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DON'T BE FLOORED // Built to last

VINYL

The manufacturers of vinyl flooring want consumers to come take another look.

They know, they know: People think of vinyl flooring as cheap, downmarket and unattractive. It's ugly. It yellows. It doesn't look classy.

"But it isn't the product people knew 10 years ago," said Leonard Ludovico, vice president of product styling and design for Congoleum. "If people have not looked at the market in the last three years, they don't know what's available."

What's new? Computer graphics mean vinyl designers can create more realistic-looking patterns than ever before. Ludovico acknowledges that in the past, a brick-patterned vinyl floor, for example, "looked like a cartoon." Now the technology exists to reproduce brick or tile or marble or stone "with a quality level of the National Geographic," Ludovico said.

That technology also means manufacturers can offer wider color choices and can quickly shift gears to produce patterns and colors consumers want to coordinate with other items in their homes.

"Resilient floor covering" _ the flooring industry term for sheet vinyl, vinyl tile and rubber _ is the second largest floor covering category in the United States, right after carpet and area rugs, with sales in 1994 of $2.2-billion. Those figures include commercial as well as residential sales.

Prices range from $9 to $45 a square yard, determined by factors such as stain guarantees, gloss finish, design, cushioning and wear surface.

Ludovico makes the case for vinyl: It's non-porous so it doesn't easily stain, and spills can be wiped up easily. It's mildew-resistant. Vinyl is more light-stable than in years gone by, so it's less likely to yellow or change color. It's scratch-resistant. It's forgiving if you drop something on it. It's resilient, so your back and legs don't take a pounding. That also means it can bridge gaps or irregularities in the subfloor. It is easily maintained, he said: no regrouting and no bleaching the grout, as with ceramic tile; no dings or dents, as with wood.

Now the industry is trying to find its way out of just the kitchen and bathroom and into the foyer and the family room. Natural looks _ stone, marble and wood _ are available, as well as borders and insets that resemble ceramic tile.

How long should vinyl flooring last? "No one knows because it's generally removed or replaced for redecorating reasons rather than wearing out," said Wally Anderson, a spokesman for the Resilient Floor Covering Institute. "Certainly 25 to 30 years. In some schools, where it couldn't get harder wear, it has lasted over 40."

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