Digitally printed fabrics can take an office, hospitality or retail setting from average to astounding.
By Holly O’Dell
Printing on fabrics affords a new approach to traditional commercial interior design. White walls can become murals. Run-of-the-mill artwork can become custom pieces. Permanent messaging can rotate out with soft-sided alternatives.
“Fabrics are an easy way to create flexible, custom branding for spaces,” says Jill Ayers, creative director at design firm Design360 Inc. in New York, N.Y. “Now, custom curtains, wall coverings and banners can be designed for clients with specific needs. It also allows for one-off solutions rather than purchasing larger quantities to achieve a look.”
“Printed fabrics can deliver an upscale look to any environment,” adds Mike Richardson, director of sales/marketing-print media for Aurora Specialty Textiles Group in Aurora, Ill. “Depending on the décor and the atmosphere one wants to achieve, printed fabrics can be warm and inviting. The graphic can be customized to the target audience.”
What’s more, fabrics can help define interior spaces in an economical way, according to Lynn Krinsky of Stella Color in Seattle, Wash. They tend to be less permanent than weighty wallpapers or vinyls that require installers, she notes. In fact, fabric installations can be changed out easily. These can range from something as simple as a hanging banner to frames where a rubber gasket is sewn in the corners and fabric is placed within, serving as a work of art.
Printed fabrics also convey a light, airy feeling. “A heavy canvas print or wallpaper might be perfect for certain situations, but fabric is more sexy,” Krinsky adds. “It’s formable. It’s soft.”
In many commercial settings, signage remains one of the most popular printed fabric applications. “Fabrics in the commercial segment add a softer side to signage,” says Jaime Giannantonio Sherman, marketing manager for Ultraflex Systems Inc. in Randolph, N.J. “For hospitals, they have a more comforting aesthetic; for offices, a higher-end professional quality; and for schools, they offer a whimsical appearance and a PVC-free, phthalate-free alternative.”
Above all, digital graphics can make a strong—and original—statement. “Most of the time, we’re not creating a low-key or bland backdrop, but a focal point for a room,” says Pat Walker, managing director of Cleveland, Ohio-based 4walls, a designer and manufacturer of digitally printed wall coverings.
The applications for digital graphics in commercial applications are seemingly endless. For instance, 4walls’ work has appeared in numerous commercial settings, including hotel headboard walls, ballrooms, corporate boardrooms, athletic facilities, convenience stores and other retail spaces. Projects even are making their way onto ceilings. The Ohio Historical Society contracted 4walls to create reproductions of 100-year-old wallpapers in the restoration of the Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton. Seven of the 21 new Victorian designs produced by 4walls were used on the ceilings.
Get the job done right
Customers often have exacting requirements for their printed fabric application in a commercial indoor environment. “This is a print-on-demand industry, and as a result, the market expects product to be available on demand, ready to ship same or next day,” Richardson says. “The price must be competitive and material must be first-quality and defect-free.”
Whether their client is an ad agency, graphic designer or end user, print service providers (PSPs) must ensure they’re using the most appropriate fabric for the job. “As the printer, it is important to first be confident that the material is compatible with your printer and ink specs,” says Sherman. “Then, developing a full knowledge of the application in which the product will be used is imperative. Once you know the scope of the project, that will help you narrow down what type of material to select.”
To make that determination, Sherman suggests that printers find out the primary function of the end product. “For example, a front-lit media is not the same as a blockout media and therefore should not be used in a blockout application and vice versa,” she notes. “It would be wasteful and costly to use a blockout media for a simple front-lit banner.” For indoor use, sunlight exposure is another consideration of substrate selection.
In addition, Aurora’s Richardson recommends that printers find out how long the graphic will be in use and whether it will be stored for later reuse. “By understanding the application, the expectations and the print technology, one can direct the consumer to the best option,” he notes.
Good or bad, end users list cost among their expectations. Although everyone wants to get maximum bang for their buck, price (ideally) shouldn’t be the driving factor. “When it comes to digitally printable fabrics, low price is not as important as with commodity PVC sign vinyl,” Sherman says. “Quality, consistency and material performance are highly important.”
Depending upon the end use, maintenance is another important topic to address with customers. “We first discuss their current maintenance plan and how their future plan with the new design may differ,” says Ayers, noting that school and healthcare clients consider maintenance incredibly important in their digital fabric products. “Some clients may want the solution to be permanent, and some may want a more flexible solution that allows them to update the look of the graphics over time.” Design360’s customers also count UV-safe fabrics and materials that take wear as important factors in a project.
For its part, 4walls has found that being a full-service shop is integral to satisfying the customer’s needs. “We’ve learned—sometimes the hard way—that we have to get it right, each step, start to finish,” says Walker, “which is why we prefer to control the entire process, so we can ensure that our customers get the attention to detail their projects deserve. We have such strong creative and technical teams, and thorough knowledge of materials, inks, coatings and adhesives that if we are able to sufficiently educate our customers to our process and ways of working most efficiently together, we are very skilled at protecting the quality of the end product.”
Opportunities for growth
Thanks to the diversity offered by digitally printed fabrics, along with continued enhancements to materials and inks, the industry should continue to see new prospects for commercial interiors. Says Ayers: “As the ink quality and longevity improves, printed fabrics may be used successfully for upholstery, pillows, curtains, etc. where wearability and cleanliness is crucial.”
Relationship building can lead to new opportunities in the commercial market as well. “4walls has had great success over our 14-year history in strategic partnerships with other like-minded firms with whom we have together seized emerging opportunities,” Walker notes. “We are always on the lookout for potential new partners with complementary resources and capabilities.”
Stella Color also sees big growth opportunities with the architectural and design community, but they need more information about what printed fabrics can do for them. The print service provider works frequently with graphic designers, but when it comes to interior designers, Krinsky notices a gap. “Many of them pick [material selections] out of catalogs and books, but when you tell them they can have something custom, they don’t know what that means,” she says.
That’s where education comes in. Although it can be difficult to get on the radar of architects and interior designers, “more and more of them are getting excited to hear about the possibilities with printed fabric,” Krinsky says. “It is not a saturated market. We are always able to find plenty of them who don’t know what we are talking about, and then that is an opportunity, of course.”