Can you give your clients what they want, when they want it?
By Janet Preus
It’s a growing trend. We want what we want when we want it—in our clothing, our music, our coffee, and even our environments. Customization is a permanent element in our day-to-day lives, both at home and at work.
While the idea of customized fabric graphics for interiors may be a novelty for some, there are companies doing a brisk business in the trade. The evidence appears to be mounting that a growing number of commercial and residential clients want customized products for interior use. The producers who can deliver stand to profit. And grow.
Gary Turner has observed the shift to customization from the perspective of business development manager for DuPont Artistri, Wilmington, Del. He says that just 10 percent of his clients’ work is now custom, but the evidence of change is clear.
“Digital printing is still in its infancy…it’s still a tiny portion of what is printed on a global basis, but there are thousands of machines out there that have the capability to print fabric,” he says, and the selection of fabric is “a thousand times better” than it was just two years ago.
Patti Williams with IT Strategies, Hanover, Mass., concurs. She thinks that digital printers have the potential to resurrect a textile industry that has moved off shore, and interior applications are a viable future market, “a new path for printers to follow to increase their business,” she says.
Where are the markets?
For those businesses open to it,agile enough for it, and with access to personnel and appropriate equipment, the potential for custom work is simply everywhere—in commercial, public, and residential spaces—according to proponents. While draperies and sofa pillows may first come to mind, other possibilities include room dividers, novelty chairs, and upholstery in private jets.
And donut shops.
“A blank white wall becomes a giant cup and two donuts,” says Williams. “What if I begin to franchise this coffee shop and want this wall covering in all my locations? The interiors might all be different. Digital printing is scaleable. I can make it any size you want.”
Custom interior applications are a highly desirable solution for many commercial spaces, Williams says—any place a brand can be supported. Offices and retail outlets can carry logos, color schemes, and other identifiers on window treatments, upholstered furniture, wall dividers, and more.
“People in marketing are willing to spend; they see the value of custom,” she says.
Restoration and replication
Perhaps you have a client that likes what they already have. Danielle Locastro, director of operations at First2Print Inc., New York, N.Y., says her company replicated the vintage fabric used in the interior of a corporate jet. The new fabric was a perfect match with the original, and a perfect solution for a discerning client.
Renovations of historic spaces face a unique challenge: the materials, patterns, and colors are threadbare antiques, if they exist at all. Designers and printers may also have to recreate a period space with something less conspicuous to go on.
Jeanelle Dech’s Adaptive Textiles LLC in West Chester, Penn., was asked to provide fabric for the renovation of a historic hotel in Wilmington, Del. She took her inspiration from its Italianate carved ceiling.
“The interior designers on the project wanted to incorporate the architecture of this beautiful old hotel in the rooms,” she says. Because window treatments and bed skirts had to be made with more costly flame-retardant fabrics, and in considerable yardage, they settled on pillows. “It wasn’t a huge project—240 pillows—but it was an interesting process.”
The graphic, which looked like several pieces of fabric stitched together, was very complicated, requiring extensive design time. The fabric used was expensive because it was digitally printed, but it was still less than the original idea of embroidery on velvet.
New York and Los Angeles-based Better Mousetrap has also done custom work for hotels. Among the most unique is a chair, reupholstered each year of necessity. The fabric pictures a Rottweiler with its mouth open “so it seems to be biting you in the behind when you sit in it,” Susanne Jansson, Better Mousetrap Principal, says.
“People just sit and touch this chair continuously, so they replace it every year,” she says.
Replication has become a big part of Better Mousetrap’s business, but the company has also done custom fabric for hospitals, backdrops for theaters, and a variety of projects for private homes, including 150 feet for fabric dividers in one home. That pales when compared to the 600 feet of steel and fabric trees the company made for a wedding.
“Three to four hours and it’s gone,” she says.
Weddings, bar mitzvahs, anniversaries, milestone birthdays—it’s all about creating atmosphere, Jansson says, and there’s “more work than you’d imagine” in special events.
“It’s not flowers and food anymore. It’s the environment,” she says.
For other businesses, itmight be the acoustics. Fisher Textiles in Indian Trail, N.C., provided fabric used to cover sound-absorbing panels for an airplane hangar. A similarproject dressed up acoustic treatments in a bowling alley.But vice president Scott Fisheris guarded in his enthusiasm for custom production. His company sells fabric to printers who have multiple technologies, and while he admits that “something’s going on with the digital world that allows those guys to compete with the screen printer,” his business typically deals in larger quantities.
What’s stopping you?
