Flexible and functional fabric interiors

Fabric interiors are flexible and functional, artistic and adaptable, economical and ecologically sound, offering new advantages to designers and architects. But there’s still a learning curve.

For a lot of end-product manufacturers (EPMs), customer interest in fabric for commercial interiors is still in its infancy. The future, they believe, is wide open, if the concept (and the products, and the services) are positioned and marketed properly, and if more architects as well as end users become more educated in the advantages and economies of fabric.

In the commercial interiors market, Moss Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., provides fabrics for sound control, graphics in combination with sound control, light diffusion (ceiling treatments designed to diffuse strong light in areas to create more intimate spaces), column covers with or without graphics and related applications.

“We don’t segment the commercial market, other than retail,” says Jana McQuilkin, marketing manager. “We look at challenges that are universal to all of these different types of environments and design products that solve some of these problems, such as sound, light and covering up unsightly structural columns.”

Currently, according to McQuilkin, customers are particularly interested in these specialties from Moss:

> Silicone edge graphics. “We have a metal extrusion system with a channel groove,” she says. Graphics that are finished with a silicone bead can slide into that groove in the extrusion. What makes the system stand out is that the fabric slides in easily. For example, with a structural column, Moss has the ability to mount the extrusion to the column and apply fabric to it, and then change that fabric out very easily when desired.

> Printed graphics. “This is one reason that people might choose our acoustics sound control products over what other fabric companies offer, and even over a nonfabric solution,” says McQuilkin. The company’s large-format printing capabilities include high quality, photo-realistic fabric prints, printed on a variety of substrates from opaque to sheer, meshes or stretch fabrics.

Increasing appeal

One reason for the increasing popularity of fabric commercial interiors is to get away from sterile environments. “A few years ago, there was a trend in lobbies and other architectural spaces to have an exposed, somewhat industrial feel,” McQuilkin says. “This is going out of fashion, and people now want to hide those elements and create more intimate spaces.” Moss has been able to help some of its customers do this by putting in things like dropped fabric ceilings. “We can do this very cost-effectively, and dramatically change the way a space looks,” she says.

Another driver of interest in fabric is that Moss has seen a much greater demand for buildings that can meet LEED requirements. “Customers are wanting fabrics with recycled content and even fabric that is biodegradable,” she says.

When talking with prospects, company representatives highlight a number of benefits of fabric in commercial interiors. “Weight is always very attractive,” she says. “You can make a space look a lot different without making a big impact on the structure. In addition, in this economy, a lot of people are looking to renovate and refresh what they had in the past, so fabric is also attractive because of cost.”

There are other advantages. Fabric is also appealing when using light (natural or artificial), and can be used to make shapes that you can’t make affordably with other types of material. Transportation benefits are also appealing. “We can ship our products by overnight delivery,” says McQuilkin. “They don’t require large trucks.”

When marketing its fabric commercial interiors, Moss interacts primarily with architects. “When we do so, there is always some type of learning curve,” she says. “We try to educate them on the product attributes, using ‘lunch and learns.’” On occasion, the company also works with acoustics companies or general contractors.

In terms of code concerns, McQuilkin notes that fire codes are important, but that’s about the only factor. “Most of the fabrics we use are fire-retardant,” she says.

Overall, the company sees commercial interiors as a growth area. “In the future, interest in environmentally sustainable fabrics will continue to grow, so that customers can recycle them.”

Material and method

Historically, most of the work that Fabric Images Inc., Elgin, Ill., has done has been in the trade show business. “Commercial interiors is a new market for us, so I don’t have a lot of prior experience in terms of trends,” says Marco Alvarez, president. However, for his company, Alvarez is already finding that this is a market with a growing interest in the use of fabrics.

“We are more of a custom house, so we don’t have a lot of off-the-shelf products,” he says. “The architects decide what they want, and we create alternative solutions in terms of materials and methodologies.” In other words, an architect might consider making something out of wood or laminate. Fabric Images will look at the project and see how it could be made out of different types of fabric to create the effect they want, including lighting, textures, sound absorption and graphics. “The way we see it, we offer architects more tools to create the effects they want,” he says.

According to Alvarez, it seems that architects are still exploring and experimenting with fabric options. “Fabric still isn’t as common to them as more traditional materials such as wood, steel, drywall and tile,” he says. There are also some new technologies, such as pillowcase construction or those silicone-edge graphics (see page 34) that go onto frames, that make application much easier, rather than stapling canvas onto the back of wood, for example. “This makes fabric more acceptable and appealing to architects and installers,” he says. In addition, because of the recyclability factor, the company also emphasizes the LEED credits possible by using fabrics.

To show architects and interior designers what can be done, Fabric Images has designed its own offices with a lot of fabric partitions, ceiling treatments and so on, creating a showroom atmosphere for prospects and customers.

Alvarez admits that building codes can be a challenge. “Every fire marshal in the country can interpret building codes slightly differently and want to perform different field tests,” he says. “Fabrics are getting categorized in a variety of different ways, especially as it relates to flammability. As a result, it requires a little bit more due diligence up front and communication with the fire marshals to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

In terms of growth, Alvarez believes that many segments of the commercial interiors market, such as offices, schools, churches and hospitals, have potential for fabricators. “It’s just a matter of understanding each of the markets and being able to provide products that they want.” Current economic conditions can actually drive these markets, because people are looking for options that are more cost-effective than traditional materials. He believes that this will continue to drive the market in the future. “In some cases, though, people may be willing to pay the extra price for ‘green,’” he adds.

Strength in design

According to David Siegel, director of surface imaging for New York-based Designtex, a supplier of innovative textiles, wallcoverings and surface solutions, interest in fabric commercial interiors is increasing as people are getting more comfortable with the concept, such as panel systems, workspace dividers, conference rooms, and the decorative element.

“It is becoming popular in offices,” he says. “We have also done some work in schools. There is a lot of interest from health care, but this is a bit trickier because there is so much around durability.”

Architects are showing interest when they begin work on the accent layer of the building. However, according to Siegel, since there is a lack of standards in terms of durability and longevity, not all of them are comfortable with the idea yet. “In addition, the technology that produces the fabric is still a bit fragmented,” he says.

Still, Siegel believes that the future of this market is very strong. “The use of fabric as a substrate in commercial spaces has a lot of potential, especially as it relates to branding and the design element,” he says.

William Atkinson is a freelance writer and editor based in Carterville, Ill.

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