Sturdy as they are striking, Susan Arnold’s floorcloths start out as swaths of 8-ounce sailcloth. For the background, she lays down two coats of Benjamin Moore house paint—“It’ll never wear off!”Photo Credit : Michael Seamans
These are not your great-grandmother’s painted floorcloths. Nor are they the plain green canvas rugs that George Washington probably scattered around his residence, although like those they’re certainly utilitarian and workhorse in design.
The floorcloths that bubble off the shelves and rumble underfoot in Susan Arnold’s East Thetford, Vermont, home are flamboyant tributes to color: a parade of rust-colored tulips over a navy field, sprinklings of cerulean leaves tossed over green, a blast of blue chickens scratching tomato-red dirt.
That such joyful exuberance is also indestructible—impervious to wine, spaghetti, dogs (eight), cats (three), and children (four, all grown)—is simply a witty bonus.
“This was one of my first,” says Arnold, reaching into a pile of mats stacked in her basement studio and wrestling free a blue and red school of fish on a mustard background. Back then, 20 years ago, a friend had a stenciling company and was looking for someone to prep the blank cloths. “I just started messing around,” Arnold grins, pulling out a riot of persimmon-orange teacups dancing on violet blue. “Teacups were also some of my early ones.” Now she points out a passel of speckly blue pigs with bright red feet. “Years ago someone wanted me to do pigs, and I wasn’t too excited about it. Then I saw their personalities, and I got excited. That’s how a lot of my designs come about, starting as a request or custom piece.”
Arnold begins her creative process with a literal blank slate, cutting rugs from a bolt of off-white sailcloth. Rolling out 30 feet at a time, in a separate studio a short distance from her house where there’s space to spread out, she chooses her background color and dumps the paint onto the canvas. She then rolls two coats onto the front and two onto the back. A rubberized latex coat on the back keeps rugs from skidding or scratching the floor.
The grunt work is done. “Prep is boring,” she says. “The fun part is coming up here and going crazy!” Her basement studio is crammed with tools of the trade: vats of paint, sponges in different shapes that Arnold uses to print patterns and creatures, and little scraps of unlikely inspiration. “I use a lot of recycled materials to create patterns— sometimes cardboard, even the Styrofoam trays that meat comes in. Packing peanuts are good for making details on leaves. It’s amazing what you can find at the recycling center that gives good texture on the paint. And if I make a mistake, I hide it with more paint.”
If the basement studio is a study in splatters and wild color combos, it all comes together upstairs, where Arnold’s rugs are displayed to their best advantage in the living room and kitchen. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more lyrical environment for Arnold’s work. The butter-yellow farmhouse that she and her husband, John, built glows inside with rich tones of periwinkle blue, jade, and spring green. Sitting in the front yard is a weathered wooden rowboat jammed with brilliant flowering zinnias and an oar sporting a birdhouse. The chicken compound is a cluster of cuckoo cuteness. Chairs ring a bonfire just waiting to be lit. From the deck behind the house the view of Smarts Mountain looks like the hat-that-hid-an-elephant illustration in The Little Prince.
“I could never do the old-time black-and-white squares,” Arnold says, shaking her head. “I really like doing new things, just coming up with ideas. This triple border—I love this one. In gold, it’s just….” She trails off, then points to the intricate whorl of blobs and drips on her worktable—years of experimenting, layered on like a Jackson Pollock. “I look at this and I want to cut it out with a knife and save it. Look at those colors,” she says, eyes flashing. Everything, it would seem, is a canvas.
Arnold’s painted floorcloths range from 2’x3′ to 8’x10′ and cost $22–$28 per square foot. 802-785-4248; folkfloors.com