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Custom fabric exhibit makes a splash

December 1st, 2010 / By: / Graphics, Markets

Dimensional Communications helps Mercedes–Benz score a marketing coup with a custom fabric trade show exhibit.

As a trade show booth designer, Ahti Pursiainen isn’t shy about trying outlandish combinations to showcase a client’s products. After all, Pursiainen once hired a Broadway composer to write a soundtrack for the Borden Company’s tradeshow display, which also featured an animated stage performance and a live cow as the booth’s centerpiece.

“Whenever something new comes along, whether it’s a material or a technology, we’re not afraid to try it,” he says. As the managing director for Dimensional Communications Inc., Northvale, N.J., it’s his job to think big. So when Mercedes–Benz wanted to make a big splash—on a budget—at the 2010 New York Auto Show in April, Pursiainen and his design team knew that fabric was the solution—specifically, custom-printed fabric panels mounted on an extruded aluminum structure.

“By using tensile fabric structures we can produce more exciting exhibits for our clients and stay within their set and projected show budgets,” he says.

The finished project used about 10,000 square feet of fabric: 7,000 square feet is architectural tensile fabric; the rest is dye-sublimation printed fabric. The entire booth needed 14,000 square feet of space, and included towers, floating ceiling panels and multi-colored wall backdrops. The focal point was a movie screen on which was projected a custom-produced 3D film. Virtually everything 30 inches above the floor is made with fabrics, he says. “You don’t know that it’s fabric until you get up really close and touch it.”

The Mercedes–Benz display made its debut at an unusual time: the end of the show season. Their marketing angle was to show their technology, power and engineering, Pursiainen says, and they wanted a cutting-edge display to enhance that image. “They took a sneak preview approach and blew everyone away,” he says. “It was a marketing coup. The show-goer saw the difference, that they were the leader and made others look like followers.”

As for followers, Pursiainen expects to see other auto vendors introduce elaborate fabric structure booths in the upcoming auto show season, as well as in other trade show applications.

New and improved

Fabric structures are not new to trade show booths. Designers have long pulled fabric over a frame like a pillowcase, and tensile fabrics have been widely used to create seamless, big-scale graphic features at shows. As soon as fabric structures became available, “practically everyone” was using them, Pursiainen says. “They were straight and shapes, but this was the older style. Now we are living the era of almost unlimited shapes and forms.”

The Mercedes–Benz exhibit’s concept is a more modern use of tensile structures—a concept that just a few years ago, he says, would not have been possible. Two elements were missing: the ability to digitally print large surfaces well on the type of fabric required to maintain the necessary tensions. That changed as printing improved and the right fabrics became available. “We became interested right away,” Pursiainen says.

“Earlier, to build a soaring 30-foot-high structure, you needed heavy steel, heavy lumber, a lot of engineering and literally dozens of trailers to schlep this material from city to city,” he says. “And now, the lightness of the tensile structures is phenomenal. You need a fraction of the space to store and transport. You don’t need all of the heavy equipment or the manpower. We can build a structure to look like mad Ludwig’s castle, and two people can move it from one place to another.”

He estimates that the fabric-based Mercedes–Benz booth needed two-thirds of the installation crew compared to a more traditional-style booth. The crew does the job more quickly, too, which equates to less overtime, fewer equipment rental fees and lower costs for transportation and storage.

Versatility is another cost-savings benefit. “These things can be changed very easily,” he says. “If we want to change the color to something else, it’s just a matter of preparing new, easy-to-apply fabric panels and shipping them in a small package.” The edges of the fabric panels are beaded, and slide into the structure frame grooves. The structures are also modular, he says, which allows different configurations in the booth footprint.

Getting Mercedes–Benz to sign on to the fabric structure was easy. “We’ve been working together for 30 years and they trust us,” he says. “They know that we’re pushing the envelope with many things and their current management is similar. When we told them we would like to add multimedia, they asked ‘could you make that 3D?’ And in record time, with the highest technology, we produced an outstanding centerpiece 3D film”—shown on a large fabric panel, of course.

Finding the right fit

While Pursiainen is a designer, he knows little about the exact nature of the fabrics. In order to execute the booth, he worked with a fabric printing vendor to select the right product for the booth and use the correct printing process for the desired end result. “The fabric needs some elasticity because they need to be very taut; there are no wrinkles,” he says. “Ten years ago when big-scale printing came to tensile fabrics, they didn’t look as nice. They were wrinkly and the color reproduction quality just wasn’t the same as it is now.”

There are also a few other considerations in fabric selection: safety requirements (some panels need to be break-away and others need water-soluble fabrics) and practical matters, such as how to keep it clean.

Pursiainen says that the use of fabrics in trade show booths is currently more common in Europe, but he sees it becoming more popular in the U.S. and that it will have staying power. “I think the fabric industry is still in the invention stage with this,” he says. “It’s still new, and there will be time to grow before people get fabric fatigue.” He sees numerous applications for the material.

“I just remember the misery of the good old days when we used one-inch plywood and heavy-duty steel to build structures of this size,” he says. “Now it’s all-around less, and it looks so much better.”

Dimensional Communications Inc. provided design services and construction, and multimedia design and production for the exhibit. Tectronics Industries / Dockside Canvas produced the tensile fabric components with the Fab X Frame™ system, which is made of 98-percent recycled aluminum. The fabric was inherently fire-retardant, 60-percent recycled polyester, and a water-soluble, dye-sublimation process was used for printing on the tensile fabric.

Lynn Keillor is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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