Wednesday, April 23, 2008

EDPA Designer Tip - Fabric

By Hilary Howes

Since the first trader helped his products stand out in an ancient agoura by setting them out on his cloak, fabric has been an important part of the event marketing business. Now in the 21st century tension fabric architecture and art is increasingly the choice of marketers for a variety of financial and aesthetic reasons. For designers used to building in wood and metal fabric can be seen as a playground where "anything is possible" or a "no-mans-land" fraught with unknown risks and techniques. I'll try to get you to a middle path with some tips here so that your designs can reap the benefits of fabric while maintaining the clean professional image of your work in other materials.

Originally a theatrical set designer, fabric has long been one of my main mediums. I married a costume designer too and for 30 years fabric has been a daily topic of conversation. When I won an Exhibitor award in 2000 it not surprising that a Transformit tension fabric structure was a featured element. When I went to work for Transformit this year I was surprised that they wanted me to spend 3 weeks training at their studio before working with their clients. That seemed like a long time (in a Maine winter) for someone with my 'hands-on' background. Now, as an evangelist for TFS working with architects and designers, I am so glad I did. I even have a section of my presentation I call 'What i didn't know, that I didn't know'. I'll cover some of it here but my overarching advice is to partner with a TFS company that can support your ideas as you create in fabric. Just as collaboration with your client is key to developing your design, collaboration is key to developing your design to a elegant fabric solution.

Fabric exhibit architecture is increasingly popular for financial, aesthetic and sustainability reasons. The savings on shipping, drayage, and labor are frequently acknowledged but savings though low maintenance and long wear are important too. How many graphics are printed with the color infused into the material (dye sublimation) or can get thrown in the washer if they pick up a spot? ZZ-Top toured 77 cities with a set from Transformit with very little refurbishment along the way.

Fabric, Tension, and Structure all have association with values that companies increasingly want to communicate. If your client want to communicate how flexible, accommodating, transparent, and natural they are what better way to say it than with a material associated with all those qualities? Clients are telling stories now with their exhibits and every interesting story has tension in it. It attracts and amazes us and creates mystery as well. Conversely the visible yet veiled structure of a TFS supports the value that companies have in showing they are more than a 'slick-surface', that they have an apparent structure, inspiring trust in their enterprise. Have a look at the mission, vision, or value statement of your client on your next project and see what materials they suggest. I'm betting fabric is part of the mix.

TFS while not actually organic does take on biophilic shapes well which bespeaks it's living lightly on the earth. The aluminum and stretch fabric can have sizable recycled content and are able to be recycled. The efficiencies of shipping, storage, and labor makes for a low carbon footprint compared to the alternatives. Combining the above with the potential for reuse or rental (like Transformit's Readymades) makes for a system that looks and is green regardless of it color.

It's easy to believe that stretch fabric will take on the iconic wing or sail look if you just pull hard enough but in reality it takes engineering in fabric to get a smooth arc edge and no wrinkles on the surface. Free wings require the edge shape to be patterned in the fabric and then controlled by a edging tube of stronger stretch fabric. Aluminum structures can integrate with fabric in 3 main ways. Single skin where a fabric tunnel zips on to each structural tube. Pillowcase where multi panel fabric bag encloses the entire structure and zips on an inconspicuous edge. Edge attached panels where fabric (with a keder stitched into the edge) is inserted into the slot of system architecture (like Octanorm). In this last method the structure is fully exposed. With all of these the fabric is a stretch knit or if it is a woven fabric without stretch it needs an edge of powerful stretch fabric to tension the skin and remove all wrinkles. These are just the basics of fabric engineering and there are many exceptions and variations possible.

One of the design issues that comes up most often is budgeting for TFS. Not only is the material different to work with but the costs associated it don't follow familiar rules of thumb that we are used to from frame and panel construction. Since shipping, drayage, and labor costs are so different even direct comparison of material costs is somewhat fallacious. Still those direct comparisons get made and often make fabric look like an expensive proposition. Budgeting is further challenging because square foot rules of thumb don't apply. The majority of the costs are in the number and complexity of the joints in a frame not the amount of area covered by the structure. It's not unusual for a small complex piece to be more expensive than a large simple piece. One can also generally be sure that eliminating structure in will save on material cost but raise installation cost as locating suitable tension points in the environment become the means of defining the shape.

One sure way to lower cost is to use a readymade rental piece for events and exhibits of a limited duration. Event if your design requires a new graphic skin you will save by renting the complex frame for a sign or sculpture. Often designing with a readymade CAD file from your TFS source will save you development time even if the unit is intended for purchase. Doing so also give you the option of switching to a rental if the budget should get cut down the line. Transformit has over 100 shapes in 9 coordinated lines for instance and Moss has recently announced a rental program.

I'll wrap up with the hope that you will follow the thread of this piece and look to developing stronger ties to your TFS supplier.

Award winning and relentless creative Hilary Howes is a popular speaker/writer for the EDPA, TSEA and Color Marketing Group. As a Creative Director for Transformit she empowers architects and designers to create dynamic visual experiences with Tension Fabric Sculpture. This piece was published by the EDPA in their online news letter.