that people do their garages in because it’s cheap,» Mr. Parr said.

Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow’s architects, Michael Pierce and D. D. Allen, are talking to them about concrete flooring for their New York addresses. Donna Karan just wrote a check for it in East Hampton. Claire Danes and Robert Redford have already got it. Calvin Klein is selling his home collection off of it in a new advertising campaign.

This is not the brute architectural moment typified by Tadao Ando’s monastic concrete houses in Japan. Or the polychromatic or the stamped-to-look-like-stone concrete that has become popular as a suburban building material.

This is perfectly ordinary concrete — emphasis on the perfect. But there’s nothing plain about it. It is finished to within an inch of its life. The Portland cement mix is selected for shade. Mary Boone, the art dealer, and Rei Kawakubo, the clothing designer, wanted white over gray. The poured surface is stainless-steel troweled by machine, not hand, which produces a clear skin with no browning from metal abrasion. The floor is sealed with Miracle 511 Porous Plus, the chemical product of choice, which gives a subtler shine than silicone. At $200 a gallon, it’s the Giaconda’s smile. Then the floor is paste-waxed, like furniture.

Concrete can cost more than marble, up to $50 a square foot. It is like making a sidewalk out of silk.

»It’s something prosaic made to look perfect,» said Richard Gluckman, an architect with Gluckman Mayner Architects in New York, who is considered by many the king of the concrete floor because of his extensive resume of art gallery renovations. Mr. Gluckman has done spaces for Paula Cooper, Larry Gagosian and Andrea Rosen.

»Everybody’s trying to outthink the process,» said John Houshmand, a partner with the Clark Construction Corporation, which did Ms. Boone’s floor. »The most perfect floors you will ever see are right out of the concrete truck.»

The Azzarone Contracting Corporation, another concrete-to-the-stars salon (think Grauman’s with a reverse emphasis) did the Versace and Comme des Garcons floors. Alan Bouknight, Azzarone’s president, called concrete »the Timex watch of construction materials,» but he said, »I’m into it on a religious level.» Mr. Bouknight puts the same drivers on the same mixing truck for the same client, to get consistency over the length of a job. »Concrete’s commonplace,» he said. »It’s been around since the time of the Romans. We’re taking it to a higher plane.»

The air fare is higher, too. »Most people’s experience with concrete is a sidewalk,» he said. »Three dollars a square foot. You come in at 10 times that, they’re shocked. They look at you like you’re a thief.» It doesn’t rattle Mr. Bouknight’s artistic temperament.

»We’re taking mud and making it beautiful,» he said.

In its short, sweet celebrity, the trend already has a curve. Ms. Rosen, whose concrete floor on West 24th Street went down a year and a half ago, chose to make it »as simple as possible,» she said. »Middle-range and normal, I didn’t want it to be high-end and polished,» Ms. Rosen explained, citing Ms. Cooper’s floor, which went down three years ago, as an example of the »perfected, controlled» concrete she didn’t want.

The contractor gave her the deadpan look. The job was uncosmetic and cheaper. Concrete without makeup looks like concrete, a fact that Ms. Rosen is learning to live with, with expensive help.

»We had a floor person come in who did acid washes to try to get the footprints off,» she said, referring to what appeared to be permanent tracks in the surface, left by non-salon installers who thought they were installing a concrete floor.

Concrete also yellows, as though it is developing jaundice. »It was really beautiful when it was laid,» Ms. Rosen said. »Every day after that was a disaster.»

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