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Style and substance

Feature, Markets | September 1, 2014 | By:

Commercial interiors are sliced, diced and branded, making a statement through creative use of fabrics.

For those who design and implement specialty fabrics solutions for commercial interiors—office, retail, hospitality and institutional environments—their creative impetus is gaining traction as architects and their clients begin to appreciate (and request) the advantages of fabric. And one leading advantage is the one the U.S. economy has fervently fostered in the aftermath of the recession: Do more with less.

In configuring a commercial building’s interior, for a new structure or a repurposed one, why truck in bulky, expensive and messy lumber, plaster, or that unsightly visual villain, particle board, to suit up working spaces? Whether it’s privacy, acoustics, beauty, marketing moxie or harnessing savings in heating and cooling, specialty fabrics are the “new black.” Lightweight, adaptable and attractive, in the form of banners, panels, curtains, shades, sculptures, wallpaper or wall dividers, fabric works to make interior spaces more user-friendly and adaptable. It’s quick and easy to delineate spaces, design them in a forward, attention-grabbing manner, and change them out whenever the occasion (or the architect) dictates.

Delivering “wow”

Jim Miller, president of J. Miller Canvas Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif.—specializing in awnings and ceiling treatments since 1978—embraces the challenge of delivering the “wow” his clients crave. “We do commercial work for offices, restaurants, hotels, university classrooms—not limited by size or scope. We use fabric to create ceiling treatments in unique office and retail spaces—whatever wild ideas an architect can think of. We also help with the design quite a bit.”

His current project for Hyundai Atlanta utilizes 2,425 fabric cones for a ceiling designed with a wave pattern via a computer program that created a specific size and shape for each cone. “The client came in with a very specific concept, very cool-looking, designed to a T. And they ended up thrilled to death,” Miller says. The fabric employed was “very different: ripstop nylon, weighing in at only 1.9 ounces a square yard. It has an ‘alive’ feel to it—not static, like stiff vinyl; it ripples in the air. We had to have the fabric custom-made to meet fire codes rather than use a concept off the shelf.”

For its Santa Monica, Calif. store, Bloomingdale’s tasked Miller with creating changing room pods—in themselves pretty cool, says Miller, “but they also wanted to use the room for parties and fashion shows. So we designed them to recess into lanterns in the ceiling. We used spandex fabric with its stretchy, sexy feel—something you can’t use outdoors—pure white on white powder-coated aluminum frames.”

In another unusual project for Virginia Commonwealth University, Miller was charged with taking “a very large room in a 200-year-old building with no columns” where the client wanted access, but also the ability to section that vast space off into classrooms. “We designed wall panels that would collapse into the ceiling with a motor, pulley and cables—something white and washable, mesh-lined with perforations. Also, large, box-type lights covered in foam, then wrapped in a cool fabric—Marimekko, with its iconic bold design.”

Muffling sounds in an office space requires something entirely different. “For a Chicago show, we built a room within a room—mesh fabric but with structure to it; you could see through it, although there were no holes. It had to be shipped from Europe, they needed it in Chicago, yet it was built in California—tricky,” he says, “but thanks to computers, it worked well. It was all cut by computer, which handles 3-D shapes.

“Cleanability is an important issue if people can touch the fabric. Then it’s a big thing,” Miller adds. The ability to custom print the fabric creations adds even more appeal. “For instance, we cut holes in patterns into the fabric to create a light box and inside it, printed it with palm trees. Outside, you see patterns. We do it all ourselves unless it’s really large, which is itself really a specialty. Those machines are very expensive, so we send the large ones out.”

And who drives the branding opportunities? “We teach the client, or they come to us with the idea—a little of both,” Miller says. “Generally the architect has a clear vision, but we also are there to make them aware. When we sit down with clients, we show them our portfolio of projects completed. Then,” he says, laughing, “it’s easy. We help architects along with fabrics, but they already have plenty of access to information via the Web and they learn very quickly. New concepts are coming to light all the time.”

Who’s buying? “Most of the dot.coms like trendy treatments. We did a project for Google’s headquarters in San Jose, right as they were going public, so they wanted phenomenal office space.”

“I’d love to do more ceiling projects with fabric,” Miller says. “But anything more high tech? It’s not here yet. It’s all customer-driven. Architects bring in their projects, which they’ve already sold to the client, so we just have to figure it out, rather than spend our time and money on marketing and selling.”

Quick change artists

Fabrics are an ideal solution in retail and restaurant design, says Jim Smart, principal of Smart Associates of Minneapolis, Minn. Advantages include “cleanability, durability and low cost—a very economical way to make a very strong statement. And they’re easy to replace. A client will wonder, ‘What if [this design] is too bold a statement?’ ‘Fine,’ I’ll tell him, ‘then we can change it. It’s easy.’”

For Minneapolis’ The Kenwood restaurant, Smart affixed all-wool fabric to the walls. “I knew I wanted plaid, so I put out a call to all our fabric reps. Usually I’d ship it to a mill for a paper backing when hanging it on a wall, but it turned out I liked it best without that; otherwise the effect would be too perfect, no tiny waves or such effects.”

When designing Kikugawa, a Japanese restaurant, “I had a graphic artist do their logo, which we used on booth backings and drapery. But when designing Scandia Downs, a retail store in the Galleria shopping center, I upholstered the whole storefront as a quilt, using ripstop fabric. And for Dayton’s Home Store, we tented model rooms with shirred edges for walls.” (They perforated the fabric for sprinklers on the walls, he adds.)

