Linoleum Encore

­A Victorian-era material gets a twenty-first-century update.

Linseed, one of the oldest cultivated crops in human history, has bestowed upon us good health, soap, and paint for the world’s great artistic masterpieces. And since 1860, oil from its golden pods has served as the main ingredient in linoleum, a sustainable flooring option. Though vinyl, its rival in flexibility, has dominated the flooring market since its introduction in the 1950s, linoleum outlasts it and is less toxic to produce. Linseed oil, which binds the floor’s ingredients, oxidizes gradually, causing the surface to grow more durable with age. “It’s basically an all-natural material,” says Scott Day, the U.S. marketing representative at Forbo, the world’s largest manufacturer of linoleum.

With the demand for green materials reaching new heights, Forbo—which has its main factory in the Netherlands—enlisted 12 of the biggest names in Dutch design to lead a linoleum revival. Marcel Wanders, Kiki van Eijk, Richard Hutten, and Li Edelkoort are among the headliners who have designed surface patterns that challenge the constraints of the manufacturing process. “With linoleum, the ingredients are mixed and pressed onto a jute backing. You can’t really control how it will look,” Day says.

Blending natural pigments with other renewable ingredients—linseed oil, rosins, wood flour, and cork—yields a marbleized surface that, though versatile in application, offers limited design possibilities. Linoleum can produce a multitude of speckled colors but not the distinct patterns possible with vinyl’s printed PVC layer.

“The designers were brought in to tour the factory and see how linoleum’s manufacturing process works,” Day says. “They were then given complete artistic freedom to see what they could do.” Most sought inspiration in untainted landscapes. Van Eijk’s Painted Fields appears solid from a distance but is richly color-laden upon closer inspection. “I used some extreme colors. It has the feeling of green fields, but if you look closer, it looks like different layers of pinks and browns,” she says. Trend forecaster Edelkoort developed a color based on studies of human nudity, integrating pigments from makeup to create Naked. Interior designer Evelyne Merkx used the mixture’s opacity to make Luminous, an almost colorless surface inspired by white pumice and Japanese concrete architecture.

But designer Jurgen Bey took an entirely different approach—and just may have developed the smartest linoleum in flooring history. After inviting colleagues to give him the contents of their vacuum-cleaner bags, he developed Grey Matter, a pattern that mimics the colors found in dust. The ultimate in dirt-camouflaging, it can go unswept for years without anyone really noticing.

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