Fabric graphics projects enhance public spaces thanks to their aesthetic, acoustic and eco-friendly properties.
When 114 million viewers tuned in to watch Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, 2015, they partook in a visual feast of fast-moving plays, dazzling electronic displays and big-screen graphics.
TV viewers and fans in attendance at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., may not have registered the silent supporting star of the event: fabric. Massive dye-sublimated graphics and striking scoreboard signage populated the interior. Outside, more than five miles of custom-printed fence mesh surrounded the venue.
Fabrics weren’t relegated solely to the stadium, however. In the two weeks leading up to America’s biggest sporting event (with the exception of a few pieces done beforehand), large-format signage company bluemedia in Tempe, Ariz., collaborated with marketing partner GMR to produce the entire decor package for Super Bowl XLIX. That meant approximately 1,000,000 square feet of printed fabric collateral transforming the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Projects included signage and eight vinyl building wraps that linked a three-city-block “fan campus” in downtown Phoenix, as well as various fabric graphics appearing in the airport, hotels, practice facilities, Media Day and the NFL Experience event for fans, among many other applications.
The Super Bowl project illustrates the impact of fabric graphics in public spaces, but even the subtlest specialty fabric installation can contribute to a more pleasant, functional and healthier urban environment.
Making a Statement
Fabric graphics applications come in many forms and enhance commercial and public spaces in a variety of ways. Their uses include way-finding, branding and advertising, point-of-purchase (POP) retail, and sometimes simply decorative appeal.
These applications in public spaces often serve more than one purpose. PhotoWorksGroup Inc. of Charlottesville, Va., produced a 14-foot-by-8-foot multipanel piece for a bank lobby that showcased a composite image created by the bank’s staff.
PhotoWorksGroup printed the graphics on poplin because of its acoustical transparency, “which means that the sound flows through it with very little reflected into the fiberglass sound-absorbing panel behind it,” explains Geoffrey Kilmer, president of PhotoWorksGroup. “Not only were we able to brand the lobby, but [we could] quiet it down in the process.”
In fact, sound absorption is one of fabric’s more desirable characteristics in public places that need to abate noise, such as museums and restaurants. PhotoWorksGroup is responding to this need in the market by modifying the aluminum extrusion frame it uses for silicone edge graphics (SEG) to accept a concealed sound panel inside.
“You have the advantage of a silicone edge graphic that can easily be changed out, but it has the sound nullification in it as well,” Kilmer says.
Dye-sublimated fabric graphics also present healthier viewing. “If there’s a gloss or semigloss mural on vinyl opposite a window, you may catch a glare that makes the image hard to look at,” Kilmer adds.
Museums are also recognizing the softer side of fabrics. “Three years ago the amount of fabric used in exhibits was negligible, consisting primarily of banners,” says Susan Bradshaw, sales manager for the Orlando, Fla., location of the Olympus Group, which mainly focuses on the exhibit industry. “In the past two years murals and other exhibit graphics have changed from digitally printed substrates and photographic murals to printed fabric. Most exhibits are now a combination of rigid substrates and fabric.”
In 2014 and 2015, Olympus Group produced two projects for the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration. The exhibits, designed by Stacey Sather of SGS Design and Art LLC, based in St. Augustine, focused on the history of Florida’s oldest city. One addressed the civil rights movement and African-American history in St. Augustine, while the signature exhibit, “Tapestry: The Cultural Threads of First America,” traces the multicultural story of the city’s founding cultures.
In this pair of exhibits, dye-sublimation printed fabrics contributed to a healthier, more pleasant public environment by educating visitors in a strong but silent format. The projects comprised pillowcased graphics installed over existing mila-wall® and structures built specifically for the exhibits. The structures include both monoliths and a large cylinder, while flat panels are wrapped to the back and secured with Velcro®.
Large-scale graphics, such as building wraps, dress up the urban landscape while often serving as a brand-awareness tool. “We’ve covered over some very dated hotels over the years,” says Jennifer Grant, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Elite Media Inc. in Las Vegas, Nev. “It’s almost like we gave them a fresh coat of paint.”
