Wallcoverings' Creative Awakening

What’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s next as wallcoverings are reimagined in hip ways that go far beyond marketing and branding.

To designers, an empty wall is like a big, blank canvas. It’s just waiting to be decorated with images that solve site-specific design challenges. Whether clients want to set a certain mood in retail, inspire collaboration in a conference room, or cover unsightly cracks in an aging home, today’s decorative designs are grabbing everyone’s attention, as retailers and brand marketers learn that well-designed, unbranded wallcoverings can make a space feel more inviting and evoke an emotional response. Artists, photographers, designers, and their clients now know that custom wallcoverings can be way cooler than the fussy floral patterns in grandma’s parlor.

Because wallcoverings no longer have to be designed for mass-market appeal or the limitations of rotary screen presses, designers are free to experiment. Online, you can buy everything from black-light poster wallpaper to Andy Warhol-inspired prints. Chicago-based Kasia Kay Art Projects’ Fine Art Wallpapers line features wallpapers designed by artists around the world. On the Houzz website for interior design enthusiasts, Kasia Kay emphasizes her mission to “provide an opportunity to own a piece of art that is more affordable than original artwork by the same collectible artist.”

At Flavor Paper, designs span the spectrum from funky or geometric to floral and traditional. On their website, Flavor Paper tells designers, “We want to put an end to the expression ‘If walls could talk’ and finally give them the voice they’ve been wanting.”

Consumers See What’s Possible
A few years ago, consumers started seeing photo murals and artsy graphics in hotel rooms, stores, and restaurants. Media sites such as Pinterest, Houzz, Instagram, and HGTV.com are making it faster and easier for consumers to experiment with temporary fabric murals or decorative wall decals before commissioning a professional.

Spoonflower, a digital printing company that began printing custom fabrics for crafters, recently published a book that provides step-by-step instructions for making projects with custom-designed fabric, gift wrap, and peel-and-stick wallpaper. “The Spoonflower Handbook” notes that peel-and-stick products can be used for custom wall treatments or to change the exterior of a piece of furniture or object without committing to a permanent look. (The company also recently garnered a $25 million investment for expansion into home goods and apparel.)

Resolving Technical Issues
To disrupt long-established markets such as interior décor, digital printing companies must learn to overcome technical challenges that aren’t immediately apparent to newcomers. For example, using self-adhesive vinyl to create “wall wraps” seems like a logical extension of creating vehicle wraps, but interior walls are much different. But the smooth, thin vinyl developed for the contours of vehicles doesn’t always hide rough spots on the walls. Vinyl murals are easily damaged in high-traffic areas and lingering odors from solvent inks pose problems indoors.

Media manufacturers have also learned that print materials must be dimensionally stable in order to accurately align multipanel images during installation. Even “permanent” wallcovering materials should be easier to install and remove than traditional mass-market wallpapers. Homeowners and businesses no longer expect room design to remain static for 20 years.

Wrinkle-free fabrics with repositionable adhesives have quickly become popular for wall murals because they are so easy to remove. Customers don’t have to commit to a specific design and can even use them for short-term events and promotions. Yet, repositionable fabrics don’t offer the longer-term durability, thickness, and variety of textures of traditional wallpapers installed with wallpaper paste. Some of these wet-strength digitally printable wallcoverings come with a pre-applied paste that is activated with water from a spray bottle. The papers can also be removed without laborious scraping.

Along with fulfilling high aesthetic potential, printed materials for interior décor must comply with health and safety standards specified in local building codes. Many architects require materials that meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standards.

At the Heimtextil show in Germany, HP showcased bold and colorful wallcoverings designed by artist Markus Benesch. Benesch, who used to spend up to two weeks painting stucco murals for private clients, sold his first collection of digitally printable designs to the Rasch Wallpaper Company in 2004. He liked digital printing because his designs didn’t fit the traditional repeat patterns used in rotary screen printing. And his clients regarded HP Latex inks as a breakthrough because the printed papers didn’t smell.

HP’s success in educating designers about digital wallcoverings has both benefitted large-format graphics providers and begun to address demands for cloud-based, customer friendly ways to work with demanding interior design clients. HP launched its WallArt Solution as a design and visualization tool for graphics providers who want to print wallcoverings, decals, and canvases. It can be integrated into e-commerce sites and is designed to simplify the process of moving designs from imagination to installation.

Meanwhile, LexJet has focused on developing wallcovering materials for photographic murals. In 2014, the company partnered with York Wallcoverings to update its inkjet-printable wallpapers. LexJet provided insights on the needs of digital photographers and artists; York Wallcoverings supplied expertise in which materials and adhesives work best for interior walls and meet building code standards. The result is the LexJet WallPro SUV by York line of wallcovering materials – bright white, paste-applied wallpapers designed for converting high-resolution images into durable, permanent wall murals.

