On entering the headquarters of Bolon, just outside the small town of Ulricehamn in southwestern Sweden, your eyes are irresistibly drawn to ground level. The company is the self-proclaimed “world leader in woven vinyl flooring”, and its offices, loos and stairwells are clad in its singular product.
From the slate-grey strips of the reception area, to the contrasting tiles in the meeting rooms upstairs, the flooring’s muted, metallic sheen, tensile strength, and all-round implacability seem to endow those who traverse it with an enhanced sense of application and purpose. Unlike wooden flooring it doesn’t scuff or stain, and unlike textile flooring, it doesn’t trap dust and detritus.
“When people first see it, they are like, ‘What is this?’” says Marie Eklund, 41, Bolon’s senior designer and marketing manager who runs the family concern alongside her sister Annica, 38, Bolon’s CEO and president. “They think it’s textile, because they have this image of vinyl as cold and clinical. They say that it makes them walk and even think differently.”
“The best comment I ever heard was from an American architect at a trade show,” says Ulf Jarneving, export manager. “He said, ‘Hey, this is the first sexy flooring I’ve ever seen.’” In fact, Bolon is out to silence those who doubt that “sexy flooring” could be anything other than an oxymoron. It supplies 2 million sq m of flooring (prices from around €50 a sq m) every year to the likes of Pirelli and Ernst & Young, Montblanc, Samsonite and Lacoste, Hilton and W Hotels. Renzo Piano used 28,000 sq m-worth of Bolon in the Milan office block he designed. And then there’s Giorgio Armani.
“He loves our product,” enthuses Annica. “He uses it in his boutiques worldwide as well as his restaurants.” Such patronage has earned Bolon a €13m turnover last year and €16m so far this year; it’s now registered in 45 countries across Europe, Asia and the Americas. “But we are still a family company,” says Marie. “And we intend to remain so.”
This ethos is reinforced by the amount of family snapshots that crop up in the course of the official company presentation. Bolon was founded in Stockholm in 1949 by Nils Erik Eklund – the grandfather of Annica and Marie – to produce traditional Swedish rush matting and tent mats and awnings for those hordes who head off on camping holidays every year. On his death in the early 1960s, the company passed to his son Lars, the father of Annica and Marie, who is nominally retired but still comes into the office on a consultancy basis.
What is known in the trade as “resilient flooring” has an illustrious history. After vinyl flooring’s 1933 debut it soon became one of the most popular options thanks to its durability and low maintenance, but was thought rather, well, unsexy – until Lars invented Bolon’s woven vinyl flooring in 1993.
“I was always the kind of man who would take things apart and put them back together,” smiles the bluff, jovial Lars. “The idea came to me when we installed an awning mat wall-to-wall one day. It looked good, so we added thicker foil to make it stronger, I developed a new weaving technique and rebuilt the looms in order to produce the density of texture needed. We got a good response from the beginning,” says Lars. “It was something genuinely new.” He smiles. “But it took Annica and Marie to turn it into a trend-led product.”
With their relative youth, their Nordic sense of style and willingness to experiment, Annica and Marie are reinvigorating the company. “The flooring business is very conservative,” says Marie. “So we decided that we should target cutting-edge architects and designers so that we could inspire each other.”
Under Annica and Marie’s stewardship Bolon has produced seasonal flooring collections like a couture house and even staged catwalk shows in Ulricehamn for its worldwide partners (Floored By Fashion, a couple of years ago, featured models tottering under the weight of metallic flooring tunics). Their newest launch is their most ambitious yet: “Eight” uses innovative (and top-secret) techniques to produce smoother, denser tiles in shades of gunmetal, beige and silver-grey and designed specifically for today’s work/living spaces.
Bolon might be a small company that is starting to make a big mark on the world stage, but Marie’s insistence that they stay a family concern isn’t just empty rhetoric – the Eklunds all live within a couple of miles of the factory, where just 46 employees design, produce and ship all the orders. The sisters define the future as much in terms of what they won’t countenance as what they will.
“We’re a niche, high-end product,” says Annica. “We can expand to a degree, but we’re not interested in the mass market.” As we reluctantly exchange the lustre of woven vinyl for the pavement outside, Marie smiles. “Flooring is going to remain our focus. Maybe in our way we could revolutionise the market.”
Rolling back the years
1949: Bolon is founded in Stockholm by Nils Erik Eklund as a company that produces rush matting and awnings for tents.
1960: Eklund moves Bolon to Ulricehamn in Knallebyggden, an area in southwestern Sweden famous for weaving and textile design.
1963: Lars Eklund takes over the firm on the death of his father; Bolon becomes – and remains – the leading company for tent awnings and mats, both domestically and internationally.
1992: Bolon builds a new factory with looms designed by Lars Eklund in Ulricehamn.
1993: Lars Eklund invents the woven vinyl flooring process.
1999: Woven vinyl tiles are produced for the first time.
2003: Giorgio Armani buys an initial 2,000 sq m of woven vinyl flooring for use in his boutiques and catalogue shoots.
2006: Annica and Marie Eklund, daughters of Lars, become Bolon CEO and head designer/marketing manager respectively.
2007: Bolon launches “Eight”, its “urban-inspired” line that confirms its focus on design-led products.