Photography: Heiko Prigge
There is a secret that sits at the heart of the Norwegian Olympic skiing town of Lillehammer — an old textiles mill that has the design world clamouring to cover its furniture, Gudbrandsdalens Uldvarefabrik.
How do you reach 131 years of age and still function with the energy and productivity of your youth and the ability to inspire everyone who comes to visit you? Could it be the cold mountain air and winter snow of your hometown? Or the friends, family and colleagues who’ve stuck by you for decades? Maybe it’s the juicy tenderloin for dinner at the local Bryggerikjelleren steakhouse. Whatever it is, Gudbrandsdalens Uldvarefabrik (GU to her friends) has been the pride of Lillehammer for decades.
This textile company — little known outside Norway and the design circles who selfishly keep it a secret — has been producing some of the world’s highest quality upholstery and clothing fabrics since it started as a simple spinning mill powered by the local Mesna river in 1887. Businessman Andreas R. Svarstad took ownership in 1912 and the fourth generation of the family still run the company.
What sets GU apart from the competition is unwavering control of everything within the four walls of the factory. The highest quality virgin New Zealand sheep’s wool is washed, dyed, carded, twined, weaved, pilled, inspected, packaged and dispatched all on the GU premises.
“GU is unique because we keep all production processes in-house, with the exception of raising our own sheep!” says Jan Skrefsrud, GU’s Managing Director. During a high-tech tour of the facility housed in the original brick factory with Anita Tonnessen, the company’s charming Export Manager, Skrefsrud explained why the typically modest Norwegian business is still so successful, “Our high-quality fabrics are long lasting, natural, sustainable and known for being exceptionally easy to work with,” he says.
So easy, in fact, that some of the world’s most respected designers and manufacturers turn to GU for their expertise, including Danish textiles producer Kvadrat, itself recognised as the best of the best. Kvadrat has bought fabric from GU since its beginnings in 1968 and is still a customer today. Other longstanding domestic clients include Norwegian State Railways and children up and down the country whose national costume is produced from fabric by GU.
|Weaving and Quality Check of the Palo Sofas signature textile Amdal|
A highlight of the factory tour is a peek inside the grandly titled Dye Master’s sample cabinet. Vidar Lilleespe has refined his skills after years minding the colour lab and stirring the giant dye barrels. “We have the capability to reproduce any colour. We really enjoy working with designers to make the perfect match,” he says.
When Hem wanted to upholster the Palo sofa with the most comfortable, tactile and durable fabric there was really no question as to who to turn to. GU christens all its fabrics with the suffix “dal” which means valley in Norwegian, and Hem’s Design Director Svenja Diekmann chose Amdal, a refined soft weave that belies its durability.
“HEM and GU have a good working relationship based on mutual trust and integrity. We are committed to providing premium quality upholstery fabrics produced according to stringent environmental codes and HEM offers cutting edge design with the environment in mind, so it’s a perfect match,” says Skefsrud.
After 131 years of healthy growth we could all learn a thing or two from GU. Or maybe we should all just eat steak for dinner before taking long walks home in the deep snow and -10C temperatures of Lillehammer’s winding back streets.