Getting creative with textiles and architecture.
By Lynn Keillor
Today’s retail stores are an array of color-popping advertising displays. Most backlit displays are not made of film or some sort of vellum, but of a tightly woven, printed fabric.
Eric Tischer, president of Randolph, N.J.-based Verseidag seemee US Inc., takes a close look, running his hand over the fabric to gauge the materials used and the print output. His company has experienced significant growth with backlit fabrics, especially with retail and trade show applications.
But that’s just one way light and fabrics interplay. The mix of these elements is not new, but designers and textile developers are experimenting with new ideas, fabrics and techniques to offer original, and sometimes surprising, applications.
“I like to say that fabric is all about lighting,” says Peter Finder, vice president of sales and marketing for Secaucus, N.J.-based theatrical supplier Rose Brand. “What you’re really dealing with is a substrate that regulates light. Whether it’s projected on, whether it’s reflecting light, absorbing light or diffusing it, the use of fabric in theater and all its offshoots—themed environments, architectural, dance, amusement parks—it’s all a regulation of light.”
Function plus beauty
Architectural application is an area of growth in the light-and-fabric arena—especially products with equal part function and attractiveness. Peter Katcha, North American sales director for Swiss-based Sefar Inc., with offices in Buffalo, N.Y., estimates an increase of 30 to 40 percent in the past three years of the use of its fabric products and applications with light.
“The day of having a functional product that may not be aesthetically pleasing, or an aesthetic product with no functional value, is going away,” Katcha says. “When you have a product that is multi-faceted in terms of value to the client, those are the products that architects want to bring to the table.”
The renovated library at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, offers a quick tutorial. Fabric-covered rectangular frames, made by Sefar and sold under the name LightFrame®, make a row across an atrium-like space to serve multiple purposes. Light elements within the frames supplement natural light coming in through the windows. In the evenings, light fixtures shine on the frames from below to reflect off the fabric for a warm, rich atmosphere. The bonus: they provide an acoustical element to the large, open space.
“People are looking for softer environments,” Katcha says. “The ceiling is considered the fifth wall, and people don’t like the traditional ceiling panel look. It’s very inexpensive and functional, but there’s no light translucency through it. So the combination of having a fabric that’s translucent as well as being acoustically significant is really unique.”
“Lighting is a big piece of bringing out the architectural side of life, whether it’s in a tent or structure, interior or exterior,” Tischer says. “A lot of fabrics, whether backlit or sheer, are being used all over in interior architectural displays because they enhance the environment or mood.”
“We see smaller businesses such as restaurants, banks, boutique stores and hotels embracing fabric and lighting techniques,” says Steven Gazdag, co-owner of Solon, Ohio-based KSK Visual Ingenuity. “They see it on a grander scale at a show or in their travels and want to apply it to their space. It’s not just about big retailers and trade show booths using the combinations. It’s all about how to be unique visually and how to create a certain mood that’s memorable for the viewer, no matter where you are.”
It can be an inexpensive way to create a dramatic effect, says Blaise Humphries, a business unit manager for the France-based fabric supplier DHJ International. These light-on-fabric applications include museum displays, tents decorated for special events, backdrops for an event or a performance, residential use (such as lit patio awnings) or art installations.
Moss Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., recently worked on a project for a light artist who used Moss fabrics in a high-profile museum installation. “Fabric, light and art are a natural, great combination,” says Elissa Decker, fabric product manager.
Netherlands-based Philips Lighting markets its backlit fabric panels, called luminous textile, for use in restaurants, offices, medical settings and hotels. The noise-absorbing soft cell panels from Danish company Kvadrat turn into static or dynamic artwork when colored LED lights fixed behind the fabric respond to software inputs. This can create anything from a still pattern to dancing color to muted-video displays.
DHJ International got into the digital printing market 15 years ago when its CEO ran a small, coated textile through a desktop printer and discovered it held the image.
“One of the first coatings we did, a mono-layer coating on a fairly lightweight textile, allowed us to produce a translucent textile, which, when you put lighting behind it allowed you to see the print being backlit,” Humphries says.
