When we think of “wallpaper,” we think of slathering paste on a wall, unrolling and cutting the paper—hopefully straight and accurately—and trying to get it to stick in some vague approximation of the correct position. Well, that kind of wallpaper has gone the way of button shoes, and the number of materials that can be used to produce wallpaper décor today has expanded exponentially to include such substrates as vinyls, metallics (vrai and faux), textured materials and textiles. Whether they’re outputting rolls of repeating patterns or one-off custom images and murals, producers are taking wallcoverings to new heights.
“I don't think ‘wallpaper’ is necessarily a passé word,” said Victoria Harris, textile application specialist at Mimaki USA. “I don’t think it’s out of fashion, but it’s more than a wallpaper application. Especially with technology advances like digital inkjet printing, it just has deeper meaning. You have so many more diverse possibilities from a design perspective as well as an application perspective. So it’s not just wallpaper anymore.”
“Nowadays, we also have fabric wallcoverings, so it’s not only the paper,” said Ryosuke Nakayama, textile and apparel product manager for Mimaki. “It’s getting diversified depending on the needs or depending on the location, if it’s retail space or a home space. Every wall has different properties.”
Repeat After Me
Like the traditional wallpaper we have all probably wrestled with at some point, today’s wall décor, even though it is increasingly printed digitally, still largely comprises repeating patterns rather than discrete images.
Northeast Color, based in Dover, N.H., produces branded wall décor for some the country’s largest retail franchises—from fitness centers, to dry cleaners, to trampoline parks, to tutoring centers, to...you name it—and those repeating patterns are based on the franchise’s branding.
“We use wall coverings to achieve a branding effect for our clients,” said Derrick Ableman, marketing manager for Northeast Color. “We look at the brand and the wall covering exclusively as elements of a branding. They’re tools to create that immersive environment.”
Northeast Color uses predominantly EFI equipment, and was a beta site for the recent VUTEk H5.
Because of the nature of Northeast Color’s clients—major retail franchises—the substrates chosen need to be industrial-grade and are designed to last up to 10 years.
“We’re really looking for versatility and durability,” Ableman said. “There are substrates that look and feel like metal, or pebbled surfaces, or all of these different textures. It’s such a wide array of tools that we can use.”
This is another area where “paper” is taking a backseat to newer materials.
“We see paper product going up on the wall in commercial locations and paper product is thin,” said Bryan Winter, creative director for Northeast Color. “It’s not durable. It gets damaged very quickly and needs to be replaced. So with that same amount of installation effort, we can install a commercial-grade, mesh-back, vinyl-based product that can be washed with no trouble and doesn’t scuff easily. There’s a cost difference, but you’re getting a better product out of it.”
One of the major drivers of digital wall décor is the exponentially increasing array of textures and effects.
“From a design perspective, we see a lot of advances in 3D wall coverings and photorealistic panels for residential and commercial spaces,” Harris said. “We also see the ability to print and mimic natural textures, such as stone or marble as growing design trends. We also see more and more textile wall covering materials being put in frames so it can be easily switched out and changed.”
Silicone-edge graphics (SEG) are a growing display graphics application that involves mounting printed fabric inside a light aluminum frame. This type of décor has become popular in public spaces like airports.
Mimaki also sees heightened interest in new materials that demonstrate greater sustainability, especially for use in hospitals and schools.
“There are different new materials, especially like metallics and decals,” Harris said, “and also sustainable and antibacterial wall coverings.”
The latter are especially becoming popular in health care facilities.
Digital wall décor, and the related “environmental graphics” application category, have gained traction in retail and office environments, but the residential digital wall market could be poised to take off, as people start to get a sense of the ways they can customize and personalize their homes. And real estate staging companies are starting to get in on the action.
“There’s so much flipping of houses, and the real estate market has kind of surged,” said Donna Covannon, director of marketing NA for Xeikon. “The staging company can go in and offer digital wall décor. It doesn’t even have to be full-wall. It could be wall borders or just a couple of panels. It’s something that they can easily put up and then easily take down without damaging the wall. If the owner doesn’t like that particular graphic, no problem. It’s easy to take down—actually easier than traditional wallpaper.”
At the most recent Xeikon Café in Itasca, Ill., outside Chicago, Xeikon demonstrated its easily removable wall coverings.
“We actually papered two of the breakout rooms at the Westin Hotel where we were having the event,” Covannon said, “and also the doors in that room where we applied a big label. It was then easily removed without any damage to the door or to the wall or the wallpaper.”
Xeikon would have been on the hook to the Westin for any damage—nothing like having some skin in the game.
Xeikon is also working with customers whose own customers can upload their own images and print personalized wallcoverings, or at least customized wall borders.