It’s difficult to stand out in visually busy urban environments like Las Vegas, but Elite Media did just that for BMW during CES 2015, the world’s largest consumer electronics show attended by 170,000 industry professionals. A multicomponent building wrap transformed the facade of the Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel.
Although they make a stunning statement for passersby, companies that produce building wraps and murals must take a comprehensive approach in creating a more pleasant urban environment. For the BMW job, Elite Media used a variety of fabrics “based on several factors such as visibility through windows for hotel guests, wind gusts through the parking structure and the facade of the south wall, so as not to damage the building,” Grant says.
The graphic used on the massive wall of the hotel started with 3M pressure-sensitive vinyl (PSV) to cover the hotel in a “backer” and create a solid color canvas. “Then we overlay the printed BMW ad over the top of the backer, and that is printed on Clear Focus perforated window film,” Grant explains. The PSV also was used for the south wall, while Clear Focus covered the front curved glass of the hotel. Mesh was the fabric of choice for the parking structure.
Meanwhile, in New York City, Apple Visual Graphics, Long Island City, N.Y., helped soften the urban clutter through projects such as a large-format backdrop for an event at Grand Central Terminal, as well as feather banner stands at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Ricky’s NYC Beauty Stores.
“Fabric printing tends to be durable and can be reused,” says Sabrina Ramos, account executive for Apple Visual Graphics. “Depending on the material and printing process and inks used, they can be a good investment for small businesses looking to advertise their brand.”
Fabrics also have eco-friendly properties. Options for recycled polyester fabrics are growing, while eco-solvent dye sublimation inks emit fewer VOCs. What’s more, many printed fabrics get recycled rather than head to the landfill at the end of their life, further contributing to a healthier urban environment. After each Super Bowl, the NFL recycles and repurposes all fabric used at the event. For its part, Elite Media donates used mesh postjob to a charity that repurposes it for shade structures.
Although large graphics projects continue to serve a variety of needs in urban environments, fabrics don’t have to be printed to make a positive impact. “Last year, a construction company asked us to help clean up the appearance of a parking garage facade,” says Dave Bess, operations manager for Lawrence Fabric & Metal Structures Inc. in St. Louis, Mo. “We used a vinyl mesh fabric to hide a rough-looking area and make it more pleasing to the eye.”
Bess notes that Lawrence is receiving more requests for roof screens, also made of vinyl mesh. “This is driven by the municipalities saying that certain areas can’t have their air conditioners exposed,” he says. “They want the aesthetic of the building to be more crisp and clean.”
There are a lot of air conditioning units on a lot of buildings in cities across the country. There are, undoubtedly, similar opportunities (that may or may not involve graphics) in urban settings. Fabricators open to providing practical fabric solutions for these new sensibilities could see a solid niche market for the services they provide.
Fabrics can transform nearly any commercial or public environment, but certain markets are poised for growth. According to Kilmer, airport advertisers are turning to SEG not only for the vibrant dye sublimation printing but also its user-friendliness, particularly because ads turn over quarterly or semiannually.
“In the past, the large murals used in airports were typically printed on vinyl and applied directly to the wall,” Kilmer says. That process required specialists to install them; removal was equally labor-intensive and sometimes involved refinishing the wall.
Kilmer also reports growing opportunities in college sports. “Athletic departments are spending significant money on branding their space and showing their history and depth of their programs to prospective athletes through graphics,” he says. “If you are outfitting a new stadium or large sports facility, it typically involves a significant amount of graphics. And those projects can be lucrative if you price them right.”
Once customers see the influence of fabrics in urban environments, they’re likely to do repeat business. Lawrence, for one, has produced fabric graphic applications for the St. Louis Science Center for 30 years. The fabricator recently printed four large replacement banners with new artwork to serve as an architectural element for the building.
Whether they are used to decorate a building exterior or blend aesthetic and acoustic characteristics in a museum, specialty fabrics deliver a pleasant, healthy and functional message in urban commercial and public environments.
Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer and editor based in Pine City, Minn.