Real Estate

Soledad O’Brien’s Painted Hardwood Floors Spark Debate on a New Trend

Earlier this year, Soledad O’Brien bought a home in Flamingo Park, a neighborhood of 1920s bungalows in West Palm Beach, Fla. Like many older homes — Ms. O’Brien’s was built in 1945 — hers needed work. And like other homeowners, Ms. O’Brien, the broadcast journalist, had no desire to do the work all at once.

The rambling property, on a double lot with palm trees and stone gargoyles left by the previous owner, has a four-bedroom main house in back and a smaller guesthouse in front. All of it needed updating. Ms. O’Brien, now the chief executive of a media production company, prioritized the main house and decided the two-bedroom guesthouse would have to wait.

But then, at a neighborhood block party, Ms. O’Brien, 56, met Tracey Alexander-Perez, a neighbor who had given up a career as a music promoter for a new trade: painting and stenciling floors, walls and tiles.

The two got to talking, bonding over their shared Cuban heritage. Soon enough, they were talking floors, specifically the floors in Ms. O’Brien’s guesthouse, which were in terrible shape with termite and water damage. Ms. Alexander-Perez, 48, sang the praises of her new passion, suggesting Ms. O’Brien paint and stencil her floors, rather than just covering them up with area rugs. With a little elbow grease, she could extend the life of the tired floors and brighten up the dark tone that Ms. O’Brien did not particularly like.

Ms. O’Brien was skeptical — who stencils wood floors? “I thought stenciling was basically doing a little vine up the wall. Think not-very-good Italian restaurant,” she said. “I literally could not understand what she was saying.”

A few days later, Ms. Alexander-Perez showed Ms. O’Brien her own guesthouse, where she had painted the vinyl floors white and stenciled an ornate, Italianate-style pattern in taupe. Ms. O’Brien warmed to the idea. The stakes were low — what was the worst that could happen? “I was game, she was game,” Ms. O’Brien said. “Why not? It’s just paint. I think if she was bringing in a backhoe to do some work, maybe I’d be a little more worried.”

Tracey Alexander-Perez said that with enough prep work, and there is plenty of it, a stenciled floor can last a decade.Credit…James Jackman for The New York Times
Properly aligning a stenciled pattern on the floor is painstaking work.Credit…James Jackman for The New York Times

Stenciling floors is having a moment. The technique of using a template to paint a pattern onto a surface dates back to cave art. It was popular in Europe for centuries and throughout the colonial era in the United States, fading out of fashion around the turn of the last century. “It was an inexpensive way to add a high end feel to a home,” said Scott Sidler, a preservation contractor in Orlando, Fla., who writes the Craftsman Blog.

Stenciling made a brief comeback in the 1980s, when stenciled farm animals and ivy vines made an unfortunate appearance in American kitchens. Now, the technique has attracted a new generation of enthusiasts, drawn to busy, maximalist patterns and eager to share their do-it-yourself creations on social media.

On TikTok, influencers cover the floors of porches, bathrooms, patios and kitchens in geometric wonders, sharing their work in short video clips that make the grueling task look like a breeze. In one series of reels, home improvement influencer Angela Rose spent hours on her knees, demonstrating to her 1.5 million Instagram followers how to paint black stars across a tiled bathroom floor. “It’s a lot of prep, but don’t be scared, it’s going to fly, it’s going to fly when I start painting,” she said as she chronicled the detailed and tedious task of cleaning, taping, painting and then gingerly cutting and placing stickers with star shaped cutouts across the floor before painting inside the cutouts.

Not everyone is a fan of the style, particularly because its durability is questionable, given all the labor involved. These are painted floors — wood, vinyl and tile — often in heavily trafficked rooms. An intricate pattern might look good on day one, but give it a few months and it can look ragged if the paint chips.

“Are we checking in with these people after a year, after two years, after four years to see how their floors are looking? Because I don’t think they’re holding up as well as everybody thinks they are, ” said Kelsey MacDermaid, a co-founder of the Sorry Girls, a D.I.Y. YouTube channel with 2.1 million followers, who has no plans to stencil her own floors. “It’s a trendy thing that people are doing, and I don’t know if it’s a timeless design.”

Ms. O’Brien, however, is not terribly concerned about longevity. If the new look can hold up until she’s ready to renovate the guesthouse in about three years, then she’ll count it as a victory. “It would definitely be an improvement over my floors that are kind of a mess,” she said.

The second bedroom in Ms. O’Brien’s guesthouse, a room she expects her nieces and nephews will enjoy.Credit…James Jackman for The New York Times
Ms. Alexander-Perez first painted the floors in her own West Palm Beach guesthouse before moving onto Ms. O’Brien’s floors.Credit…James Jackman for The New York Times

With the correct amount of prep work — and there is plenty of prep involved — Ms. Alexander-Perez says a well-painted floor can last for a decade or even longer. “There’s so much fear around painting a floor that somehow it will fade or chip,” she said. “But most of the time, if it’s done right, the fade over time just makes it look even better.”

Ms. Alexander-Perez started the work on Ms. O’Brien’s guesthouse in August. In the first bedroom, she painted the floor white with a navy blue stencil pattern on top, an array of narrow beaded stripes. “You’re always nervous, oh my God, it’s a leap,” Ms. Alexander-Perez said. “Once you put the paint down, it’s a commitment, there is no going back.”

But Ms. O’Brien was thrilled. “We painted it this beautiful blue color and we were like, ‘Oh my God, the floors look amazing,’” she said, adding later, “We call that the spindle room.” Since then, Ms. Alexander-Perez has painted sugar cookie pattern stars in a soft, grayish blue atop an aqua beachy blue floor in the second bedroom, which will be a children’s bunk room. She finished the guesthouse in late October, painting the kitchen counters and tile floors in the kitchen and both bathrooms. “If you’re going to do this, get kneepads,” Ms. Alexander-Perez said of a job that took about two full days of labor per room.

Ms. O’Brien chronicled the progress on Twitter, gushing over every room. A handful of followers, however, balked at the cardinal sin of painting wood. “Congratulations. You just ruined a beautiful hardwood floor with a linoleum looking floor from the 1980s,” wrote one, punctuated with a slapped forehead emoji.

“What a waste of hardwood. Looks like a day care center now. The next owner is going to have a lot of work to fix that,” wrote another.

Ms. O’Brien was baffled by the random bursts of vitriol. “If it makes you unhappy or stressed then don’t come over,” she told me. “I’ll be on my painted floor and on my white couch watching T.V. and drinking wine with my girlfriends.”

For now, Ms. O’Brien is looking forward to the holidays, when some of her nieces and nephews come to visit — she has 18 — and make good use of the freshly-painted guesthouse.

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