IT’S easy to ignore floors. People walk on them, scuff them and grind their heels into them. But like furniture, floors are a basic design element with the size and scope to be a room’s star attraction.

“I have always considered the floor to be the fifth wall of a room,” said Juan P. Molyneux, a Manhattan interior designer. He adapted elements from an inlaid wood floor in the Pavlovsk Palace in Russia on an intricately painted floor at the recent Kips Bay show house in Manhattan.

These days, wood — whether strip, parquet or inlaid — is the floor of choice in a growing number of homes. Wood floors can be as subtle as a sisal carpet or as complex as an Oriental rug. And with the move toward clean, architectural interiors, wood floors wearing only a satiny glow are no longer unusual. Though wood floors are oddly timeless, they still follow the whims of fashion. Pickled and bleached floors, underfoot throughout the 1980’s, have been supplanted by more natural-looking tones that range from honey to deep walnut.

“There is a tendency away from anything that might seem faddish,” said Basil Walter, a partner in the Manhattan architectural firm of Sweeny Walter, who has designed many wood floors.

High-gloss, basketball-court finishes have given way to the softer gleam of an old-fashioned waxed floor. And while laser cutters have brought detailed inlays to a wider market, a plain plank floor with a handsome border is still an appealing option. Homeowners in the market for new wood floors have more choices than ever, from prefinished planks to custom floors in classic herringbone patterns. Long-lasting water-base finishes are now available in addition to easy-care polyurethane and traditional waxing.

The National Wood Flooring Association offers installation and maintenance advice on its help line, (500) 443-9663. Calls cost 25 cents a minute. What’s Old Is In

Janos P. Spitzer bristles when he hears people say the workmanship found in beautiful old brownstone floors is no longer available. “We have better tools, better skills and better glues today,” he said. Before he and his artisans cut custom wood floors in their Manhattan workshop, they discuss the size and use of a room, then plot out a floor pattern. “You don’t want to end up with a little sliver of pattern at one end,” he said.

“The hottest designs are old,” he added, pointing to an elaborate Fontainebleau-style sample treated to look antique. Though Mr. Spitzer creates designs to client specifications, his Manhattan showroom is stocked with samples, from geometric fields to intricate borders. And though American white oak, found in many prewar New York apartments, remains popular, exotic woods from Africa and South America are easier than ever to find, he added. He does not use endangered woods. Custom floors cost $10 to $100 a square foot. Repairs and resanding are also available.

JANOS P. SPITZER FLOORING COMPANY , 133 West 24th Street, New York 10011; (212) 627-1818. The Art of Restoration

Peter Downs, owner of the New Wood Company, once created a new floor of walnut, oak and maple in the pattern of a Shaker quilt. But many of the floors he installs are made of old wood. Some use original floorboards removed from old houses. Others feature wide planks found on barn siding, a cheaper alternative. A third option is antique resawn beams harvested from Reconstruction-era buildings from the South. “Older wood has more patina and a denser grain,” said Mr. Downs, who also restores and resands wood floors. He recently replaced a portion of an elaborate wood border in an Upper West Side apartment, aging the new pieces to match the old. New oak floors start at $8 a square foot.

NEW WOOD COMPANY , 301 West 96th Street, New York 10025; (212) 222-9332. Samples to Sample

Dozens of samples from most of the top wood floor manufacturers in the United States and Europe are on display in the appointment-only showroom of Hoboken Wood Floors, a distributor. Hoboken offers floors in a wide range of prices and styles, from prefinished maple or birch ($10 to $12 a square foot without installation) to wood with marble inlays.

“Maple, which has less intense graining than oak, is hot right now,” said Denise Engedal, a Hoboken associate. At the elaborate end, Hoboken carries colorful inlaid designs by Dynamic Laser Applications, which has made inlaid floors to match patterned doors and stained-glass windows. Hoboken does not sell directly to the public, but will provide names of retail outlets.

HOBOKEN WOOD FLOORS , 979 Third Avenue, New York 10022; (212) 759-5917. Pick a Shade, Any Shade

Veva Crozer has been fascinated with color since art school and now specializes in wood floors stained every shade of the rainbow. Ms. Crozer’s custom floors, using her patented water-base stain, can be embellished with fish, flowers and birds. She also sells prefinished 9-inch parquet squares in 3,500 colors ($20 to $22 a square foot without installation) and, for do-it-yourselfers, stain in quart cans for $11.

LUKKEN COLOR CORPORATION , (203) 869-4679. High-Quality, High Price

William J. Erbe Company, a family business since 1908, is known for high-quality custom wood floors at high-end prices. Many of its clients usually want subdued floors in traditional French patterns. Erbe also imports antique floors from Europe. “The pre-1830 floors were cut by hand, are delicate and constantly break,” William Erb said. “But they’re an ego trip for some people.” They can cost around $400 a square foot.

WILLIAM J. ERBE COMPANY , 560 Barry Street, Bronx 10474; (212) 249-6400 or (718) 991-7281. It Just Looks Expensive

If an elaborate new inlaid floor is too costly, an alternative is a floor painted to appear inlaid. Juan P. Molyneux, who has designed several painted floors, often interprets Georgian and neo-classical style ceiling designs for floors. A floor similar to the one he created for the Kips Bay show house costs about $9,000.

J. P. MOLYNEUX STUDIO LTD. , 29 East 69th Street, New York 10021; (212) 628-0097.

Photos: Left and top, some samples of parquet designs from Janos P. Spitzer Flooring. (Photographs by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)