Digital printing is now more than 50 percent of the company’s business, with an emphasis on fabrics for backlit light boxes, and a 25 to 30 percent annual growth.
Humphries sees several drivers in this during the past 10 years: LED lighting that replaced tubular lighting; the more consistent UV curable inks compared to the solvent-based inks; the ability for the company to produce textiles in a wider 122- to 126-inch format; and, in the advertising market, the easy-to-use low-profile aluminum frames that hold the silicone-beaded edges of the textile, which is key to the advertising and tradeshow markets.
The silicon edge graphics mounted into low-profile aluminum frames make for easy, cost-effective panel changes, he says. It’s something that DHJ capitalizes on in the retail advertising world. A large retail chain with three or four lightboxes in 3,000 stores will need 15,000 new panels every few months.
“You’re able, with an LED backlit frame, to put a fabric in there with some sort of printing on top of it, typically dye-sublimation, and it really punches out the colors; it’s very eye-catching,” Tischer says. For a minimal cost in dollars and labor, retailers or trade show workers can change out the graphic.
For Humphries, innovation comes through customer creativity. “The designers out there are looking for effects that they imagine and then find if the technology can accomplish it,” he says, “or, they’re looking at the new technology and saying, ‘This is a really cool toy; what can I do with it?’”
The perfect textile
New fabrics are always being released to the marketplace, Gazdag says. “There’s more and more recycled options than before. There are also new fabric colors and specialty textiles, such as those with metallic content.”
One textile demand trumps all others when it comes to the use of textiles and light: it must meet fire retardant standards. Function comes next.
Verseidag US’s premier product for backlight use is its seemee® 3P Premium Backlit, a woven, polyester, top-coated textile that has received industry recognition. It was developed in conjunction with 3P Inkjet Textiles, a company Verseidag purchased in 2011.
“It’s a woven fabric so you don’t see any pinholes as you stretch it into the frame,” Tischer says. When stretched, knit fabrics create pinholes, which take away from color and image quality. At this point, woven fabrics retain form and give the best-possible image, but lack in their ability to stretch.
“That is the Holy Grail every digital textile company is looking for: a woven fabric that has a little bit of stretch to it,” Tischer says. “It would be a perfect scenario of two manufacturing process: knit and woven.”
Humphries sees some culturally related technological demands. The U.S. market appreciates a low price point and products that are quick and easy to use. The Chinese want to mimic European applications. End users in Germany and Scandinavia—and especially customers in the retail stores—want odor-free products, particularly in the backlit retail advertisements.
Consumer complaints about the smell of PVC fabrics created a demand for odorless products, Humphries says, which resulted in the company’s non-coated polyester fabric, which was ready for use in 2010. The next step, he says, was to find odor-neutral inks. This fabric is at the OEKO-TEX® Standard 100, which is a voluntary certification.
“It does put a premium on the prices, but by and large, it’s accepted and wanted,” Humphries says. “We wouldn’t go back on it now. We believe that some of the things we’ve done may become mandatory in Europe and the U.S. in the next few years.”
Use of light
Finder gives new employees at Rose Brand a lesson he calls Fabric 101. “I like to tell them the fabric is not in a vacuum,” he says. “The fabric is all about what is bouncing back to the audience—and that’s light. If it’s rear projection, it’s an image. If it’s front projection, it’s colors.”
The type of light used depends on the application, but advances in LED lighting play a significant role in the expanded use of backlit boxes.
“LED is the most effective lighting used with fabric,” Gazdag says. “Interactions of fabric and lighting are impacted by the space in which you are displaying the fabric. Overhead lights will sometimes create shadows, fabric that is too thin will create hot spots, and other lighting in the space will impact the visibility of the lighted graphic.”
Katcha agrees. “Florescent tubes will always be there because they are cheap, but LEDs are becoming more prominent because you can change the warmth level of the light, they offer long life-cycles and are more energy efficient,” he says. “I don’t think the use of fabric is attached to light; I think lighting is being brought to fabric because fabric can bring so much to the table in terms of softening and creating haze and light—not to mention acoustical values fabric can provide.”