Working within the box: The Digital Wallcovering Revolution

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Rachel Nunziata will be speaking at next week's InPrint Industrial Inkjet Conference. Rachel has been involved in the development of digital decor from the start of the revolution for using digital print technology as a method for interior and in-store design and now she is part of the innovative team at 4Walls (more on your role here). In this blog, I ask her views on the development of this fast moving and visually expressive sector, and what she thinks is shaping the future of digital decor.

What is your background?

I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging from Ringling College of Art of Design in Sarasota and spent a lot of time in the darkroom, digital lab and developing my studio lighting skills, with it darkroom printing and studio lighting experience. During my study I enjoyed styling and producing shoots, I enjoyed putting things together. When I left, I then worked on photography industry and that is where I started my career in digital printing. When I graduated, I worked in the photography industry as an assistant then realized I didn’t want to necessarily stay behind the camera and that is where I started my career in digital printing.  It was great as I had experienced the photo industry's transition to digital – so I have both darkroom and digital experience which was a very exciting time.

I also explored a lot of new things in my time with LexJet which is an inkjet media and wide-format equipment reseller based in the US. During this time I focused on the photography market for media which is the industry I know well. I consulted with artists and photographers about wide-format printing, teaching them new applications and ways to develop their business. This is where I saw the change in digital production for fine art and it was clear that décor was happening also. My role changed from sales in photography and I was appointed to spearhead the décor movement in S-One (holding company for LexJet) and put all my time and energy into the market and as a result, really fell in love with décor. With my creative past and the foundation of my learning, I saw that a big demand for décor along with original content was inevitable. At that time I was selling Aqueous, Latex and Solvent and I quickly learned how to use aspects of the photographic market such as good content and turning it into a revenue-focused décor business. This was around 2013.

Tell us more about 4Walls…

We are manufacturer and designer of digitally printed wallcovering for the commercial market-based in Cleveland, Ohio. Our company is comprised of many moving parts but the largest two components are our production team which digitally prints wallcovering with the latest UV-ink technology and our in-house design team; the content and creative teams really are the heartbeat of the company. The company has been around for nearly 20 years but went through a transition period from traditional residential wallpaper to a complete focus on digital wallcovering, rigid wall protection and decorative window films.

My role as Product Development Manager is new for the company which has been steadily growing. We are strategically developing products on new materials such as fabrics and other decorative applications to expand collections and coordinates designed for the contract market. In my previous role, I spent roughly five years in the digital print sector for an inkjet media and consumable sales company and lead market development for the decor market. Combining this experience with my creative background and education makes joining 4walls.com a motivating opportunity to be actively involved in the market where big things are happening.

Our products are sold into the A&D community through our distribution partners so fostering those relationships is a critical part of managing the sales channel. Distributor reps work closely with design firms and specifiers that spec our materials into a multitude of healthcare, corporate and hospitality interior design projects. It’s an exciting time in the industry and especially for our company has a  100% digital workflow.

So in your opinion, the digital wallcovering market is diverse?

Yes, of course, across the US it is not only a large geographic area but there are variations in new trends and styles mainly due to taste and practicality. In the US many states and regions have style differences, the US is fragmented and often times you’ll even see buyer and design shows divided up into two separate events; one for the west coast and east coast. In Atlanta, there is a huge design centre for the contract market with many designer showrooms and in the Carolinas there are many traditional textile mills and furniture manufacturers. Chicago centralizes both coasts with the Merchandise Mart; it’s an iconic design center you must take the time to see. New York and LA are both important being close to design, especially fashion. LA is interesting with the growing maker movement with co-shared workspaces coming up and this is driving more production for workplace décor. This is also true of New York, Brooklyn has been a major incubator of not only emerging talent but US-based manufacturers; micro-batch textiles are popping up all over in Brooklyn.

What in your opinion is the major value of digital printing?

I love to use the example of digital printing for hotels. The commercial contract market is tough to crack – there are obviously the hotel owners and groups, maybe a project where they are doing a refresh or building a new property – general contractors, code enforcers, material specifiers (specifiers and sample librarians are the gatekeepers) are involved in the complexity. The reason for opportunity is because hotel groups own multiple brands. For example, the Marriott has a large number of different hotel brands with different brands identities. (Hotels are also competing with AirBnB and other lodging alternatives.) Additionally, the boutique market is growing considerably – so for the main holding company, there is an opportunity to create new brands quickly using interior décor as a key distinguishing element to capture a broad range of guest demographics and trends.

