Corporate environments draw upon printed fabrics for aesthetics, function, branding—and sustainability.
By Janice Kleinschmidt
Office employees need a degree of privacy, a place to display family photos or a bobblehead-doll collection, and a barrier to gymnasium-like acoustics. But the isolation of contained rooms forestalls collaboration.
An employee of the Herman Miller office furnishings company, Robert Propst, offered a solution in 1968 when he introduced the cubicle. Less than five years ago, Corbin Design enhanced Propst’s concept at the Herman Miller MarketPlace in Zeeland, Mich.
“The idea behind the MarketPlace was a very flexible, light-footprint environment where groups could co-locate, collaborate and occupy space that was identifiable,” says Mark VanderKlipp, president of Corbin Design, a wayfinding consulting firm in Traverse City, Mich.
Herman Miller leased a building across the street from its headquarters to serve as workspace for 24 distinct groups of employees and sought Corbin’s expertise on identifying where individuals could be found. Corbin suggested digitally printed graphics on the furniture to serve as landmarks throughout the space.
“We connected with photographers far and wide,” VanderKlipp says, creating visual “neighborhoods” based on identifiable marketplaces throughout the world, such as Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, The Left Bank in Paris, a Turkish bazaar, and Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Large-scale photographs printed on fabric scrims marked areas within the marketplace.
“As an employee, I could say my workstation is in Pike Place Market,” VanderKlipp explains. Locations were shown on an intranet module that could be accessed by outside visitors on a kiosk.
“This was supposed to be a workspace for Herman Miller people, but it turned into their No. 1 customer visit center because everyone was so excited about the flexibility and openness of the space, and visually it was extremely lively,” VanderKlipp says. “The concept became a way for Herman Miller to say, ‘This is a new means of working supported by our furniture system, which incorporates custom, flexible, printed scrims.’”
In the zone
Last December, Fabric Images Inc. moved into new corporate digs in Elgin, Ill., that incorporates into the architecture the very product it sells: printed fabric tension structures.
“We wanted to create a very open environment,” says Gordon Hill, the executive vice president tasked with designing the 200,000-square-foot space. “We were looking for efficiency. We have different zones—work zones, interactive zones for brainstorming sessions, relaxation zones, and customer zones—to create efficient and nurturing cooperation and collaboration. We’re taking textiles and working them into the architecture of the space.”
Upholstery fabric offers aesthetic and acoustic benefits to “modesty panels” designating various departments, while chenille lends a “tactile, warm feeling” to higher walls, Hill says. Canopies made from mesh (to avoid blocking the sprinkler system) mark interactive areas and lend intimacy to work areas under 14- to 16-foot ceilings.
“The beauty of fabric is it’s extremely lightweight,” says Marco Alvarez, president and CEO of Fabric Images. “It adds texture and slightly different dimensions than a rigid substrate can offer. And from an acoustic perspective, it becomes functional as well as aesthetic.”
The concept spills over to interchangeable “touch walls” that allow customers (as well as employees) to experience firsthand the different types of textiles that Fabric Images offers. And the use of fabrics throughout establishes a corporate culture.
“We wanted a space that communicates our brand, which is open, passionate and warm,” Alvarez says. “Our goal, our dream, was to be able to create that with textiles.”
A 17-by-20-foot wall (viewable from the street) covered in red polyester with a Nano-Tex coating bearing the company logo in the corner draws attention to the building. Next to that wall is a graphic image of one of Fabric Images’ projects on a 10-by-20-foot wall. But the real “experience” begins as people walk through the space.
“Our intention with this space is to use it as a case study to show people all the options they have using textiles,” Alvarez says. “Our target audience is architects, designers and interior designers, and office furniture companies that design spaces for their customers. From an aesthetic perspective, you can change an environment from year to year with fabrics.”
Fabric Images used the printed-fabric-as-identifier concept to create a brainstorming area at Best Buy’s headquarters in Minneapolis.
“They needed to create a very relaxing type of environment, but it needed to be very functional,” Alvarez says. The project included identifying canopies, corkboard-fronted materials for utility, fabric for sound-deadening, and a wall with a waterfall graphic to lend a calming effect—printed with a combination of aqueous and solvent inks on 100-percent polyester knit.
Fabric Images is working with architecture and design students at Pratt Institute to develop a New York showroom to test the quick-time interchangeability of space. It’s an idea whose time has come, say those in the design business.
“Our most popular product in corporate environments is Moss Groove,” says Jana McQuilkin, marketing manager for Moss Inc. “The aluminum extrusion frame stays in place, and fabric graphics can be changed out without having to take the frame apart.”
Moss typically provides tensioned-fabric structures for trade shows and retail space. But when the economy soured and retailers laid low, the Chicago-based company focused more of its sales energy on interior design and architectural firms. Using Roland and VUTEk inkjet printers with water-based ink and stretch fabrics with a matte surface (to prevent glare from reflecting light), Moss provides corporate clients with options to not only present a welcoming atmosphere, but also to “brand” their offices.
Making an impression
Branded environments are what the Gensler architectural firm in Chicago calls “Storytelling in Space.”
“We help our clients express who they are and what they do,” says Deborah Beckett, design director for graphics. “A big opportunity for doing this is on walls in the workspace or retail space. We have used large-format printing on fabrics and papers to make custom wall coverings with graphics that tell these stories.”
For the Chicago-based Wrigley company, Gensler used printed canvas for wall coverings to “designate where collaboration happens,” Beckett says. “Bright colors and shapes tell the story of Wrigley’s global presence by using multiple languages in the pattern on the wall.
“There was a lab in the building where people came up with new products,” she continues. “They wanted their people to be inspired.”
When Bacardi wanted to “do something special” to a curved passageway in its Miami offices, Gensler applied Photoshop effects to a photograph of a sugar-cane field (a reference to Bacardi’s rum production) to resemble a painting, printed it on slightly textured Jetex fabric, and mirrored it for both sides of the passageway. A blank wall at the end of the passageway features a similarly treated image of Bacardi’s “Cathedral of Rum” in Puerto Rico.
“The employees use the passageway as a landmark: ‘Let’s meet at the sugar cane field,’” Beckett says. “Anytime we can design an element specific to the client, the better it is. We often design custom patterns on fabrics that have meaning to our clients and their customers.”
Like Fabric Images, Gensler turned its ideas on itself at its office in a building designed by Louis Sullivan at the turn of the 20th century.
“We wanted to tell stories in our new space connecting us to the incredible legacy of architecture in Chicago,” Beckett says. “So throughout, we designed elements that refer to it. One in particular uses a large-format photo we had taken of the ornamental stairs that Sullivan designed.” The stairs exist but have deteriorated beyond use. “Most people viewing the photo will never see the actual thing,” Beckett notes. “We display the photo on printed fabric that has been laminated onto a substrate that makes a rolling gate to close off our workspace during off hours.”
“We love working with Gensler, because they usually think outside of the box,” says Peter Smith, account executive at Digital Imaging Resources, a large-format graphics printer in Chicago. “We put these unique jobs in our portfolio; and when we work with other clients, it helps them realize our capabilities.” He also notes that working with high-profile architects benefits his own firm’s reputation.
Digital Imaging Resources printed the Gensler staircase and Bacardi graphics on DreamScape matte canvas using a Durst Rho inkjet printer and non-VOC-emitting ink. According to Smith, the company has been involved in the architecture and design community throughout its 15-year history. “Our technology has changed based on the demand of our clients,” he says. What can be printed, he adds, “depends on what the customer is looking for, what they’re trying to create with their environment. The sky is the limit.”