Fabric technology has taken designers from tents and art installations to a mainstream commercial business in hospitality and retail spaces.
With the advent of the turbulent 1960s, there was a departure from the hard-edged architecture of the 1950s to more organic and softer forms inspired by nature. Along with the nonporous pneumatic skins used in the work of Haus Rucker, Jean Aubert and Jean-Paul Jungmann, softer and more porous fabrics began to be used as interior partitions. At FTL, in addition to working on special events, we were also interested in using tensile fabrics for office applications, and in utilizing the lighting effect called “volumetric light” (illumination without a visible light source).
In 1985, we were commissioned by the Sunar Hauserman furniture manufacturer to develop a system of lighting that would replace office task lighting with a diffuse luminous environment. We did a study with lighting designer Peter Barna and found that we could eliminate the “veilant reflections” that create glare and use lower light levels to provide a warm, luminous space, minimizing eye strain. We used a calendered nylon fabric with PL fluorescent lights that had just been introduced to the market. In the years since, several workstation systems have emerged, but the lighted fabric panels are often treated more as reflective surfaces than luminous elements.
Another critical path in the development of tensile fabric interiors also started during the 1980s. Bill Moss, well known since the 1950s for his design of lightweight camping tents, introduced a stretch fabric display for trade shows and events. He started with the Moss indoor dome in 1988 as his trade booth for the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in Salt Lake City, Utah, and introduced new designs for trade show structures from 1989–93. Industry interest in collapsible shelters at tradeshows, inspired by open air market canopies, led to a standard line of 12 products and graphic signage. After 11 years as a brand, Moss Inc. developed into a sculptural branding company and continues today.
Moss’ assistants and collaborators at the time were the artists Cindy Thompson and Charles Duvall. Cindy eventually left to start her own firm, Transformit Inc., headquartered in Gorham, Maine, known worldwide for designing, fabricating and installing stretch fabric interior spaces, event structures and sculptures such as the Head First! Theater in Cleveland, Ohio.
Charles Duvall also started his own firm, Duvall Design Inc., based in Rockland, Maine, that designs, fabricates and installs interior and mesh outdoor structures. Some of the work includes shade elements, trade show interiors and even children’s amusements.
Through Bill Moss and these companies, a new industry for interior fabric environments was created in the United States. Other notable firms, such as Eventscape Inc. (Toronto, Ont., Canada) and Pink Inc. (now Pink Powered by Moss, New York, N.Y.), have since joined the roster to make it a multimillion dollar industry.
An example of Eventscape’s work is a 468 square meter, six-ringed atrium ceiling at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., that is sloped to match the curvature of the ceiling. The printable block-out textile is an ideal solution for this project because the rings appear solid, providing an even glow with a subtle gradient in the printed colors. The placement of the textile seams was specified by the designer.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the firm Architen began in England in the 1990s to develop soft interior spaces under the eye of Alex Heslop. When Architen merged with Landrell in 2001 to become Architen Landrell, the firm continued to develop interior environments, including many well-known interior spaces in Europe, such as the dining area in the renovated British Museum in London and the four quirky seminar pod spaces for the Institute of Cell and Molecular Science, Queen Mary, University of London, within an atrium court in Whitehall, London, England. The University of London spaces range from a delicate, fabric-wrapped oval spacecraft to one that looks like a spiky deep-sea creature dressed in black oil skin. The pods provide a series of meeting rooms for university staff and students.
Frei Otto, the 20th-century founder of the exterior tensile structure, developed his early designs in the 1960s with the circus tent manufacturer Peter Stromeyer of Konstanz, Germany. Stromeyer saw in Otto a new approach to tent design and developed many of the revolutionary early tensile structures of the ’60s for several German National Garden Shows. Stromeyer’s daughter, Gisela Stromeyer, worked for this author in New York in the ’90s. When she left FTL Design Engineering Studio, she opened her own studio to design and build soft interior spaces in both Germany and the U.S. Her work includes spaces such as the showroom in New York City, N.Y., for the American fashion designer Tahari and the Icognito Club in Zurich, Switzerland. Gisela’s design approach uses a point support system, rather than a perimeter framework, which gives the spaces a light scalloped quality.
