How to Ace Interiors

As a digital printer, the decorative market is yours for the taking – if you have the right facts, and friends.

If you want to grow your sales for your wide- and grand-format digital printing business, you have two options. You must carve out a bigger piece of your existing market(s), or you must find or create new markets. In other words, you either scrap for a bigger piece of cake, or you bake a new one.

Almost 22 years ago, our company started out exclusively printing interior casino signs. That market quickly became jam-packed with print vendors. We evolved into vehicle, exhibit, and events graphics. But these have slowly become saturated as well, and the more competition in a market, the more pressure to follow a supply- and demand-driven downward price spiral and the harder to capture more market share.

But there are other markets out there, ones that have become more accessible in recent years due to developments in technology and the gradual recovery of the economy. At the risk of oversimplifying, I am going to lump three emerging opportunities into the decorative market: interior décor, art, and architectural.

Industry analysts predict a rosy picture for decorative environments through 2020. Because of evolving dynamics in residential and commercial spaces, decorative products seem to be experiencing a renaissance – one that has and will continue to increase interior and industrial designers’ and architects’ interest in our industry. In hyper-competitive industries like hospitality, retail, restaurant, and entertainment, companies are looking for ways to differentiate themselves. One powerful way to do this is to accentuate – beautify, if you will – their environments.

At Pictographics we have been selling these types of products for quite a while, and as print technology and media have evolved, so has the breadth of our product line. Today, we utilize UV-cure, dye-sublimation, latex, and eco-solvent processes, and have added multiple sewing, CNC, and laminating options in our finishing department.

Sixteen years ago, we began offering our first product for this market, wallcoverings. Wallpaper or coverings can be digitally printed with UV, eco-solvent, or latex. (Notice, I didn’t mention solvent. There are a number of problems with using traditional solvent printers for wallcoverings. The first is the presence of VOCs and the smell of the finished product. But the biggest issue we had was that the solvent would cause the panels to shrink over time, leaving an unsightly gap in the butt seam.) Wallcoverings are easy to print and, when printing with a UV machine, require very little finishing to meet Type II certification (for high-traffic graphics enduring medium to heavy wear). With latex and some eco-solvents, a liquid clear coat must be applied to meet this architectural standard for commercial installations. The only other finishing step is trimming.

These three technologies can also be used for stretched canvas prints. We recently installed pneumatic canvas stretching and underpinning machines to automate the process of making our own stretcher bar frames and wrapped canvases for a modest capital investment.

UV-cure printing, along with the development of white ink, has opened up many opportunities in this market, with the ability to print to rigid substrates and other materials that had not been considered inkjet receptive in the past. Recent improvements in the image quality of UV-cure printers has also allowed for photographic-caliber prints, like the museum exhibit we produced for National Geographic featuring 50 of their greatest photographs. The fact that these were printed second surface to large sheets of acrylic, using a white ink diffuser with a grand-format UV-cure printer, speaks volumes. A few years ago, it would have been considered heresy if anyone had suggested producing these with something other than silver halide technology. We’ve also used UV-cure for printing metal panels including brushed aluminum, composite sheets, and colors. One of the most unique applications for UV-cure has been to direct print doors; we’ve even done some steel fire doors. There are endless possibilities with rigid plastic sheets and boards, just remember that flame certification will be necessary for commercial applications.

Print providers have also begun to explore the world of fabrics – a world beloved by the decorative and interiors markets – via improvements in dye-sublimation technology. When we started to do dye sublimation in the mid-90s, we found ourselves apologizing that we could only print to polyester. We apologize no more. Developments in nanotechnology have resulted in luxury fabrics made from polyester microfiber. The range of looks and textures we can provide is stunning. For example, we now have fire-retardant fabrics that feel like silk. And with new substrates come new possibilities. There are pillows, bedding, window treatments, tapestries, tablecloths, slipcovers, and upholstery. We have even seen a small but growing trend of images sublimated onto powder-coated metals. We installed a large two-platen, flatbed press to accomplish this, and we recently produced a steel back wall for a show kitchen on the Las Vegas Strip using sublimated steel panels.

Perhaps the most efficient tool we’ve used to expand our capabilities for this market has been the formation of powerful strategic alliances. For years, we’ve teamed with two world-class companies that allow us to be part of a distributed manufacturing process to make decorative acoustical wall panels and printed architectural safety glass. And to gain access to the most compelling fabrics, we forged an alliance with a fabric importer and converter that brings the most luxurious polyesters from Italy and Turkey. We continue to use fabrics from our traditional supply chain, but to be competitive in interior décor, you will need to look for unique materials. An easy way around this is to print to customer-supplied goods.

We have recently set up a third strategic alliance, which we believe will have a dramatic impact on our sales in this market. As digital printers, we can approach this industry like any of the others we have historically served; we can simply be a print service provider or “print for pay.” When dealing with interior or industrial designers or architects, we can accept print-ready files and print the wallcoverings, art pieces, window treatments, etc. The problem with this is it puts us in a competitive marketplace in which the printing can be put out to bid. But there are two other options. The first is that you can have your own art department that specializes in this market. This way, you can have an additional revenue stream and tie your company closer to the client. But the second option is the most interesting, challenging, and potentially rewarding. What we have done is formed an alliance with a company that houses dozens of designers and artists under contract, with a talent pool that spans the range of styles that are currently in vogue, as well as thousands of individual designs and works of art. Any requests for designs or art we can’t satisfy with what we have on file can be commissioned from these designers, and the exclusive rights to this content belong to us and our partner alone.

One of my favorite sayings is “content is king.” Content can be a vector design that can be repeated for wallcovering to any scale, or for bedding or window treatments. It can be a gorgeous photographic landscape or an original oil painting. The advantage of being in control of this content is that you always know it is going to work. Your designers vet each file before it’s added to the catalog. You know there will be sufficient bitmap resolution and the proper aspect ratio, and with vector art, you can manipulate colors to complement any environment. Your sample book only shows art and designs you own. And if you control the content, you control the manufacturing. The customer can’t put the printing out for bid. If they want this wall design, or this piece of art, or this collection, it must be produced by you.

But the decorative industries are not without their challenges. You must understand the language, metrics, and specifications. Quoting on almost all roll goods is by the yard or meter, not by the square foot. There are building codes you must comply with. You need at least one person on your staff who can read blueprints – but you need to know that you can’t do your final wallcovering layout based on those blueprints alone. You need to know a good paperhanger – and this is a totally different skill than used for decal application. We’ve collected this knowledge over time. Even so, to really have industry chops, we hired people from the interior decorating and architectural industries to do customer service and project management. In addition, we retained an independent sales rep who only serves our hospitality clients. While there are plenty of products in this market you can produce with your existing equipment, if you’ve never done work in interiors, there is some homework to do before you call on your first customer. A staff member from this community can be the easiest way to become “in the know.”

Interior décor, art, and architectural decoration represent a market worth billions worldwide. Take a look at your local market. Don’t forget hotel rooms, amusement parks, museums, music venues, casinos, banks, restaurants, and retailers – not to mention residential and office buildings.

Opportunities abound, and the best part is, until someone screws it up, the margins in this industry are better than our traditional markets. It’s a well-kept secret, so don’t share that with anyone.
 

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