Laminate flooring was invented in 1977 by the Swedish company Perstorp and sold under the brand name Pergo. Perstorp had been making laminate surfaces since 1923, and the company first marketed its flooring product in Europe in 1984 and a decade later in the United States.
Perstorp changed its flooring division into a separate company named Pergo, which is now a subsidiary of Pfleiderer, and Pergo laminate floors still have a high profile in global markets.
At first laminated flooring planks were manufactured with a tongue-and-groove fitting system which required them to be glued together and then strapped for a period of time to ensure neat joints on the floor. This type of flooring installation was time-consuming and more costly.
The natural progression from this was glueless laminate flooring which was introduced in 1996 by the Swedish company Välinge Aluminium (now known as Välinge Innovation) and sold under the brand names of Alloc and Fiboloc.
This was the advent of the so-called ‘click’ system of fixing. However, a system for holding flooring panels together was also developed in parallel by the Belgian company Unilin and released in 1997.
The two companies have been in a great number of legal conflicts over the years as a result, and today most, if not all, glueless locking flooring is made under licence from Välinge, Unilin or a combination of both.
Laminate floors were first introduced into South Africa from Europe in the mid-1990s with an above-average cost compared to other types of flooring, such as carpets, vinyl flooring and ceramic floor tiles which were the most popular and cost-effective flooring types at the time.
Due to the price of laminate floors at this time, which was more in the region of some solid wood floors, it was a slow mover and sales were below average with only a handful of flooring contractors and retailers specialising in laminate floors, but the introduction of the click system dispensed with the need for glue or curing time. In turn, this resulted in easier and faster installation and provided a much less expensive floor than available previously.
It is interesting to note that in South Africa laminate floors gained popularity because they were marketed as ‘wood’ floors instead of the faux variety, and even people that knew they were ‘look-alikes’ rather than the real thing were encouraged to specify or purchase laminates to obtain the wood look at a lower price.
Technology in production and design soon established these floors as being such a perfect reproduction that it is virtually impossible, even for an expert, to determine whether it is real wood or not, particularly when innovations such as textured surface finishes took hold. It is certain that the success of laminates in this respect induced other flooring materials to go the wood (and natural stone) look-alike route as well.
Up to the late 1990s nearly all laminate floors were manufactured in Europe and a few in America but the laminate flooring industry was exposed to a huge ‘threat’ when manufacturing of laminate flooring began in China in 1997 and the Chinese laminate producers started exporting not long after. To date there are over 3 000 laminate flooring manufacturers in China.
The main threat from China was their sourcing of lower-cost raw materials and the use of cheaper labour, lowering the price of laminate flooring considerably, although often there was a lack of quality in the early stages of Chinese exports, which seriously affected the credibility of laminate floors in many countries.
Today some of the Chinese manufactured laminate flooring can be compared favourably with that of some of the European manufacturers; in fact the better manufacturers in the Far East are now producing laminates to USA and European standards.
However, the laminate flooring market has always been beset by poor-quality products (including imported factory seconds being marketed as first quality) and ‘fly-by-night’ operators, so selection of a supplier or installer should be made with care.
For peace of mind and the best advice, specifiers and end users should make use of the facilities and advice provided by the Southern African Wood & Laminate Flooring Association (SAWLFA), whose operational programme now includes bamboo floorcoverings.