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Remake spaces with fabric flair

Feature, Markets | October 1, 2010 | By:

“Space articulation” with fabric adds design flair with practical appeal.

Heard a lot of hammering lately? Not likely. The construction industry is among the hardest hit in this bleak economy. Few housing subdivisions, office parks, megamalls or public institutions are breaking ground these days. Yet retail businesses, hospitals, colleges, exhibition arenas and even homeowners cannot always manage with the status quo. While they may not be able to afford new brick-and-mortar renovations, they still need to adapt to new configurations, save energy, retire tired décor and, most important in some facilities, capture and retain public attention.

For the specialty fabrics manufacturer, this perfect storm could be a compelling reason to join the next generation of “builders,” utilizing fabric to deliver practical, versatile, attractive, functional and economical alterations to interior spaces: pizzazz sans plywood and plasterboard, not to mention wallpaper and paint.

Projects that lend themselves to interior use of fabrics run the gamut from restaurants and malls to theaters, spas, hospitals, museums, corporate headquarters, casinos, university buildings, event/exhibit installations and office complexes, all the way to condo artwork and signature trappings for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Creative collaboration

The stakes have changed as competition grows more intense. Whatever the project, clients won’t settle for paging through catalogs of ready-made designs—which (glass half full?) means you can generally forget about paying designers to provide the equivalent of wallpaper samples. The joy of this collaboration, for designers and architects, is that they can sketch their creative visions on the proverbial napkin, provide a corporate logo or the theme of an event, and have the confidence that fabricators have the know-how and technology to make it happen. The process generally entails sourcing and printing the fabric, then delivering and installing it according to specifications.

More good news: This also means that you cannot—should not—have a vast inventory of fabric stored, at mounting cost, in a warehouse. “We order our fabrics on a just-in-time basis for each job,” explains Jim Miller, owner of J. Miller Canvas Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif. Nor does Miller need to spend a lot of time holding hands. “Forward-thinking architects are catching on; we simply bring them up to speed. But since they are already very creative people by nature, they come in with ideas, which we formulate into a project.”

“Some need explanations,” says Kay Grams, president of Juxtaform LLC in Tempe, Ariz., “but once they get it, they’re off and running, caught up in the aesthetic potentials of it.” Susanne Jansson, principal of Better Mousetrap LLC, headquartered in Long Island City, N.Y., agrees. “They tell us what they’re looking for, and we tell them what it takes to get it to us, and in what format. Event coordinators are especially forward-thinking—always on to the next new thing,” she adds. Miller talks fondly about a rewarding relationship with Clive Wilkinson Architects of Los Angeles—“very forward-thinking regarding fabric structures. With his vision, we came up with ideas for the conference room of a large telephone manufacturing company in Helsinki.”

Heather Collins, marketing director for Cambridge Architectural in Cambridge, Md., comments that “We do a whole lot of education—on how to use it, on attachment systems and variations. Architects get on our website and become intrigued by the palette, and then we walk them through the selection and specification process. In fact, we have a whole education program, with continuing education credits for the AIA, regarding uses, specs, etc.”

Space articulation

The catchphrase to define what these firms offer is “space articulation.” Juxtaform offers everything from a petite JUXTAWING™, particularly popular in office spaces to attach to a wall as a fin or perch on a desktop to achieve privacy or hide a site, up to grand atrium configurations that achieve considerable visual drama. “We can also cut out openings within the fabric to add interest and function,” Grams adds.

Miller points to a recent project for Bloomingdale’s in Santa Monica, Calif., that created white spandex pod-shaped changing rooms, motorized to elevate so that the quarters can double as event space. Restaurants clamor for his sliding shade panels that extend seating or offer space planning for conference rooms.

Eventscape Inc., Toronto, Ont., Canada, with experience in more than 20 countries, flexed its innovative engineering and fabrication muscles with a recent project for FireKeepers Casino in Battle Creek, Mich. According to marketing and communications director Elaine Allen-Milne, “The architect’s concept involved giant columns, big diameters and 20 feet high. With both functionality and value in mind, they started with perforated metal at the base, then transitioned to acrylic, which is lighter, and then to a 24-foot diameter translucent fabric cone, which is less costly and allows more lighting.” In addition to creating excitement on the casino floor, these columns also hide the room’s large HVAC equipment.

Cambridge Architectural’s project for the Dr. P. Phillips Hospital in Orlando, Fla., answered the dual challenge of presenting a perception of technical advancement, combined with the vacation community’s focus on hospitality. Another project, the JW Marriott tavern in Las Vegas (J.C. Wooloughan Irish pub), required material that could be transformed by lighting from opaque and private to utterly transparent. The firm also has used its capabilities to provide a security screen fronting a restaurant’s bar that protects the liquor stock when not in use, yet still functions as a deliberate part of the interior design.

Bob Helmsing, vice president of Lawrence Fabric Structures Inc. in St. Louis, Mo., was approached with a plan by a design firm to renovate and decorate a vacated church as its new headquarters and studio. “To achieve partitioning, our staff, led by Mark Schopp, director of engineering and design, came up with ways to do so using aluminum-framed fabric panels, some of them motorized and moveable. The end result was strikingly beautiful,” Helmsing notes, “and fabric was the primary agent of change.

