All copy as provided to the publication
It starts with a curious encounter. A young man stumbles upon a discarded pile of nylon and cotton threads from a vinyl aprons and tablecloths factory nearby. Surprised by the wastage in a post-war era, he pulls out a fistful and braids an impromptu pattern. It is 1949, and Nils-Erik Eklund has just woven the plot for what will become the progressive, design-led vinyl flooring company Bolon is known for today.
It is a rainy afternoon on my way out of Gothenburg’s Landvetter Airport. As I make my way inland to the quiet town of Ulricehamn where the third-generation Bolon business is headquartered, the landscape slowly shifts from quintessentially Swedish dense forests to industrial lumber mills and factories.
This transformation is evident from the moment I’m ushered inside the factory, conveniently located in the same space as the Bolon studio – if you want to sound local, the accent is on the second syllable, by the way. After a warm welcome from Marie Eklund who took up the family business with her sister Annica in 2003, it takes less than a minute to go from the office to where the magic happens.
At first, this seems like any other factory – metallic, vast and humming with the constant whir of machines. But we will soon learn that beauty is in the details. It starts with the extrusion of weft threads (the horizontal yarn inserted over-and-under the warp to form a weave). A fine polyester thread is coated in a thin layer of PVC. After it has undergone a water-cooling process, the coated thread ends up spun on a big roll at a rate of 500m per minute. Meanwhile, the warp (the longitudinal yarn) is cut into strips and wrapped around so-called warp creels (bobbins fitted into metal frames) ready for the next phase.
The weaving itself happens next door. In this hangar, rows upon rows of black warp creels are caught in an agonisingly slow and seemingly eternal spin, like vintage film reels projecting a story in the making. Peek through one of the aisles and you will see the green harnesses of a Jacquard loom doing the work. This is the heart of Bolon’s production facility. Here, where warp meets weft, is where concept becomes product.
Leading the tour is product sustainability co-ordinator Michaela Ljungdahl, who explains that the design is input into a computer which then steers the control head above. Ultimately, this control head is what pulls all the yarns. Think of it as the most skilled puppeteer of all time, tugging at hundreds of yarns individually or in groups according to the pattern.
Once the threads and strips of vinyl are woven into the subtly intricate patterns Bolon excels at, the edges are trimmed and packed into a bag for recycling, and the rolls are transported to an adjacent room, where any imperfections are straightened through a machine before the threads are set by heat in a 150°C oven.
On our way out, I recognise a few of Bolon’s previous collections. It is a little peculiar seeing Bolon by Jean Nouvel or the iconic Missoni zigzag neatly rolled up in a corner, waiting to grace the floor of the next cutting-edge interior around the world. Before that, though, the carpets need a backing.
The penultimate step takes us back where we started – across the aisle from where the polyester threads are coated in PVC is where the weave gets laminated on to the backing layer, once again using only heat. The breakdown of the backing consists of recycled vinyl flooring offcuts and other waste from the flooring production, plus chalk, which gives the carpets their flame-resistant quality.
In 2014, Bolon built a recycling plant on site, encouraging a takeback approach in line with its green ethos. “When used in long-lasting products, PVC is a sustainable material for the future. The polymer can be recycled up to seven times,” says Ljungdahl while pouring a fistful of unexpectedly soft, bran-like plastic in the palm of my hand. This dry blend is made by grinding and melting the offcuts on site, thus allowing the company to add up to one-third of recycled material back into its products.
Before the flooring can be packaged and shipped (the team had to devise a system whereby rolls are “hung” in protective tubes to prevent squashing on long journeys), the edges are trimmed to a 2m width, or cut into 50 x 50cm tiles. Alternatively, Bolon Studio tiles are available in shapes including the Wave, Scale, Wing and Hexagon.
The cutting stage marks the final step of our tour, but the Bolon experience doesn’t end at the confines of its factory – it is a state of mind everyone at the company seems to embody. I leave town the following day, still unclear on how to pronounce Ulricehamn, but the Bolon journey continues on.
A recent collaboration with Neri & Hu is bound to make a splash in the workplace and beyond, and frankly, having discovered just how versatile (and, if used right – sustainable) PVC can be, I’m half-expecting to see Bolon get off the ground – literally.