A year after I first thought of the idea, I've finally bitten the bullet and started installing a brown-paper floor in the basement. So far, I've managed (with some help from Brian) to cover about 25 square feet of a room that measures somewhere around 400 square feet. It is, shall we say, a slow process.
Putting down the pieces of paper is actually kind of fun--a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. To make them look natural, the pieces need to be torn from the roll rather than cut, creating an uneven edge. So they have to be fitted together to avoid leaving bare patches without too much wasteful overlap between pieces. It does get a bit tiring after a while, kneeling on the concrete and pressing piece after piece of paper into place, but it's also satisfying to watch the finished area expand. The really tedious part is preparing the pieces of paper. Each piece has to be torn from the roll, thoroughly crumpled, and unfolded again, to create wrinkles in the paper that will absorb the poly and give it a nice marbleized look. The paper is fairly heavy and stiff, and it's remarkable how fast your hands can get tired crumpling and unfolding dozens of pieces at a time. After several hours of this, my back and knees feel fine, but my hands are still sore.
So, this isn't a quick and easy weekend project, but I'm hoping the payoff will be worth the work. Even from the little bit we've done so far, it's clear that the end result will be much more interesting than a plain painted surface.