WASHINGTON, Dec. 11 /PRNewswire/ -- Thanks to its durability, depth of colors and ``green'' benefits, linoleum has been a popular floor covering for more than 100 years. Yet, as incongruous as it may seem, this very traditional floor covering is currently serving as an art form in an exhibit of some very contemporary sculpture.

Nearly 1,500 square feet of boldly patterned, custom-designed linoleum flooring is now on display at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as part of an exhibit featuring the work of Juan Munoz, a highly regarded contemporary Spanish sculptor. Following its Washington premiere, the exhibit will travel to museums in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

The artist, who died unexpectedly this past August at the age of 48, often created room-size environments and stage-like settings populated by anonymous figures. One of his works in the exhibit, The Wasteland, includes a sharply patterned floor as an integral part of the artwork. The work also illustrates the artist's propensity for creating complex settings for the viewer to traverse both mentally and physically.

So that Munoz's first American show could include this pivotal work, which is owned by collectors Marvin and Elayne Mordes of Baltimore, the Hirshhorn approached Armstrong World Industries to custom-create the floor in linoleum. Measuring nearly 1,500 square feet, the floor is inspired by centuries-old Baroque trompe l'oeil designs and features a three-dimensional-like pattern. It consists of 6,000 individual pieces, all of which are custom fabricated using computer-driven waterjet cutting machinery.

Linoleum was invented in England by Frederick Walton in 1864. He named it after its main raw material, linseed oil (Latin ``oleum lini''). Another of its ingredients is cork dust. Armstrong, then known as Armstrong Cork Company, helped pioneer the manufacturing of linoleum in North America in 1907.