Spoonflower weaves its niche in print-on-demand wallcoverings.

When it comes to digitally printed wallpaper, Spoonflower has it covered.

Since last fall, the Durham, North Carolina, company has been pursuing opportunities in the highly specialized market for custom-printed wallpaper. Building on its notable success with digitally printed fabric over the last five years, Spoonflower is looking to adapt that same business model to wallpaper – offering consumers and professionals worldwide the option of choosing from thousands of designs, or uploading their own for custom printing.

“From the very beginning, there have always been people asking if we could print wallpaper, too,” says Stephen Fraser, Spoonflower’s co-founder and co-owner. Since Spoonflower added that capability with relocation to its new headquarters last fall, Fraser estimates that wallpaper now represents 10 percent of the company’s ever-increasing sales.

“It could become as big as the fabric-printing market,” he speculates.

Building a community
In the highly specialized market for digitally printed fabric, Spoonflower’s strategy has been to empower its customers with an outlet and solution for their creativity. Design professionals use Spoonflower for fulfillment services and to market their work, while consumers have the option of choosing from an eclectic catalog containing thousands of their designs, or submitting their own graphics for printing on wallpaper.

Providing the print work, however, is only part of the Spoonflower strategy. It also has tapped into enthusiasm for its services to build an international online community, where designers and consumers can interact, vote on favorite designs, and demonstrate how they’ve used the print services for all types of projects.

The company reaches enthusiasts and potential customers for its services wherever it can find them: with social-media accounts on Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter; on its hosted blog (blog.spoonflower.com) and community forum; and with a series of how-to videos on its YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/spoonflowerfabric).

Wallpaper and wall decals are just the latest additions to the service mix, which also includes printed fabric for every conceivable application and even one-of-a-kind gift wrap.

“We’ve got a database of millions of designs, and more than 10,000 visitors to our site every day,” says Fraser. “Whether it’s wallcoverings or printing on fabric, from the designer’s standpoint, it’s all surface design.”

Rooted in POD
Spoonflower’s approach is rooted in print-on-demand (POD) services. Fraser and co-founder Gart Davis were members of the original team that launched and nurtured the early growth of POD innovator Lulu.com.

“From our experience, we understood POD as a business model, and using the Internet as a front end to serve the needs of a population that’s creating content,” he recalls. “At Lulu, we didn’t do any printing ourselves. It was all about using technology to provide that Internet-based front end.”

In 2007, the pair were mulling where else that model might work, when Fraser’s wife Kim went shopping online for material to make curtains for their home. She couldn’t find the exact pattern she wanted, so decided to design it herself. To her surprise, though, she couldn’t find anyone to print her design on cloth.

“She wondered, ‘Why can’t I do this? It shouldn’t be so hard,’” Fraser recalls.

Understanding the print technology behind POD, and aware that digital-print operations were producing large-format color graphics, her husband wondered this as well.

“We decided to look into digital textile printing – basically a Lulu for fabric printing. We understood how to use the Internet to build a community for creative people, but we didn’t know a thing about digital textile printers, what was available, and what those printers could do,” he says.

Fortunately, Fraser was in the right place. A short drive from his Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home, the non-profit organization (TC)2 (www.tc2.com) in Cary, North Carolina, had everything in place to educate them about digital textile printing. The research facility had installed and operated a large-format Mutoh printer, modified for printing on fabric. “We could see the technology would work, for what we wanted to do,” he recalls.

They had no way of knowing, however, whether there was sufficient interest to support a business. To test demand, they launched Spoonflower, named for an area wildflower, as a rudimentary website about printing on fabric. They used social media to promote it and gather a mailing list of people who expressed some interest in having their designs printed on fabric.

Then, as a beta test, they invited some on that list to try out the service. For $18, users could have their design reproduced on a single yard of cotton fabric. Printing was done during off hours at the TC2 facility.
“We did that for a few months, but by July 2008 we decided we’d seen enough validation of the concept to get a loan and buy our own printer,” Fraser reports.

Setting up shop
Fraser and crew rented space in a former sock mill in Mebane, North Carolina, month-to-month, as home to their startup. For production, they purchased one of the same Mutoh MC3 large-format inkjets modified for textile printing by Yuhan-Kimberly, a joint venture between Korean manufacturer Yuhan and American supplier Kimberly Clark. In the fall, they continued to offer fabric printing services by invitation as they mastered the equipment, and demand continued to build.

By the time they purchased their second Mutoh that November, they had 10,000 people on a waiting list to have their designs printed. In January 2009, when the New York Times featured Spoonflower’s novel new option of custom printing on fabric, they were already having trouble keeping up with demand. Customers were limited to just four yards of printing on cotton, and Spoonflower was soon processing 100 orders a day.

While Fraser focused on logistical issues, Davis applied his coding expertise to build the online marketplace that now serves as Spoonflower's portal, community, and storefront. The ambitious undertaking called for seamless integration of several components into a website where visitors could submit, preview, and place their orders; market their designs; shop an expanding catalog; and share enthusiasm for custom designs, printing, and projects.

