FLOOR SHOW; Want a splash of color to celebrate the season, or a cushion of softness just for wiggling your toes? Rugs have you covered.


Given the choice and the money, most of us would prefer the floors of our domicile to be covered in $200-a-yard, plush, wall-to-wall, antique Bokharas or delicate Aubussons.

Most of us, however, have spouses, children, pets or don't pick up as often as we should, and have no one who comes in to vacuum every day. So our floors are covered with humbler material, such as rag rugs, hand-me-downs or fake Orientals.

And, then, some of us have beautiful wooden floors that are set off simply by throw rugs.

But just because the materials are unassuming, they needn't be drab, dull or ugly.

In the past five years, thanks to new technology, the color, texture and durability of inexpensive rugs have all improved, according to Kathryn Sellers, director of communications for the Rug and Carpet Institute, a trade group based in Dalton, Ga. "There were always rugs in the market that were inexpensive, but they were ugly, and the colors were garish."

Some of the rugs use transfer-printing techniques -- think of those door mats or kitchen floor mats that look like watercolors -- to produce bright, clear images. Most new rugs are woven, Sellers says, and loom technology means the patterns can be extremely complex.

Many of the new inexpensive rugs are made of cotton, though nylon, polypropylene and basket-type natural materials such as reed and sisal are also being used. The rugs are not large -- 4 feet by 6 feet is about the biggest size. Most of them are washable, but some have to be dry-cleaned. Prices often range from $4.99 to $140.

Another trend driving the market is the expansion of mass marketers into new areas; in the past couple of years alone, Baltimore has seen the arrival of Target, Waccamaw's HomePlace, and Bed Bath & Beyond. They join the "oldsters" such as IKEA and Pier 1, all of which sell affordable, attractive rugs.

Whatever the reason, rugs of all types are among the fastest growing segment of the market, Sellers says, because "the fashion is to use more hard [floor] surfaces in homes." However, she said, "people realized that they missed the softness and quietness [of carpet], so rugs are the natural choice."

Designer Kathleen Jeschke, of the Purple Door shop and design service in Ellicott City, says one trend she's seen is using hard flooring, usually wood, in children's rooms, and covering that with throw rugs. "They're especially good for anyone with an allergy," she says. "They're soft underfoot, but they can be taken up periodically and shaken out or cleaned."

The rugs are also good for "seasonal decorating," Jeschke says. In her kitchen, she uses dark rugs in the winter and brighter ones in the summer. "They're good where you need a splash of color," she says, "and you're willing to change them when they're ratty. You can get a fun look."

Among our favorites, discovered in a brief tour of some area shops, were some very pretty Oriental/Aubusson-inspired designs in glowing antique colors at Bed Bath & Beyond. At IKEA, we especially liked the hand-knotted Tibetan-style rugs ($99 for a 4-feet-by-6-feet size).

And at Pier 1, there was a rug any boomer could love: woven of strips of blue-jean denim and tied with fiber string. They'd be great with your lava lamp and your Jimi Hendrix poster. Or -- as with all of these bright, informal floor decorations -- in a casual dining area, or anywhere at all in a beach house.

What the knowledgeable buyer considers

What makes a bargain rug? Here are some things to think about when you're shopping.

* Is the design good? Usually the simpler the better, but some of the Tibetan-style, kilim (flat-woven) and antique-inspired rugs can be visually complex.

* What's it made of? This matters because of durability and washability. Hundred-percent-cotton rugs are softer than polypropylene or basket-type materials such as rush, and they're usually hand- or machine-washable. However, they do fray and wear out, and they will fade with repeated washing. The synthetics will probably last another millennium, and some of them are washable. Wool is usually considered the best material for "quality" rugs. It's durable, but not washable.

* Can I count on it? Read everything on those annoying tags sewn into the rug -- the ones you'll cut off when you get home. They're usually pretty informative about washability and wearability. They'll tell you what the rug is made of, where it was made, and how to clean it. (If you didn't believe in the global nature of our economy, discovering where these things are made will make a believer of you.)

* Will I still love it in the morning? Generally, rugs are there to complement other furnishings, not to compete with them for attention. Think about where you plan to put the rug. There are enough choices in the lower price lines to fit any style. (Of course, you can always do what I did: I bought a rug I loved and redid my bedroom to go with it.)

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