“One of the opportunities is to produce wall borders, but add that personalized touch to them,” Covannon said. “Think about wall borders in a nursery, as an example. So you can upload images of your own baby and add your own sayings instead of having the premade sayings. We’re just taking that to the next level.”
And not just baby’s room.
“Wall borders really can fit in any room, like a family room,” Covannon added. “You can upload your images of your most memorable vacation.”
The Mural of the Story
A growing variety of wallcovering is the wall mural—nothing truly new (just ask Diego Rivera) except insofar as digital printing makes it easy and cost effective to produce one-offs and short-runs of wall murals.
Northeast Color also does mural work.
“Obviously our sweet spot, and what we prefer, is repeating patterns because we can do thousands and thousands of rolls and just crank them out,” Ableman said.
But he added that murals can be great for “those special sorts of accent walls or branded pieces or almost museum-grade installations.”
“Murals can be challenging,” Winter said. “Anytime we have a mural, field measurements are key. When we’re working off blueprints, they’re never exactly the same and sometimes the floor is uneven or the molding is taller than they expected. So we always tend to build in extra design and extra bleed to give us a few extra inches here and there.”
Fullerton, Calif.’s Gamut Media specializes in custom-printed wall murals, and has even won an SGIA Golden Image Award for its printed graphics.
“A lot of people are doing custom wall graphics, especially for restaurants and retail,” said Philip Yu, creative director for Gamut Media. “They want a big impact when people walk in, and a digitally printed wall mural is something that really could change the whole feel of the room.”
The specific material that Gamut Media uses is dictated by the look and feel the customer is going for.
“We do stuff for a higher-end dim sum restaurant, so their graphics are more like old black-and-white photos of how they started in Taiwan in the 50s,” Yu said. “So they want to go with like a canvas type of wallcovering.”
Gamut Media, which uses predominantly Roland VersaCamm printers, also does exterior graphics. Last summer, they created a building wrap for ComicCon. One interesting project that Gamut Media recently worked on was a set of murals for rapper Snoop Dogg’s compound. (It also illustrates some of the oblique ways shops can get work.)
“We did a wall mural for my tattoo artist’s shop,” Yu said.
A contractor, who was working on the tattoo studio also worked on Snoop Dogg’s house.
“And then he asked my tattoo artist, ‘Hey, who did your wall mural, because I think I might be able to give him some work with Snoop.’ And that’s how pretty much we got connected.”
Snoop had bought a massive recording studio which was essentially an empty shell.
“The first mural he wanted to do was a custom UCLA wall mural for his son, because he went to UCLA,” Yu said.
Snoop loved it, and then things took off—in more ways than one.
“After that, Snoop wanted a Star Wars/Star Trek type of mural,” Yu said. “He designed his whole interior to look pretty much like a spaceship. We did that mural and then he loved it, and we just kept doing more and more.”
Gamut Media ended up doing upwards of 17 murals for Snoop Dogg’s private compound. As a creative, Yu found it a bit refreshing compared to a lot of the work he usually does.
“He gave me a lot of creative freedom, which is really cool because like a lot of time when we’re doing work for brands, you’re restricted to what their brand is. But he gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted and he liked our style.”
An additional point of pride is that Yu has seen his work turn up on TV.
“When you watch his music videos, or see Netflix shows of him, or interviews, you’ll see the wall murals in there.”
Climbing the Walls
For printing companies looking to get into the wall covering/décor market, key advice centers on whom to approach to sell these kinds of products and services. As with environmental graphics, making first contact with architectural or interior design firms is a good start, since they are the ones that are involved in overall project management of the space that will need the décor.
Equipment-wise, wall décor is not a huge stretch if a company is already doing wide-format, sign or display graphics.
“It’s easily adaptable if they have the right digital printing solution,” Harris said. “If you have a digital printer with UV ink that also has a white ink, you have the ability to print on wall coverings. If you have the white ink, you can print on metallic wall coverings, which we have a lot of end users doing.”
And from there, it’s a small step to expand to other elements of the décor.
“They're able to add depth to the whole environment or the whole interior space,” she said.
Covannon stressed that print service providers should pay close attention to the substrates.
“They should definitely ask about the substrates, making sure that they can produce something that is easily removable,” she said.
And also make sure the substrates are compatible with the printing equipment you have, not just in terms of basic printability but also in terms of range of products offered.
“You really don’t want to limit yourself," Covannon said.
The market for digitally printed wall décor is growing—and doesn’t appear to be exploited by the traditional wallpaper producers, as Xeikon discovered when they attended a Wallcovering Association event.
“We found that the current members, who are traditional flexo printers, actually weren’t interested in converting to digital,” Covannon said. “So that was a little bit of an eye-opener.”
It also provides an open niche for a print provider who knows digital and knows wall décor—and knows where to go to sell it.