Wallpaper has been around for centuries—since the 16th century to be exact. In its earliest iterations, wallpaper was printed on paper in monochrome black ink, and color soon followed with the introduction of polychrome block printing. Eventually, in the late 1960s/early 1970s, vinyl wallpaper took the industry by storm because it was cheap, easy to print on and cleanable—and it dominated the market for decades.
“PVC vinyl has been a popular digitally printable wallcovering solution largely due to its compatibility with digital printing as well as a relatively inexpensive price point,” says Mark Shaneyfelt, director of sales and marketing of Yorkville, Ill.-based Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc. “Digital printing likes flat surfaces.”
But the very thing that made vinyl wallcoverings good for digital printing—its flat, smooth surface—also contributed to its decline. That, and environmental concerns. “Designers like different textures and feels. They began to want the richer look and feel that comes with textiles,” Shaneyfelt says. “That, coupled with growing health concerns particularly in commercial environments regarding VOCs [volatile organic compounds] that are potentially released into the environment with vinyl wallcoverings, have dramatically increased the demand and interest in digitally printable wallcovering fabrics.”
Riverview, Fla.-based Ultraflex System Inc.’s product manager Kylie Schleicher agrees that the composition of vinyl wallcoverings and potential chemical exposures is a concern that is affecting the market. “There is an increase in demand for PVC-free wallcovering products,” Schleicher says. “Retail and places involving children are experiencing more demand for PVC-free wallcoverings.”
Textile wallcoverings: a solution and a challenge
While textile wallcoverings are emerging in the market, providing texture and a more environmentally friendly alternative to vinyl wallcoverings, they also come with challenges. “Yes, woven wallcoverings have the richer look and feel of textiles,” Shaneyfelt says. “But the industry was used to the level of printability that came with printing on a flat surface, and it was a challenge to transition to print on a more textured material and not sacrifice the crispness of the image. This has been achieved through the continued evolution of digital printing combined with Aurora’s introduction of our proprietary ‘Expressions Coating’ ink-receptive treatment that allows for superior image quality compared to PVC vinyls.”
Aurora’s reengineered product improves the printability for textiles so that the color output is as good or better than what it was with vinyl, Shaneyfelt says—resulting in its Scenic Expressions line, launched in 2020. Finished with Expressions Coating, the line includes two different base fabrics, both woven, with improved image quality, color output and color gamut on the latest generation of latex, solvent/eco-solvent and UV printers.
Creating superior digitally printed wallcoverings requires collaboration between the wallcovering manufacturers, print companies and coatings providers. “We test for the durability of the fabric itself but the real test is after it’s printed, which we don’t have control over,” Shaneyfelt says. “It’s up to our print customers to decide what kind of ink technology they use, what their processing conditions are and what kind of coatings they use.”
Shaneyfelt says Aurora works closely with the major printer manufacturers such as HP to create printer profiles for its wallcoverings that are preprogrammed into the printers. “The profiles provide directions on how to set up the printer for each of our wallcoverings—the ink load that will perform best with the materials,” he says. “The profiles ensure that the printer will perform to maximize the print output compatible with the material.”
Coatings that do more than coat
Coatings can provide protection and durability for the wallcovering, as well as prevent the surface from holding onto contaminants. “We work closely with several companies that provide coatings, one of which is [North Charleston, S.C.-based] Marabu,” Shaneyfelt says. “They provide water-based coatings that can be put over the top of the printed material that add an extra level of protection.”
Coatings that protect substrates from harsh cleansers and inhibit the growth of microorganisms have been sold for years, but with the heightened awareness and need due to COVID-19, these products are in demand more than ever. Akron, Ohio-based APV Engineered Coatings offers an OEM-applied finish called VYNGUARD® Performance Coatings, which includes polycarbonate and polyurethane topcoats with antimicrobial technology. The topcoats are formulated to resist film deterioration caused by gram-negative and positive bacteria.
