Fabric graphics have become a marketing and branding essential. As they go outside to play, the medium is definitely part of the message.
Fabric graphics are a perfect vehicle for our branding-obsessed culture, providing the ability to transmit messages in fun, colorful, impactful and attention-getting ways. Fabrics and fabric graphics are at home everywhere indoors, occupying an increasingly prominent position in tradeshow booths, exhibits, displays and corporate and retail signage. But more are migrating outside, as the appreciation for what graphics can do has heightened and fabrics have evolved to better tolerate sun, wind, rain and cold.
The products can be complex and elaborate or extremely simple. Regardless, fabric graphics offer fabricators a way to help their clients raise their voices above the noise, giving their brands a better chance to be seen and remembered.
Tents with a message
“A printed tent cover is a powerful communication tool. It’s a great way to advertise your company’s products or services and will certainly attract potential customers,” says Sarah Lapping, director of sales and marketing for Economy Tent International, Miami, Fla. Economy Tent (an Anchor company) specializes in engineered frame tents, custom-printed tents and event and vending/concession tents, among others.
Lapping says they’re seeing growing demand for tents with graphics. Because of the high order volume, digitally printed tents typically require four to six weeks to produce—although the company can expedite time-critical orders for an additional charge. The standard covers are manufactured from a high-quality, 1300-denier, 18-ounce, lacquer-coated blackout vinyl material (they generally stock white vinyl), making the covers easier to handle, store, install and clean. All vinyl is UV treated, flame retardant, water repellent and mildew resistant, and meets California Fire Marshal Title 19 and NFPA 701 regulations. Tents are engineered to withstand 75 mph wind loads (with and without sidewalls) and have flame certification.
Economy Tent uses high-resolution jet printers with solvent ink, and acrylic lacquer top-coating for added durability. It’s possible to print on any vinyl fabric, but some materials deliver better results than others.
Customers provide their own graphic files, which the company reviews for print quality. “Among the services we offer on graphics is a mock-up of the printing image on the tent for customer evaluation before the job is done,” says Lapping. “Then, any last-minute changes can be done with no waste of material or money.”
Vitabri by Ins’TenT offers the services of in-house graphic designers who can produce full custom graphics and logos, says Damien Vieille, CEO. Located in Huntington Beach, Calif., the tent and signage manufacturing company makes pop-up, frame and inflatable tents, along with other products such as banners, pop-up walls, portable bars and inflatable furniture. Although Vitabri focuses on designing for outdoor events, some products are used primarily indoors.
The company uses a broad variety of polyester and vinyl fabrics. For example, top-quality, 600-denier polyester is used for pop-up tents; flags and banners are typically constructed from lighter polyester; larger tents are made from heavy-duty vinyl.
“We even use some special acrylic for our umbrellas,” says Vieille. “And we’re currently working on adding 100 percent waterproof polyester to the mix, but that’s still in the works.”
Although Vitabri does offer stock, solid nonprinted colors for all the tents most commonly found in the rental industry, custom-color orders comprise 90 percent of its work. When it comes to printed graphics, customers generally provide the logos and, depending on the file, the in-house graphic team may re-create it to provide the necessary high-resolution print quality. The company offers custom printing on both polyester and vinyl, using a variety of techniques from full digital sublimations to UV printing and even silkscreen. For customers who rent rather than own, Vieille says customized graphics and logos can be printed on Velcro®, for example, or other easy-install/removal strategies can be used.
The value of inflation
Vieille is currently at work on extending the company’s inventory of inflatable furniture, adding a new line of sofas, chairs and coffee tables (the Air’Lounge) that can be custom-printed. The furniture is constructed from neoprene fabric, allowing for high-resolution, dye sublimation printing. He has also developed an inflatable tent, the Air Dome.
“Customers wanted something different to exhibit in at shows,” he says, explaining the inspiration behind both lines. “There isn’t a better way to invite people to come to your booth than with
a cool presentation.”
Air Dimensional Design Inc. (AirDD), located in North Hollywood, Calif., provides an array of illuminated inflatable sculptural fabric shapes (Hi-Light™) and other 3-D decorative inflatable elements. In addition to Hi-Lights, the inventory includes items like the Stand-Out!™ systems, which allow for hanging overhead inflatable designs from a modular stand; and the Fly Guys® dancing inflatables, among others, says Doron Gazit, company founder. AirDD provides stock and custom items as well as digital graphics.
“Some of these are temporary, attached as decals on our rented items, that can be removed once the rental items are returned,” says Gazit, referring to the digital graphics. “Others are dyed into the fabric. Our products are used both indoors and outdoors, though of course we don’t recommend using them in rain or strong winds. AirDD uses rip-stop, flame-retardant nylon fabrics.
One of the company’s most recent outdoor displays was at the LA Live Center in downtown Los Angeles, for a community event called “Dark Nights.” For this event, AirDD installed its Hi-Light products, setting up an illuminated forest of wick-shaped designs in a variety of bright colors.
“Hundreds were drawn to that area to pose among these glowing shapes,” Gazit recalls. “This became a fun attraction and also helped promote this lovely event through social media, serving as a draw for people to pose and snap pictures.”