New processes and priorities
Strangely enough, it is the people already in the trade who stand with arms crossed and brows furrowed. Why? For the most basic of reasons: it’s just not what they do.
“Interior designers and architects are used to picking things out of libraries,” says Lynn Krinsky, whose businesses, Stella Color and Facades in Seattle, Wash., offer multiple creative and flexible solutions for commercial and home décor. “The idea of starting with a blank canvas is foreign to them. They’re looking for the menu. They want to know, ‘What other designs do you have?’ Well, I don’t have any other designs.
“Most people are used to doing business a certain way. In this business you have to be persistent over years and work it a lot of different ways.”
Willetta DeYoung of EDP Textiles, Minneapolis, Minn., agrees.
“My experience is that interior decorators are not used to the option that digital print gives them,” she says. “They’re not familiar with how to work with their clients to customize something and have that kind of input and still maintain control of the project.”
“Who is going to do the design?” Williams asks. “How do you find these people?” As they surface, Williams says, they will become a valuable commodity.
Ultimately, the right team is likely to be found either among the personnel your business already has, or you may be looking to partner with brand new talent. Dech anticipates that it is the designers “fresh out of school, accustomed to digital design” who will change the relationship with printers and others in the trade.
“I am absolutely certain that this [new] generation of designers is going to accept this in a totally different way,” she says.
Turner of DuPont Artistri says it goes beyond just the designing. Designers are not trained to understand textile manufacturing work flow and processes. However, Dech says, graphic designers may fill a missing link and become akey resource.
“The actual art behind it becomes more important … having the eye to know what to do has higher value…. It elevates the importance of the person who can pull this all together—it’s not taking away business from these people,” she says.
How do you reach markets?
Old fashioned word-of-mouth
The key to reaching the market lies surprisingly close to you: start with the clients you already have and give them some fresh, new ideas about customization. Start small, the experts say, and be willing to wait for more profitable work. Fisher said his company will sell as few as 10 yards.
“Do we really make money on that 10-yard customer? Probably not,” he says. “We still do it. That guy might need 100 yards next time, or 1,000 yards after that.”
It’s that kind of service-oriented thinking and a willing-ness to persist that pays off inloyal customers.
The big difference with larger-scale operations, Dech says, is that digital is completely service-oriented. She thinks that custom work will never be widely adopted by traditional printers.
“It’s so hands on, so much direct communication, conversation,” she says. “It’s more like my interior design business than anything else.”
And some customers have little more than an idea.
“We have to walk them through every single step of the way. Are we making a lot of money per yard? No. It’s the service potential…. Instead of just printing, we had to step in and bridge that gap, which is that service, which isn’t for free,” Dech says.
Locastro says customers, too, need to do their research, especially on the costs. Not everybody is a fit. First2Print’s selling feature is its flexibility. Custom fabrics for interiors are just one part of its business, which also includes high fashion apparel and baby strollers.
“Your fabric dictates what your product’s going to be,” she says. “Home furnishings are very different from apparel. Before we even start a job I know what the end result is supposed to be.”
Your current staff, former employees, and those of your customers can be extraordinarily helpful in establishing a network of business relationships. Jansson says she has done “a fair amount of marketing,” but word-of- mouth and one-to-one marketing has value.
“Employees are very transient,” Jansson says. “As they move around from one job to another, they remember you and call you.”
Current staff, too, bring relationships and experienceswith important connections tothe arts, business, government, and schools.
Locastro says most First2Print clients come from referrals or from their Web site, and after seven years in the business those are still their only marketing tools.
If you are interested…
You don’t have to do it all
Not ready to carry the custom interior applications banner yet? More interested in walking alongside for a while? Outsourcing part or even all of a project might make sense as a way to start.
“Work with somebody who already has the investment in equipment in-house. You may pay a little more for it, but it might be cost effective,” says Turner.
“Outsourcing is always a good idea if you can control the project and make money,” says Krinsky of Stella Color. She works a lot with brokers, but cautions that you need to carefully manage the project and price it right.
Or you might have enough invested in equipment and expertise already that it presents a natural transition. Ann and Gordon Brown bill their business, New Vista Image in Golden, Colo., as “a creative solutions company.” They’re taking a serious look at going into fabrics to make better use of their equipment and offer clients more options.
“We’re interested in fabric because we know it would add another element of interest forour customers,” Ann Brown says.
With their HP XL-Jet printer they can convert inks and go back and forth between fabrics and other products. She plans to proactively suggest fabric applications and products to her customers and is enthusiastic about its possibilities.
“There’s no end to what you can cover,” she says. “It’s going to become so popular, everybody’s going to want to get into it.”