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Fabric graphics enhance exhibits

Feature, Graphics | May 1, 2011 | By:

Fabric graphics displays define spaces and offer opportunities.

Trade show booths. Retail displays. Stage backdrops. What do they have in common? Visual communication. With only seconds to get noticed, strong visuals are key to drawing people into your trade show booth, your retail store or your story. Graphic displays reshape a space to create another world. For manufacturers, it’s a world of opportunity.

Advances in digital graphics on textiles are increasing application opportunities within the temporary exhibit market. “Use of printed fabric in exhibits has exploded, driven by steady improvement in print quality, falling prices and the happy circumstance that economics and environmental responsibility are, for once, on the same side of the equation,” says Matt Rawdon, vice president of marketing for Transformit, Gorham, Maine.

Design on a dime

“The majority of what we do within the temporary exhibit market is trade show exhibits,” says Jim Knoche, exhibit component sales manager for Lawrence Fabric Structures Inc., St. Louis, Mo. “But we’re seeing some growth in retail, stage sets and stadium and building wraps.” Although trade show exhibits are the bread and butter of this market segment, the number of trade shows is down from previous years, which affects the approach fabricators take to projects. “People are not generally building huge structures for booths anymore,” says Elaine Allen-Milne, marketing and communications director for Eventscape, Toronto, Canada. “Many companies have scaled back and are looking for ways to be more economical.” The good news is that fabric is often a part of that equation. “You can still have a great impact with the color and vibrancy of digitally printed fabric, and it’s cost effective. When you have a fabric structure with a frame that breaks down, you can ship small and save money,” she says.

Jack Rumpel, graphics specialist for the Minnesota History Center, St. Paul, Minn., looks for opportunities to use digitally printed fabric for the history center’s displays because he feels fabric graphics help communicate the tone of an exhibit to its visitors. “The ability to form fabrics to an armature provides for using fabric in constructing dimensional elements and takes advantage of an unlimited range of surface imagery,” he says. “And because maintenance is always an issue for a long-term exhibit, being able to easily redo a graphic after a few years is a plus.”

To extend the life of a display and save money, clients often choose to re-cover their frame system to create a different look or to change their branding. “A couple of years ago we did a trade show booth for the Association of Retail Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO),” Allen-Milne says. “They used it again and again, but last year they rebranded. They had to have a new logo with new colors and we were able to replace the skin, giving their booth a new look with very little cost involved.”

Changes in framing systems expand the looks that can be achieved by incorporating the frame into the design, as opposed to hiding it. “Previously, clients didn’t want to see the extrusion and you would Velcro® or zip the fabric on,” Knoche says. “Now you can have a gasket on the outside of the frame and you just press the fabric into the extrusion.”

The right fabric

Choosing the proper fabric for the application varies depending on the client’s needs. “Although we work in 26 standard fabrics and many more specialty fabrics, our recommendations are usually few, based on requirements, longevity, cleaning, installation, lighting, etc.,” Rawdon says. “Stretch fabric is popular because it’s very forgiving and holds its shape well,” Allen-Milne says. The drawback to stretch fabric is that it can increase the setup time in order to get the desired results. “When we print stretch fabric, we un-stretch the graphic in the computer to compensate for the fabric’s stretch so in the end it looks right,” Rawdon says. “We call it ‘squizzing.’ It requires extra work and a good knowledge of the fabric.”

Poplins are effective because they provide good color clarity. Backlits make it possible to achieve a more vibrant image. Improvements in backlit fabric make it a better choice than ever, according to Allen-Milne. “In the past, there would always be hot spots on the backlit fabrics,” she says. “With the new fabrics, you can print a beautiful image with no hot spots.

“Some backlits have a yellow tinge to them,” Allen-Milne says. “Others require a more complex template because of the technical properties of the yarns. Utilizing 3-D technology and experienced craftsmen, it is possible to create amazing organic shapes with hundreds of different materials. A good fabricator will work closely with the client to determine the best material to use for their particular project, but it is critical to choose the proper light fixture based on the size and scale of the element.”

Mix and match

Often, especially for retail, events and stage sets, clients like the idea of using more than one type of fabric for a single project to achieve a variety of aesthetics. Eventspace used three different fabrics—stretch, poplin and backlit fabric—for a temporary installation it did for the Hudson Bay Company’s (HBC) Olympic Store in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. HBC, one of the premier sponsors of the Winter Olympic Games, wanted the store design to brand the company’s close connection to the Olympics. During the Games, events were projected onto screens that were inset onto a custom-printed cash wrap canopy.

The combination of printed and unprinted fabric, along with lighting and projection, helps create a dynamic branded experience. “Lighting technology is changing and increasing in use because of LEDs, which in some ways is limiting printing,” Knoche says. “What we’ll often see is the use of printed fabric with an unprinted panel inserted for use with lighting.” Lawrence Fabric Structures recently fabricated a stage set for the Oprah Winfrey Show, designed by GES (Global Experience Specialists), using combinations of printed and unprinted fabric and lighting. “We used printed panels on the back part of the stage with white wave-like walls on the sides,” he says. “The walls were filled with lighting and gobos that projected a message.”

It’s a custom world

“This is a client-driven business,” Knoche says. “A client comes in and maybe saw something that they think would look cool in their booth or exhibit or they’ve dreamed something up. Then we decide whether or not we can actually do it or need help doing it—or tell the client they’re crazy. But you’ve got to start by asking the right questions.” Those questions to the client include: What is your goal? Is it functionality or cosmetic? What’s your time frame? How long are you going to keep the piece up? Is it interior or exterior?

For fabricators who offer custom products as a matter of course, they usually find a way to make the client’s vision a reality, with a few adjustments. “We did a job where the client wanted removable walls in an event space,” Knoche says. “The client envisioned that they would slide open and closed and lock in place. We created panels that were, for all intents and purposes, garage doors moving up and down. It was an example of the client wanting something specific, and we offered a different solution, which they liked.”

Giving the client the opportunity to see and feel the fabric options helps the decision process. “We send fabric and print samples stretched on rings so that clients can see the material as it will look in use,” Rawdon says. Stretching the sample over a ring helps the client imagine how it will perform when it’s installed on a larger frame. Images from past installations are helpful as well. “We send examples and images of past projects and say, ‘This is what can be achieved using this fabric, or you can get a completely different look with another textile choice’,” Allen-Milne says.

In the realm of custom fabric graphics displays, there is no such thing as a typical project. But that’s the beauty of taking an empty space and transforming it to brand a client’s business or create a mood. The opportunities are endless.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance writer and associate editor of InTents, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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