Give me an example of a hotel brand that you like?

Hotel Indigo is one of my favourites. All the wall art (wallcovering in each room) is digitally printed and everything is localised – San Diego, Sarasota and The Hamptons is particularly focused and it brings forward an immersive experience into the mix. They really know the market that they are going after (millennials and young professionals) and they are creating an immersive experience that will bring back repeat guests.

But this change isn’t occurring only in hotels, also retail. Retail flagship stores – for example, the classic Macy’s on 34th Street in Manhattan is somewhere I make a habit of stopping when I’m in the city to see how the space changes over the years. I have even watched retail furniture stores open their own boutique hotels to allow guests to experience their products.

The luxury retail market and high-end luxury brands have been struggling to keep legacy customers and connect with new consumers - so you’ll now see luxury brand’s focused on stores that provide elements of experience; not necessarily overfilled with goods fighting for the attention of the consumer.

What other trends do you think are going to be big?

Obviously, maximalism in design is coming back as a retort to minimalism. One other thing to note as this trend is not just about commercial space as individual consumers want this kind of ability to express themselves in their own homes as well. We don’t want to see matching furniture or patterns in our homes as we want to be unique - the same goes for commercial spaces and what aesthetics designers are specifying. Packaged room sets are no longer what people want – there are so many options in the market – easy to shop online – people want a bit of anything and new design anywhere and this is breaking the traditional buying patterns, whether retail, hotel or home. There is a correlation between the economy and different markets – it is a reflection of the new possibilities that digital and customization can provide.

Will digital simply take over with analogue becoming a thing of the past?

I don’t know if digitally printed wallcovering will ever exceed analogue in production scale and volumes – but it will when it comes to personalisation. I would imagine the number of long-run analogue will decrease and the short run digital will increase even across textiles.

I have also seen the phrase 'small batch' production come up a lot more indicating it is becoming mainstream. Sometimes you can see this shifts even when you are just walking through stores; you what manufacturers are thinking and testing.

So the power has shifted?

Yes, the consumer or individual designer is more powerful and this is a big part of what is driving change. The response that we are seeing in a lot of traditional print industry trade shows can even be seen in booth design – they are all trying to figure out how to connect with designers.

The most complicated part of the process when working with designers and material reps in the contract market are getting them to understand the actual print and design process. Once they realise what is possible it really opens up a new world of opportunity. This is the most exciting part.

So do you think that one of the key things that need to be done is to connect with, and inspire designers?

Yes, and because they are such visual people, they really have to see it. Just talking about it isn’t enough. It is so critical that Pure Digital is doing what it is doing, we have to come up with a simple way of inspiring, explaining and educating people then demand will really explode.

Why is the print industry not doing this so well?

The print industry has been in a traditionalist mindset as they think of themselves as a service, an afterthought, they are therefore not part of the creative process. And people are getting better at this. There are many that are repositioning and rebranding and being more of a full-service agency that is good at connecting. People think print and think banners. Temporary marketing materials for promotional campaigns but not as a core proposition or finished good. They need to start thinking like manufacturers. Printers aren’t really driving the change but are in the middle of it. The manufacturers who aren’t implementing digital are also missing the mark. And printers in the middle could manufacture end products. It has to be up to the printers to revitalise the channel and connect the two together, or simply be the manufacturer.

For example, at one of the largest furniture fairs in Chicago, I spoke with a company who manufactured acoustic material for the contract market and connected with someone who had digital print equipment and said they wanted to start customising their products. By partnering, they are now digitally printing on an acoustic material during the manufacturing process as an additional in-plant revenue stream. Total win-win.

What needs to change in order for printers and designers to connect better?

In one word, more collaboration. This is the strongest and quickest way to get exposure – this is a really smart way to work together as there is enough business there, you just have to figure a way to capture it. The opportunity is there along with the demand and all the key ingredients and I think all printers need to keep in mind that not every strategy is the same. Some are closer already to a new market such as décor and this is different for everyone.

What is the main challenge?