Another recent challenge involved the renovation of a large, freestanding building that once served as the laundry for a long-vacated hospital. “This open and boxy derelict building was turned into The Palladium—an event facility with an interior that can be split up by motorized dividers, which can be raised and lowered by push-button controls. These same walls serve as projection screens, too,” Helmsing adds. “And in order to control lighting, we also installed large blackout panels on tracks to cover massive windows.” Working on a casino in the Bahamas, the firm also positioned fabric over a skylight to filter light. “We used a big 20-foot flower under a skylight, both to add a very decorative element and to control light,” he adds.

Better Mousetrap also provides in-demand theater backdrops and banners for special events and parties, but serves residential clients as well. Says Jansson, “We just did a 50-foot screen for a Manhattan loft, part stationary, part moveable, to achieve a dramatic visual similar to a Jackson Pollock. For weddings, we do 20- by 30-foot dance floor rugs on vinyl, following the theme of the wedding, such as a Persian carpet. We do screens for bar mitzvahs, too. A recent project included a temple made of sheer fabric with imaged stained glass, and the party afterward used a dance floor and screen.

Workhorse functions

These interior makeovers pull their weight through practical features as well as visual bling. “Fire-retardancy and washability were the two criteria we insisted on in researching fabrics,” says Grams. “We use a poly blend, dual-stretch fabric and a white fabric made from 90 percent recycled plastics.”

For facilities, such as a conference room, requiring sound-deadening capabilities, Miller has used a quilted mesh to trap noise inside a canvaslike covering, mounted on a frame structure. “We also use spandex for more free-flowing rooms, which also offers a little acoustical-deadening effect,” he says. “Google’s California headquarters also needed a sound-deadening job but demanded that the design ideas create a cool, hip environment. We definitely achieved that!”

Sometimes, however, sound deadening is contrary to a building’s purpose. Cambridge Architectural’s Scale patterned metal fabric acts as a visual barrier-cum-space divider and concealer of ceiling mechanicals for the Montgomery College Performing Arts Center in Maryland. Still, says Collins, “Our metal mesh provided a visual barrier without acting as a sound barrier. It sculpts space but still allows the acoustical transparency the arts center requires.” When a quilt museum in Nebraska was concerned that light would cause fading of its collected works, Cambridge called on its Slink style stainless steel mesh to act as a fine curtain to block sunlight.

“Cleaning is always an issue with fabric, too,” notes Allen-Milne. “We started out with fabric when we began 15 years ago. Now, we also incorporate many more materials, including glass, stainless steel and perforated metal.” There’s also the increasingly important issue of privacy in businesses. “Fabrics can create a different look in offices, dividing them with fabrics rather than rigid walls, as in a bank,” says Helmsing.

There’s also the small matter of environmental responsiveness, something clients often demand. Going green is “definitely a thing people are interested in,” Allen-Milne reports. “We use both recycled and recyclable material, including aluminum. We fabricate it in-house, so there’s no on-site waste. And it’s compact, so shipping leaves a smaller carbon footprint. In working on the Hudson Bay Company’s VANOC Olympic Store, our company has engineered and fabricated intricate S-walls—lightweight and designed to be taken apart for use in S-curves in stores later on down the road.”

Show and tell

Many of these companies report that ongoing marketing efforts require minimal effort. Once firms have a few projects under their belts, “They come to us by word of mouth,” says Allen-Milne. “We have been very fortunate in working with some really talented designers and architects. When these projects win awards and are featured in the media, your company gets known. “They’re drawn to us because of our large specialty projects,” says Jansson, whose Better Mousetrap uses a Jeti® 10-foot printer to achieve large-format printing via dye sublimation onto 10-foot-wide fabric. “Many different things drive traffic,” says Collins—“our website, appearances at trade shows, our e-newsletter in which we showcase new projects, and educational programs.”

“We have had the good fortune to win many awards, including those from IFAI, and we’re using these to promote ourselves,” says Helmsing. “We also market through architect presentations and on our website. Plus, people within the industry who partner with us are a great help. They may see our work in IFAI contests, and when they get an inquiry, they may say, ‘We can’t do it, but Lawrence can.’”

Design: space, light and color

“Over the years, we’re seeing more and more organic shapes, because the technology is there—as evidenced in Zaha Hadid’s Burnham Pavilion,” says Allen-Milne. “Look for a lot more ceiling treatments, and in varying patterns, in the future,” says Collins: “Space sculpting. Architects love it! And sectionals that require less grid—up to 100-foot lengths that don’t create that sectional grid effect. Architects love that, too. Also, curtains transforming daylight will continue to grow, as in the Quilt Museum.”

“Over the years, fabric has changed—morphed into all varieties of synthetics,” says Helmsing. “More things are being printed than ever before as people gain awareness that it’s a great way to lower costs while you change the appearance of a building. And ink is changing by the month as new fabrics come out. In the early stages, it was just a fad; now it’s a trend, and it’s snowballing. The things that can be done are limitless.”

“I’d love to offer all colors in recycled fabrics,” says Grams. “And I’d love to get wide stretch mesh fabrics in a variety of colors and metallic fabrics. We’ve always got an eye out for what’s new.”

“Faster machines!” That’s the first item on Mousetrap’s wish list, according to Jansson. “If we could only get over the inkjet age, away from standard litho or silk screen, whatever, and go for speed!”

“There are just so many ideas out there, so keep your eyes and ears open and learn from other people’s projects,” Helmsing advises newcomers to the field. “Don’t turn down an opportunity just because it’s something you’ve never done before. Find people to partner. Figure it out.”

Carla Waldemar is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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