The company says WallPro products accentuate the look and feel of photographic images printed on the material, and the bright white point in LexJet WallPro wallpapers can print wide color gamuts for greater detail in the highlight and shadow areas of wall-size photo prints. The consistency of the white base paper makes it easier for photographers to ensure that the wallpapers will accurately reproduce the colors they edited in their high-definition displays. Professional Photographer magazine recently designated LexJet WallPro SUV by York as a winner of a “Hot One Award” as a new and notable product for 2015.

Wallcoverings Can Be Interactive
As the demand for easy-to-install, custom wallcoverings has grown, innovation has quickly followed. At the WantedDesign Manhattan event held during NYCxDesign week in May, Visual Magnetics showed their Dynamic Spaces line of easy-change magnetic materials for offices, museums, schools, and homes, designed for collaborative workspaces, ideation labs, and conference rooms. The products are complemented by MindLayers magnetic dry-erase layers that can be custom printed to fit specific workflows. ModuLayer products are interactive modular wallcoverings that introduce an element of play into home décor; the layers can be easily moved around to create unique patterns.

Designers, Artists Study Surface Imaging
Since 2011, Kyra and Robertson Hartnett of the wallpaper design and printing studio twenty2 have been encouraging interior design students at the Pratt Institute to think differently about wallpapers. At the ICFF design show, they released “Deep,” a student-designed collection of 3D wallpapers in five different styles. “As mentors, we helped challenge these talented students to rethink depth, dimension, and pattern repeat,” Kyra Hartnett says.

In similar fashion, Hitoshi Ujiie launched a master’s degree program in surface imaging at Philadelphia University last summer. The transdisciplinary program, Ujiie says, “will prepare students for career paths as imaging specialists in design, product development, and management in the growing imaging [field].” His ideal candidates include graduates in art and design.

Looking Ahead
In many respects, the creative awakening for digital décor has just begun, and its future applications are still unknown.

One futuristic application in 3D designs is the Deep collection of wallcoverings from twenty2 that become dimensional when viewed with 3D glasses. While that may not seem practical for current applications, “3D wallpaper takes something very familiar and asks it to behave differently,” says Sarah Strauss, a visiting professor for the Pratt Institute. “By using wallpaper to make space out of flatness, we are creating a new interactive experience for the interior.”

Meanwhile, the anticipated growth of the “internet of things” is prompting researchers to explore applications using printed electronics. In the Art Gallery at the 2015 Siggraph conference, independent artist and former MIT Media Lab professor Leah Buechley showed a wallpaper design in which leaves on a beautifully printed vine lit up with flexible electronic circuits printed on the wallpaper, for example.

According to an International Business Times article, researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have developed printed electronics that transform walls into digital devices. Electronics printed onto wallpaper could incorporate miniature speakers, microphones, switches, and sensors. Imagine an elderly person asking the walls to call for help instead of dialing 911.

What it Means for Print-Service Providers
Decorating is a huge market because it includes sub- applications such as wall decals, accent-wall murals, canvas prints, and window blinds. One strategy for growing a wallcovering business is to partner with designers who can help you create and market new products. To locate qualified photographers or designers, consider contacting LexJet. The company has developed a base of customers with expertise in professional photography and designing large-format graphics.

To identify a niche, consider how many ways wallcovering materials are being used. Wallcovering materials enable home remodelers to cover up cracked walls and add a contemporary vibe. Designers are using custom wallcoverings as backdrops to digital signage or to create the desired mood in public spaces, retail and environment venues, and healthcare facilities. Wallcovering materials can wrap kiosks, cover unsightly construction barriers, provide informational backdrops for museum exhibits, or create interesting backdrops in art galleries and photo studios.

Today, print manufacturers like EFI are looking for growth in the décor market. EFI’s roll-to-roll UV-LED printers are one option for printing heat-sensitive panels that must remain dimensionally stable, and the company’s Reggiani machines can print fabric-based wallcoverings.

At Canon Expo 2015 in September, Canon demonstrated ultra-high resolution imaging systems that may make it possible to create and replicate textures on any surface printed with UV-curable inks. Eventually, designers may be able to create distinctive textures for wallcovering designs. As this happens, digital printing will be regarded as more of a craft, just like hand screen printing is today. Savvy imaging specialists, who already excel at handling materials and machines, are prime candidates to take advantage of tomorrow’s demand for custom interiors, seamless installations, and printable wallcoverings technologies yet to be unveiled.

View more from this Big Picture issue