Not just educating designers, but really it is our responsibility to make the sales and specification process easier for designers. It can be confusing on a new project, new facility, it is easy to flick through a swatch library that is all ready to go but it is much more difficult to go through the customisation process – there are more steps – and more cost. For example, a designer may find a particular pattern and request customization outside colorways of the design. It may not be possible to change color in a gradient but may be possible where a specific color selection can be made. We have to provide a strike-off, design sample and elevation mock-up before a purchase order can be placed. Installation with digitally printed material is very different than analogue prints because we are not confined to small-scale vertical or horizontal repeats. Installers are learning more about custom wallcovering and murals where each panel is unique to the design layout.  

You will shortly be presenting at the InPrint USA Industrial Inkjet Conference in Chicago, what themes will you cover with the presentation?

I really want to talk about the democratisation of design. This is a mega theme we are seeing at the e-commerce and consumer level but also touches on the customization element in commercial markets that digital printing enables. It means bringing good design closer to the end user. This is also possible through customisation of end-products, such as a furniture line licensed with an iconic designer, or perhaps an artist converting licensed content to wallcovering; the product development process is more in tune with the end-user. Digitally printed textiles is a great example of this due to short-run bringing a wider range of options to market. So we need to remove these barriers between the supply chain, designer and customer.

How can we provide creatives with the tools that make it easier to design? Designers have all the ideas, they define the collections, but now we are looking at the products we can put this on, the end user, through distributors, to the designer. How can we incorporate this into the overall design of the room? What are we trying to do? Digital is making this more possible – so people don’t just choose from a library – they are able to create, curate, change, customise or even create a pattern.

Does this dumb down design? So 99Designs for example, designers connect straight to consumers, and now some consumers design on their own?

Some designers may see this as a threat perhaps, and yes great designers don’t become great designers overnight. They study for years and gain their expertise through hard earned experience. We’ve also seen this kind of reaction in photography industry too with digitalisation. But good design remains good design irrespective of the delivery mechanism. The consumer market is also very different than the commercial market when it comes to content that is or isn’t customizable.

We need to educate the designer and materials reps about the print process so they understand how to design or specify with the technology in mind. We’re very fortunate at 4walls.com to have an expertly skilled in-house design and production team that is able to not only develop collections but customize designs specific to the job site. There is good design out there and bad design, quality content will alwaysgive you the the competitive advantage.

So how is the US market for wallcoverings?

For residential it is correct that the European market is keener but the hotel market in the US is huge and there are many new properties where customisation comes into play. The US market is also fragmented with different styles, hotels customisation can really capitalize on this particular segment. I think there is a lot of opportunity for hotels – this is the biggest opportunity.

What other markets are important?

The other is corporate environments and branded co-working spaces. There is a big shift to creating workspaces that are more energising in large open spaces that are less mundane – more inspiring – more individual. Co-working and these type of spaces are the future – it is not a trend, it is happening.

I would also say healthcare in there, too. We do a lot of custom designs for healthcare spaces and see on a regular basis how interiors for this particular market is changing. Durability and environmental specifications are strict here so materials that can be easily cleaned and have attributes such as materials without heavy metals or printed with low-VOC inks are important. The ability to print onto polycarbonate, glass and other durable surfaces are important. I would say this is part of the popularity of UV printing – the cost of ownership has come down and the quality of output has gone up. Designers are looking to specify custom artwork on these type of surfaces for healthcare spaces that represent well being and help stimulate a sense of calm and health.

What drives business at 4Walls?

It’s our content and ability to design with our technology in mind, whether it’s a unique surface we can print to or our proprietary WallFx raised surface technique. These are the design principles that attribute to our uniqueness which ultimately drives growth. We are inspired by new trends and work this into the creative process our in-house design team seamlessly brings together. It’s really about pulling together collections and coordinates that not just reflect the latest trends but putting our own signature twist so you know it was designed by 4walls. We work closely with our distributors to provide the best experience and customer service possible because relationships are extremely important. I think this is what really inspired the owners and everyone on the team. Even though we are a small company, everyone loves what they do and it shows in the quality of the work being produced.

What do you see in the future?

In regard to the digital print and decor markets, I am seeing and hearing an eagerness for more variety in textures and even haptic experiences, especially in wallcovering. Specifically more design and technology cohesion creating a haptic end product by means of a holistic approach. I am seeing more in conductive inks and content used as targets for AR/VR experiences, so essentially more technology layered with design. Much of this is experimental right now and there may be a way to scale this but I definitely see this coming together and merging with digital print