“Fabric can cover a multitude of sins,” Smart says. “For a restaurant in New York City, we needed to create symmetry for a space that had a couple of columns in the middle of the room. So we covered those columns with fabric, using a Hula Hoop®-type top and bottom, then created other similar [non-existing] ‘columns’ to achieve a feel of symmetry.” For another restaurant he was confronted with the glass-walled wine cellar of a former tenant smack in the middle of the room. “We took out two of its walls and covered the others in fabric printed in an Andy Warhol style, with light coming from behind.”

A transformable environment

According to Jill Ayers, president of Design360 Inc. of New York City, “Right now, the hot idea on the market is the concept of a transformable environment. Use of repurposed buildings is huge. Clients in the tech world’s start-up companies are growing so quickly, and they need their environment fast. A designer has to react faster!”

And she does, most recently by providing banners for a large-scale Brooklyn development project called Industry City—“a dozen old buildings repurposed for a food hall and artists’ spaces,” she explains. “We were hired to establish a branding language—large-scale banners above every entrance, which made working with a choice of fabric incredibly important: soft, ethereal material that drapes itself and thus offers a strong contrast to the stark architecture. Each banner used a different feeling, but to unify the building each employed the same graphics, and that became the beginning of branding inside.”

Fabric’s flexibility was key. “You can change fabric out, so it can be temporary, and then replace it. Plus it offers a more organic feel, not rigid—a softening, inviting look that acts as a divider that pulls like a shower curtain and can have graphics on both sides.”

Does price enter the discussion? “Our clients seem to decide more on the look, like allowing banners placed perpendicularly to the wall, which can create volume, a three-dimensional structure, which wallpaper cannot do.”

Those same clients value the latest in technology, too. “What I’ve seen is very slim-line LED cabinets that take the place of a box system clipping in a large piece of acetate. Instead, with a one-inch cabinet, you can stretch the material across the front instead of acetate or acrylic; it can be changed out quickly and it’s lightweight. You can also change the lighting behind it to create different moods.”

Custom graphics add branding opportunities. “Some clients are aware of that potential and are far more educated, have done it before, know what they’re looking for. Then we guide them through the project, coming up with solutions. Others need a little push. For instance, if they have a concept, we can help expand it: If their eyes are half-open, we open them all the way. Then we look for a fabricator partner who can execute the concept.”

If wishes were fabrics, Ayers would snap her fingers and voila!—a smart fabric that could control UVA rays. “It would be cool to have mood-changing fabrics, too. Maybe when it rains, it changes color. I’m also dreaming of fabrics with a scent. Sensory solutions are on the rise, especially in hotels,” she notes.

A sensory experience

For Marco Alvarez, president of Elgin, Illinois-based Fabric Images Inc., the wish is that clients would “get” it. “The challenge lies in getting them to think of fabric in different ways, not stuck in the past, but create new and different things: to design, using textiles. Fear of exploring keeps people back,” he says. “My challenge to them is: don’t be afraid. Don’t lose your imagination.”

Clients come in with their ideas “70 to 80 percent thought out. We value-engineer them and suggest the best-suited materials. During each phase of the design, they ask us to collaborate.” That’s the time to push the limits. “Lots of times, they look at fabric as simply draperies. We expose them to ways to address their brand, help enhance it, and not just visually—with a fabric’s texture, color and pattern. These add another flavor, a sensory experience.” (His office boasts a fur wall.) “Instead, they’re worried that it’ll get dirty. That’s a non-issue if designed correctly, like keeping drapery off the floor.”

Branding, says Alvarez, can effectively extend a company’s message by applying it to its interior spaces. “If they sell a natural product, then perhaps burlap, cotton with a natural feel, linen with varied textures, [or] using natural colors like white, cream and tan.”

The look is not set in stone (or wood or plaster). “In today’s fast-paced world, fabric presents the opportunity to change, and it doesn’t cost a lot. Here at headquarters we have a touch wall we change once a quarter, to seasonalize it.”

Today’s trend, says Alvarez, is brands’ blurring lines of traditional products, like Ralph Lauren adding paint and flooring. “That’s happening in many markets—the blurring of events, trade shows, retail and corporate environments; they’re starting to use pages out of each others’ books.” Architects want quick deployment ability of what’s in a trade, and those in trade want the structural detail of the architects’ side—a big blurring to give the end customer what he wants: quick deployability and something that changes out quickly. “We have an ADD [attention deficit disorder] society,” Alvarez says. “We want change, and we want it yesterday. Our clients want an interior to change out rapidly so they’re not bored with their environment.”

Pushing the boundaries

True Textiles Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., manufactures proprietary contract fabrics for use as cubicle/privacy curtains, panels, acoustic and wall-covering fabrics, utilized in health care, education, churches, acoustic management and hospitality environments, among others. Its in-house design teams first listen to clients’ needs, then push the design, aesthetic and construction boundaries, “walking that fine line between technical skill and design finesse,” says marketing director Gregg VanderKooi.

Serving those clients while remaining competitive can be tricky. “Our greatest challenge has been low-cost, offshore fabrics entering the marketplace. But,” he notes, “those short-term cost savings eventually give way to vast amounts of hidden costs and quality issues. Now, as the majority of our customers have come to regain their focus on U.S. suppliers, our current hurdle is keeping up with their product development requests.”

Leading those requests these days is acoustic management, especially in what VanderKooi calls the “infamous cubicle farm. As employees complain about lack of privacy and constant noise disruption, we’re seeing a shift back to softer materials and products that help control the overall acoustics in these environments. The health care market is also greatly impacted by acoustic management, because this is one of the attributes on which patients grade their level of satisfaction.”

Satisfaction: the ultimate bottom line for customers. For commercial interiors with style, fabric’s versatility and economy lead the way—with a little education for architects and designers.

Carla Waldemar is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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