It was not until the late 1990s that interior architects and designers accepted this fabric technology for stores and indoor commercial use. The latest development in the acceptance of fabrics in interiors is in the hotel and hospitality industry, where restaurants, clubs and hotels use stretch interior elements as just another construction element. Today more than 10 firms specialize in interior environments, from simple planar elements to extremely shaped volumetric spaces.
Recently, fabric art elements used to create 3-D forms have become so large that they change the definition of interior spaces. The most impressive type of installation is by the British artist Anish Kapoor. His “Marsyas” sculpture, constructed in 2003 at the Tate Modern art museum’s Turbine Hall in London, consists of three welded steel rings 150 meters apart, between which is suspended a taut PVC-coated membrane custom-dyed blood red. The woven polyester PVC fabric was custom patterned to take the unusual shape. The structure fills the entire hall (3,500 meters of fabric and 40 tons of steel), necks down and then opens up into a vertical space at the bridge element in the middle that spans the space. Kapoor states that he doesn’t “wish to make sculpture about form … I wish to make sculpture about belief, or about passion, about experience that is outside of material concern.” This large red sculpture creates an almost negative bridge focusing on spaces at the ends and middle, seemingly sucking them together—a truly remarkable piece.
A multitude of fabrics is available for architectural interiors. Stretch fabric is used whenever possible because it eliminates the need for perfectly patterned shapes and provides wrinkle-free surfaces. Stretch fabrics today are generally knitted polyester or nylon fibers. The first stretch fabric was manufactured by DuPont in 1959. Spandex, as it is called in North America (or elastane in Europe), is classified as an elastomeric fiber. An elastomer is a natural or synthetic polymer that, at room temperature, can be stretched and expanded to more than twice its original length; after removal of the tensile load it will immediately return to its original length. Along with spandex, rubber and anidex (no longer produced in the U.S.) are considered elastomeric fibers. The famous brand name known for spandex is Lycra® (originally produced by DuPont), also sometimes used as a generic name. Often spandex is mixed with nylon or cottons and can be knitted to make a four-way stretch fabric instead of a two-way stretch.
Most fabric can be flame-proofed, but best are the inherent flame-retardant fabrics such as Trapeze® from Dazian, which is 90 percent polyester and 10 percent spandex. There are seven different Trapeze fabrics, including a water-repellent version and a new Eco-Trapeze® fabric made from recycled post-industrial waste and postconsumer plastic bottles. It has a slight off-white look, unlike the bright white color of virgin polyester. In addition, there are stretch net fabrics, some with honeycombs and some designed specifically for projection surfaces.
Generally, interior fabrics need to be taken down and cleaned over time, and unless the fabric is inherently flame proof, the flame proofing wears off with each cleaning. Today, fabricators use zippers at seams so sections of the fabric can be taken apart in pieces, cleaned and reinstalled without major effort. Often clients are provided with two sets of fabric elements so they can rotate out the fabric elements without any downtime to the installation.
Design, fabrication and future
The design process is different for each designer, but in general, unlike large-scale outdoor structures that progress from a small physical model to a computer finite element formfinding program and then to computer patterning, interior fabric designers often work on a smaller scale and are able to construct mock-ups or first article demonstrations of their designs at their facilities. For this reason there is a strong craft quality to the design and implementation which is non-existent in large-scale exterior structures. Most interior design tensile structures are designed and fabricated at the same place, so there isn’t a separation between designer, engineer and installer as there is with outdoor structures. As a result, most designers of interior environments are first trained as designers and artists and then enter the industry, realizing a need for control over the manufacturing process.
At FTL Design Engineering Studio, the approach to the design process starts with sketch concepts, which are developed into small physical models. If the project calls for stretch material, the physical model goes to the fabricator to develop a prototype. If the project uses a nonstretch woven, the cutting patterns are created on the computer. The design process changes both as the scale of the project develops and as the material type changes.
In the 40 years of their existence, interior fabric structures have moved out of the realm of art installations into a mainstream commercial business model. Interior designers have accepted this technology as a unique way to create soft transparent and translucent organic spaces that would not be possible using other materials. These membrane structures will soon be seen as another type of fabric element for the interior designer, just as drapes and curtains are today. The tensile fabric interior will become as familiar as the four-posted, tented bed of the past, but its language will come to signify something modernist and futurist, rather than historical and traditional.