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Reinventing Interiors; a digital transformation



In her latest exclusive piece for WhichPLM, resident digital printing Expert, Debbie McKeegan, explores the effect of digital printing on an industry with many similarities to that of Fashion: the Interiors sector. Debbie pays close attention to wallpapers here.

In an exciting marketplace we must not under estimate the creative and commercial impact that the evolution of digital print technology will force on the Interiors industry.

The Interiors industry worldwide crosses so many market sectors, and each has its own unique technical specifications to achieve. For a creative in a specialist marketplace understanding how best to utilize digital print is an essential learning curve.

Any Interior – be it residential or contract – is a complex design, incorporating many co-ordinated components. Each element has a key place in the finished scheme and must be delivered fit for purpose, fulfilling the technical, functional and visual needs of the designer’s scheme. 

And how do we, as creatives, address the digital opportunities that we have at our fingertips? The creative freedom offered by digital print is infinite. For the Interior designer now gifted with an exciting new set of tools the product possibilities are endless; the only limit is the designer’s talent and access to print technology.

Designers, digital manufacturers and technologists must work together. That’s not always possible but as an industry we must encourage collaboration with the design community. It’s from these essential experimental workgroups that the industry will develop and nurture future talent.

Let’s take an individual look at the printed components of a typical Interior scheme, starting with walls.

What’s next for wallpaper?

Wallpaper was probably one of the first essential elements of an Interior to be given a digital twist and, as base substrate, probably one of the least complicated. I’m not dumbing down the manufacturing skills needed for wallpaper, but compared to Textiles (which I will address next) the landscape for paper is somewhat simpler!

Early digital applications for wallpaper were photographic. After all, the technology was first seen in the Graphics industry some 20 years ago. The images often picture murals consisted of one artwork file, printed in strips and applied to the wall in sequence by the client. Early print technology used solvent inks, and was not ideal, often producing a strong toxic odour. That said, solvent inks still have a place in the market for some heavy-duty vinyl applications.

As technology advanced both for inks and print heads the latex generation was born. Latex is a pigment ink with a binder; it’s eco-friendly, water based and, importantly- non-toxic. Latex is now the preferred print process for wallpapers. The technology offers good colour yield alongside stable colour consistency and, importantly, speed of manufacture.

Pre-digital wallpapers were mass produced using expensive cylinders or, looking back even further, block printing. Digital techniques have given wallpaper a new lease of life.  Designers have aided, developed and embraced new manufacturing methods alongside digital technology – all of which now offers a commercial, profitable solution to the design industry.

Many of these innovative techniques are born from the hard work of designer / manufacturer collaborations, or at the expense of business owners who push the boundaries of technology to its limits to seek efficient new production methods. Some print paper using a purely digital process, but others combine both digital and handcrafted techniques for luxury end of the market. And so, with exciting new products to offer, the wallpaper marketplace has once more flourished, bringing with it’s resurgence many new businesses and commercial opportunities.


What’s changed for walls and what’s next?

Driven by the online millennial generation our need for eclectic boutique purchases has never been greater. The design community has witnessed an explosion of emerging designer brands selling their own unique wallpaper collections online. These shops typically do not hold any stock, and print on demand as orders are taken.

Our thirst for customization continues to grow. Individual clients can upload artwork and purchase their own unique wallpaper online and, for those with D.I.Y confidence, create their own unique Interior scheme for an affordable cost.

On the high street, independent retail brands design and develop their own wallpaper collections. Shadowing the catwalk fashion trends and, importantly, keeping stocks low so that they can deliver an endless stream of enticing offerings in multiple seasons.

Interior Designers need both customization and instant access to innovative product. The contract market’s technical and safety legislation places stringent constraints on the usability of wallpapers in contract environments. Designers have embraced the new digital offerings that can now deliver fire retardant, contract grade products to the commercial market.

For everybody buying print, the commercial relationships between buyers and suppliers must be chosen carefully if they are to succeed. Speed of delivery, price and sustainability are all key to the success of the print on demand business model.


Digital textiles for Interiors; what’s new?

It’s so easy to take technology for granted and we must first look back at how far we have come in this digital decade – only then can we appreciate how spoiled we are now.


So, how did we buy textiles 20 years ago? Keeping it simple and brief, textile manufacturers, wholesalers and Interior fabric companies would produce an offering of pre-manufactured fabric collections from which to select, for example: a range for Spring and Summer, Fall and Winter. The Interior designer or buyer would then choose from these collections and plan their Interior schemes or retail offering. Nothing was bespoke, customized or tailor-made! Choice was limited.

Of course, as an industry we still manufacture huge volumes – millions of metres – of printed stock fabrics across the world. Conventional print is still by far the largest volume sector, but with the advent of digital print the industry has forged new marketplaces to address the needs for both customization, reduced stock and localized sourcing.

And so how do you scale down mass production for digital textile manufacture?

‘Mini-mass manufacture’ is a new term for our print community; it applies where the need for print volume is low (typically under 2.000 metres) but repeatable. It addresses the need for low stocks and high design content; fashionable collections which change with the seasons, often multiple seasons. The stable content may be the un-printed substrate held in stock and printed on demand to feed the supply chain.

The manufacturing process must be efficient and reactive. Technically for the supplier it’s important to address sourcing and the consistency of raw materials, colour, consistent continuity between batches of cloth, print and finishing are critical. It’s also important to look at the print process and choose wisely to make sure that the fabrics meet your expectations.

With a vast offering of print processes, which is right for your product?

Homeware – Most homeware products are manufactured using pigment Inks. Textiles printed upon are mainly cottons and include, Calico, Plain Cotton, Drill, Poplin, Linens etc. End products are furnishings fabrics, bedding and homeware to include kitchen textiles, cushions etc.

Contract Interiors – The Interior market uses many fabrics, some of which are cottons, and some are complex polyester blends. The difference is that in many areas of use they must be Fire Retardant. This can be achieved by printing onto FR bases or post coating with FR chemicals after print. End products are furnishing fabrics, drapes, cushions, ipholstery, roller blinds, bedding, tableware.

If you’re looking for bespoke print for your Interior project, how do you choose a supplier? For bespoke, customized Interior projects care must be given when choosing your supplier. Be wary of selecting by price alone! After all, the complexities of textile manufacture demand a vast knowledge and the use of textile technology if you are to supply consistent, professional products. Samples must be exchanged and, if needed, pre-press colour must be agreed, signed off and then managed at production to ensure that the final items will match existing or new products.

Looking forward, what does the future hold for Interiors?

There can be no doubt that the advances in digital print bring exciting times for anybody involved in the Interiors industry. The applications are endless! But we must take care to remember that design and technical skills are critical to both the print buyer’s success, and the Interior designer’s finished project.

The Interiors market has gained pace; we seek “innovative Interiors” alongside “fast fashion” all balanced amidst the never-ending buzz of consumer trends. We must take great care not to undervalue the skills needed both by the designer and the manufacturer.

All images provided by: www.debbiemckeegan.com

Debbie McKeegan Award winning British designer, Debbie McKeegan, began her digital journey almost two decades ago – pre-Photoshop, and pre-digital print. With a manufacturing background, a vast knowledge of traditional textiles (from both a design and production perspective), and an interest in CAD from its onset, today Debbie serves as an expert in the world of digital print. Debbie has developed many new digital production practices, and speaks as an authority on digital design and print worldwide. She is the CEO of TextIntel - an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing industry. As a WhichPLM contributor, she is able to pass on her wisdom as a digital pioneer; embracing the creative freedom offered with the advancement of new technology, she looks forward to sharing her knowledge.