“From APV’s perspective, vinyl, polyurethane and polyester substrates require similar performance criteria of durability, antimicrobial properties, and dirt and stain resistance. VYNGUARD can achieve this performance,” says Ryan Scott, product development manager for APV Engineered Coatings. “The main considerations from a chemical formulation standpoint are the polymer binders and performance additives used to, first, drive key performance characteristics; second, maintain haptics; and third, achieve aesthetics.”
Changing performance, changing standards
The call for coatings that stand up to harsh cleaners goes hand in hand with the need for updated standards that address these changes. “Health care, education and hospitality facilities are seeing the biggest increase in aggressive surface cleaning and disinfecting,” Scott says. “For their part, coatings formulators should be challenged to increase the threshold of standard tests and raise the bar on performance—complete resistance to disinfectants at 100 percent concentration with no softening or failure of the topcoat is ideal.”
According to Scott, one effort to raise the bar is a new cleaning guideline from the Wallcoverings Association. “The guideline is in the early stages of development and addresses today’s increased need for disinfecting,” he says. “Wallcovering manufacturers should be encouraged to support this new guideline and work with their coating supplier to ensure that the finishes they specify provide the additional protection needed.”
Digitally printed wallcoverings also have to meet standards for smoke, scrubability and fire. Schleicher points out that different applications and environments have different standards such as medical settings where materials need to have certain air permeabilities or be resistant to different pathogens. “Materials can be made antimicrobial,” she says. “For example, Ultraflex’s FabriTac® can be antimicrobial to the standard ISO 22196 and Wallscapes™ Plus is engineered to prevent bacterial growth as well as be mold and mildew resistant.”
Making it stick
Traditionally, wallcoverings have been adhered to walls with either a paste applied to the wallcovering at the time of installation or a pre-applied glue on the back of the wallcovering that is activated with water. While these are still options, pressure-sensitive “peel-and-stick” wallpapers are also available and allow consumers to reposition the paper without destroying the wall or leaving residue.
“For Scenic Expressions, we aligned with an adhesive coating partner that provided a robust upgrade on the adhesive performance for pressure-sensitive products,” Shaneyfelt says. “When you pull the liner off the wallpaper, if the adhesive comes in contact with itself, you can peel it back off itself without any problem, as well as reposition it as needed.”
So, what’s behind the drive to improve printability for wallcoverings? Simply put, customization. “Customizing home decor, as well as restaurant and hotel decor, is a growing market,” Schleicher says. “Businesses and homeowners can not only customize gallery wraps for decoration, but they also have the ability to customize wallpaper, upholstery and carpeting. This allows businesses to create a whole environment as well as showcase their brand in unique ways.”
“The whole home decor segment is getting customized,” Shaneyfelt says. “Everybody wants their own look and feel. And that’s why we expect digital printing for wallpapers to continue to gain momentum.”
Sigrid Tornquist is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Wallcoverings and the environment
Among other member benefits, the Wallcoverings Association (a member association for the wallcoverings industry) has a regulatory consultant who monitors government issues and legislation that affect the industry. Below are some key points from the association on how wallcoverings affect the environment:
- Today, most wallcoverings are manufactured using no heavy metals such as lead, mercury, chromium or cadmium that could adversely affect the environment.
- Many manufacturers are introducing and developing additional environmentally friendly substrates in the manufacture of wallcoverings.
- To save forests, designers can now select wallcoverings that use harvested wood pulp from managed forests in their production.
- Wallcoverings are tested before they are put on the market for flame spread and smoke levels in case of fire. Wallcoverings on the market meet regulated standards, with many wallcoverings exhibiting extremely low flame spread and smoke development ratings.
- Adhesives used in installation are environmentally sound, with many being water-based.
- NSF/ANSI 342 is the Sustainability Standard for Wallcoverings, which was developed to support environmental requests for green building products. This standard encourages innovation and transparency in wallcovering products, including the supply chain of raw materials, manufacturers and distribution channels to the market.
- Industry-average Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are available for vinyl wallcoverings on woven and nonwoven backings. The EPDs included participation from 17 wallcovering manufacturers and are accepted globally.