“It took a while for Gart to write that code, and when he finished that was the big fork in the road for us,” says Fraser. “When we finally launched the marketplace – so people could sell their designs to other people for printing through Spoonflower – we became the largest fabric store on the planet.”

“Toward the end of spring 2009, we got a loan for four more printers, and then the business finally stabilized,” says Fraser. “But we continued to have the same problems: Demand was always ahead of our capacity and we had to scramble to find more money to buy more printers.”

In August 2010 they relocated the business and its growing staff to Durham – a real office with more space and air conditioning,” notes Fraser. “By then, we had 10 printers and our customer base continued to grow.”

Fast forward to 2012, when growth forced the company to relocate again – this time to a more spacious 20,000-square-foot headquarters in Durham.

Today, Spoonflower is home to a staff of more than 60 and an equipment lineup that has swelled to nearly 30 printers. Customers can choose from more than 200,000 available designs for printing on 10 fabrics, including a range of cottons, canvas, and cotton silk blends. “We’re now running three shifts, seven days a week to meet demand,” says Fraser.

Creating custom wallpaper
With the additional space, Spoonflower could finally address the demand for printing wallpaper, something that had long been percolating. For that, the company added the first of four Hewlett-Packard Designjet L26500 60-inch latex printers.

“We knew we didn’t want to use a solvent inkjet, because of its environmental impact,” says Fraser. “The latex ink provided a solution comparable in simplicity to the pigments we use on textiles. The most important factor for us is the simplicity and eco-friendliness of the process.”

Following a beta trial last summer, the wallcovering service was launched, exclusively using HP’s wall media and latex inks. The printer’s capabilities also allow Spoonflower to offer custom decals for use in wall murals. “We tried to stay away from vinyl and can offer peel-and-stick decals printed on a polyester textile,” he points out.

Compared to the rest of its business, these are highly specialized services. “With fabric, the applications are as varied as people’s hobbies,” explains Fraser. “The largest single use may be for pillows, but they are also used for apparel, bags, plush toys, quilts, curtains, and even the latest designs seen on New York fashion walkways.”

For wallcoverings, it’s primarily as wallpaper, with occasional calls for decorative decals as part of a wall mural. Some customers are designing and ordering decals, then cutting them and combining them on wall spaces.

Printing full-scale murals is not yet an option. “Part of the appeal of our system is that we give people the ability to see what they will be getting before they order their prints,” explains Fraser. “We don’t really have the interface yet that will allow them to preview an entire mural.”

If that’s limiting demand, it hasn’t been noticed. Wallpaper sales have grown month-to-month since launch without an aggressive push, and now account for 10 percent of the company’s overall business. It’s sure to accelerate, as the company puts more focus, and adds additional wall media.

Eventually that could make Spoonflower as much the go-to-source for wallcoverings as it has become for custom-printed fabrics. The same designs which helped establish its success can all be printed as wall coverings now, too.

“There’s certain number of people who want to create their own wallpaper, and those who prefer to choose one of our designs and have it printed for them. It’s been running about 50/50,” comparable to printing on fabric.

Anyone who uploads a design to the site has the option of making it available for sale through Spoonflower. Most don’t. Designers who go this route receive a 10-percent royalty on the cost of the order, whether printed on fabric or paper. “Our community now includes designers from all over the world, and some of them do a lot of business through our site,” notes Fraser.

To encourage their involvement, Spoonflower sponsors weekly contests through its community, soliciting designs for a specific theme. Recent themes included picnics, citrus fruits, and highways and byways. Community members vote on their favorite, which get featured in a “Winner’s Circle” on the website.

Through the marketplace, consumers can place orders, or contact designers to inquire about having something customized. Customers can order a 12 x 24-inch sample swatch for $5. The standard roll is 24-inches wide and 12-feet long and sells for $60. Custom lengths are available for $5 a linear foot. The order window includes a calculator to determine exactly how many rolls to order, based on room dimensions
Spoonflower accepts design files in all popular graphics formats, at 150 dpi minimum. Actual printing is done with a resolution of 720 dpi.

“So far, wallcoverings look a lot like the fabric market,” Fraser observes.

Transforming any space
“Where it’s most different is in some of the unique one-of-a-kind projects,” says Fraser. Designers or interior decorators might order a specific color of a design to complement the look of furnishings. The most specialized projects can be whatever the client conceives.

In making that case, Fraser speaks from experience. For his own family reunion, he created a collage from heirloom photographs, letters, and even his great grandparents’ wedding invitation. The items were scanned, combined on a computer, printed as wallpaper, then installed in the cabin used for the gathering.

“That’s just one example of the types of wallpaper we can do now,” says Fraser.

And, it suggests how digitally printed wallcoverings could be used to transform any space into something truly personal or unique. “The customers we have are some of the most creative people on the planet,” concludes Fraser. “They aren’t all designers but they are all creating things they enjoy.”

“We’ve tried to build our business as a platform to give people the tools to do some remarkable things that just weren’t possible before.”

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