Architecture and entertainment
The Originators Design, a New York, N.Y., full-service firm that designs and builds fabric structures and forms in a variety of shapes and sizes, is seeing demand for exterior installations grow, says Marc Posnock, principal and sales and marketing director. According to Posnock and Debra Roth, principal and creative director, there’s been an increase in outdoor festivals and events, resulting in an uptick in orders for their fabric structures for these venues. Recent examples include providing shade structures for an outdoor art festival in Brooklyn (a custom-colored booth for Century 21) and for the “Keep Austin Weird” festival. The entertainment industry represents another opportunity, requesting an outdoor fabric structure for the TV show Transparent. Still, interior events account for the bulk of their business.
About 70 percent of the company’s orders involve providing a fabric surface—usually a white palette—for clients to light on their own (for outdoor work, the fabric is typically colored). Or, clients will create slides of a logo or other graphics and then project these onto the surface. These strategies are less expensive and allow clients to rent and return the fabric surfaces. The remaining 30 percent consists of applying printed graphics to the fabrics. In these cases, the clients own the fabric component of the structure but may opt to rent and return the aluminum tube frames (in some cases, the structures don’t require frames). Sixty percent of Originators’ structures are custom made; the other 40 percent is ready-made rentals.
Originators Design uses stretch fabrics like nylon spandex and polyester spandex for the fabric surfaces, indoors or out. But for exterior work, advancements like UV coatings or water resistance have improved the fabrics for these applications, says Roth. For interior work, fabrics must be fire/flame retardant, says Posner, adding that “early on” they went to theatrical companies, which had been leading the way in utilizing fabrics with these qualities. They’ve also gone to the apparel industry and used materials for bathing suits or bicycle shorts for their outdoor work, Roth says.
“Our structures are designed to break down very quickly and small, but play very big,” says Roth. “We’re heavy on the event side, and the venues are often hotel meeting spaces or halls with maybe only two people to handle the installation.”
Aaron Helfman, vice president, business development, for Tectonics, says he notices that clients do want structures designed for fast install and take-down. “They want them lightweight for easier handling and also for less-expensive transporting,” he says. Headquartered in Warren, Mich., with four locations throughout the United States, Tectonics provides architectural and décor fabric solutions. The company uses a lot of aluminum to reduce weight, along with machined Delrin® (a structural plastic), zinc-plated and stainless-steel hardware, steel plates, and concrete blocks for ballast.
Helfman is the founder of Chicago-based TenFab Design LLC, a designer and manufacturer of tensioned fabric products that was recently purchased by Tectonics. About 20 percent of TenFab’s structures were for outdoor displays and installations; 90 percent of these incorporated digitally printed graphics (often printed using dye sublimation).
Outdoor projects have included a canopy for Acura (printed with the Acura logo) at the Mazda Raceway in Monterey, Calif.; a large Nimlok canopy for a boat show in Florida.; the Zaha Hadid pavilion in Chicago; the LiuGong display in Munich, Germany; NFL Roman numerals; outdoor signage and much more.
According to Helfman, any kind of fabric that stretches enough can be tensioned. For outdoor work his company has used awning fabric, including Sunbrella®; Phifertex® (an open-weave, sunshade-type of fabric often utilized for canopies and umbrellas); and a heavy knit fabric used for the Acura canopy,
the LiuGong display and the NFL Roman numerals.
“We’re seeing more demand for outdoor displays and structures,” says Helfman. “There’s an understanding that heavy knit can be utilized for these, which is good because this 10-foot-wide fabric can be digitally printed and constructed into covers using our regular sewing techniques.”
As for where his industry is going, Helfman sees only opportunities ahead. “I’ve noticed that what we provide is starting to be recognized as a specialty,” he says. “So the large event production companies have become more focused on hiring specialists rather than trying to tackle it on their own.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif. Turn to page 86 for contact information on the sources used in this article.
Merritt Graphics’ Big Color Division, located in East Hartford, Conn., provides a broad range of products including, but not limited to, tradeshow and retail graphics, interior and exterior corporate signage, building wraps and other outreach. According to Pat Freer, vice president of sales for the division, fabrics have become an extremely important promotional and event tool, rapidly replacing hard-substrate graphics in the marketplace.
There are several reasons for this, says Freer. Fabric graphics provide a décor look. They’re easier to tear down and install; clients can often manage this task themselves. They’re also easier and less costly to transport. All of this has inspired a shift from hard signage to soft.
Merritt Graphics uses both a poly-knit product and a weave-type fabric, offering front-lit fabrics (generally used for tradeshow/event pop-up booth applications and wall frames); back-lit fabrics (used if LEDs are incorporated into any hardware components); and block-out fabrics (deployed when absolutely no glare or reflection from natural lighting is wanted, used to minimize the impact of natural or staged lighting on the graphics). Most of its products are for interior display, but the company does offer products specifically for outdoor use, such as flags, banners and awnings. Exterior displays generally require exterior-grade fabric, like Sunbrella®, which Merritt always uses for awnings.
The lion’s share of the graphics they produce are provided by the clients, but they do offer in-house graphic design as well, says Freer. Standard and stock graphics are not offered.
“Europe has traditionally been ahead of the U.S. in terms of fabric décor, but we’re starting to catch up,” says Freer. “In fact, this has really exploded in the last 12 to 24 months. I can’t remember the last time we fabricated a tradeshow booth or event structure that didn’t incorporate fabric graphics. The market here is not nearly mature; the soft-sided fabric graphic market is taking hold and will only grow.”