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It's hard to imagine the first half of the 20th century without linoleum, the flooring of countless kitchens, bathrooms and recreation rooms. And it's almost equally hard to imagine linoleum as a hot floor covering in the '90s.

"It came in 15 shades of brown," said Scott Hyman, an owner of Town and Country Flooring in New York, recalling the classic linoleum of the Lucy and Ricky era.But linoleum, real linoleum made with linseed oil, is back, turning up everywhere from restaurants to residences. The latest linoleums come in contemporary colors - raspberry reds, eggplant purples, mustard yellows - as well as the muted, marbleized grays, greens, aquas and browns of linoleums past.

Not surprisingly, a big part of linoleum's current charm is its retro quality, making it the flooring of choice when vintage houses and apartments are restored.

But interior designers are also treating linoleum with new respect. Hermes Mallea and Carey Maloney, partners in the M (Group), a New York architectural firm, devised an elaborately patterned floor of hand-cut linoleum hexagons for an elegant dining room in their show house in 1993. They particularly like linoleum in entryways, sitting rooms and other formal settings.

"We use linoleum because it is great-looking, practical, durable and unexpected," Maloney said. "The colors are great and can be very subtle, all shot with different colors."

Many homeowners also appreciate the natural ingredients that make up real linoleum - wood flour, resins, ground limestone, powdered cork, pigments and linseed oil on a jute backing.

The name, coined in 1863 by linoleum's inventor, Frederick Walton, comes from the Latin words linum (flax) and oleum (oil). Besides acting as a binder - and providing linoleum's distinctive scent - linseed oil oxidizes over time, creating a hard surface.

Linoleum's popularity faded fast in the 1960s, eclipsed by newfangled vinyls that were easier to install and maintain and were available in more colors. In 1974 Armstrong Floors shut down the last linoleum plant in the United States. (Flooring stores often incorrectly refer to sheet vinyl as linoleum.)

Genuine linoleum is now imported from Europe, where it never fell from favor. And a handful of antiques stores carry unused rolls of the real thing from the 1920s through the 1950s. Today's linoleums cost about the same as top-quality sheet vinyls.

Linoleum can be vacuumed, dusted with a dry mop or damp-mopped with a neutral detergent. (Scrubbing and abrasive cleansers can pit linoleum.) New linoleum should be sealed with at least four coats of an acrylic floor finish like Taski Ombra, which provides a matte finish. If a buildup occurs, it can be removed with a low-pH stripper designed for linoleum.

For all its beauty, linoleum is still a challenge to install. Unlike vinyl tiles, which are often laid by do-it-yourselfers, linoleum usually requires professional installation, particularly for custom-patterned floors.

A reputable vendor can usually supply a skilled installer; companies that import linoleum, like Forbo in Hazleton, Pa., (800) 842-7839, and Gerbert in Lancaster, Pa., (717) 299-5035, can also provide names of installers and representatives in a prospective customer's area.

Linoleum with inlaid patterns was popular in decades past, but today's linoleum is homogenous, with patterns extending all the way from surface to backing. B.I. Rosenhaus & Sons (243 W. 72nd St., New York, NY 10023, (212) 873-1421), carries the latest linoleums from Forbo, which imports linoleum made by Krommenie in the Netherlands and Nairn in Scotland, and from Gerbert, which imports linoleum made by Deutsche Linoleum Werke in Germany, commonly referred to as DLW.

Each company offers a distinctive range of linoleums in solid colors and patterns. In addition to a line of pale, marbleized earth tones, Forbo's latest collection is patterned with intense, broad-brushed colors inspired by van Gogh. DLW offers five lines, from pastels with subtle flecks of color to striated designs known as jaspe patterns. DLW also makes borders and inlaid designs. Prices start at $27 a square yard.

One way to get the look of vintage linoleum is to buy the real thing. For over 20 years a New York antiques store, Secondhand Rose (270 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012, (212) 431-7673), has stocked dozens of rolls of old linoleum, from Depression-era geometrics to cowboy patterns from the 1950s. Suzanne Lipschutz, the owner, first became interested in vintage linoleum when she needed to replace the linoleum in an old house. She discovered that there was a surprising amount of unused linoleum around, still in 6- or 9-foot rolls, much of it in old department and hardware store warehouses.

With over 300 rolls, Secondhand Rose's crowded basement offers a history of linoleum - florals, marbles, wood grains, Jackson Pollock squiggles and children's pastels sprinkled with 1930s elephants and bunnies. Linoleum rugs, too, which sport big border prints.

"But you've got to want it," Lipschutz cautioned, because vintage linoleum that has been rolled up for decades is very hard to install. Old linoleum starts at $5 a square foot.

Interest in linoleum has grown particularly strong in the last year, said John Parry, a salesman at Aronson's (135 W. 17th St., New York, NY 10011, (212) 243-4993), which sells the Forbo line. "Customers want bright colors," he added. But customers are also buying new lines of vinyls that offer the look of linoleum. Armstrong recently revived several old linoleum patterns for its stenciled vinyls, including Colonial Classic, a tiny brick pattern. Linoleum starts at $39.50 a square yard.