Playing with colors, abusing wood and attending fashion shows may sound like leisure activities, but for the three in-house designers at Interprint USA, décor development is a big responsibility. After all, Interprint is a leading décor paper printer, their products end up in everything from countertops, to flooring and furniture. “What I find enjoyable about working for our many customers,” says Design Manager Peter Garlington, “is that I am not dealing with one company’s product line, I am dealing with every company’s product line.” Décor development for Interprint requires the designers to be the juxtaposition between seemingly opposite ends of extremes. They must be technicians and artists; they must be innovators who can follow directions. They must keep one eye on the fashions of Paris and Milan, and the other to the sensibilities of the American Midwest. And always, they must ensure their work continues to drive the laminate industry forward. Fortunately for the design team, Interprint invests in exceptional people and cutting-edge technology, such as on-site laser engraving, that helps the designers to meet the broad needs of the laminate industry.
THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF LAMINATE
Once upon a time there were very few options for counter top materials, and they all had drawbacks. Wood counter tops held bacteria. Marble counter tops were heavy and expensive. Both materials stain. And people grew tired of it. Then along came laminate. It was durable, relatively inexpensive, easy to install and widely available. Regardless of the fact that initially few designs were available (“Boomerang” anyone?) people flocked to laminate.
Since then laminate has only improved in performance and design. High-pressure laminate is arguably the best choice for flooring and furniture applications. But navigating the expansive world of materials can be daunting, and somewhere along the way a few of the same characteristics that made laminate desirable (low-cost and wide availability) started to negatively impact the public perception of laminate. To make matters worse, some contractors capitalize on this misconception and use ugly laminate designs as a disposable baseline for upselling other materials.
Contemporary décor development, with its unprecedented fi delity in natural designs and limitless possibilities in abstracts, geometric and modified organic designs, strives to reintroduce the cache element into the laminate realm. “We are slowly trying to turn the market,” explains Garlington. “I think it would be interesting to do a laminate marketing campaign that was a group effort of the printers, paper companies, suppliers and manufacturers to re-educate the consumer about what the product is and what it can be.”
“The visual image that the laminate is supplying simply can’t be achieved by other materials.” Peter Garlington, Design Manager, Interprint USA
Exceptional Design For All
Interprint’s design team is made up of three very different individuals who share a common philosophy that excellent design does not need to be exclusive to the extreme high-end of the specification market. Product Designer Rick Murnane explains his work, “Basically we are in the fashion business. We meet where the market is. Our job is to figure out how to make design work for us, so we pay attention to everything including: clothing, auto interiors and exteriors, architecture, wall coverings, and the colors and textures all around us.” In addition to their own ideas, Interprint USA has access to the design libraries of Interprint facilities worldwide. This global perspective helps the team to stay very current in the broad realm of décor development while focusing on the needs of their customers in the local markets.
To stay on top of trend movement each team member also maintains specialized professional affiliations that help to define that important intersection between design that is fashionable and also appropriate for décor paper. Murnane’s affiliation with the AIGA, the professional association for design and graphics, helps keep the Interprint team in touch with other realms of print-driven design and visual communication. Garlington is a member of the IDSA, the Industrial Designers Society of America. He is so committed to art of modifying materials that he collects old books on treating surfaces and carries out elaborate procedures in Interprint’s Materials Studio. These experiments can be labor intensive and take a lot of time, but with décor paper they only need to be completed once before they can be reproduced. Design Director Judy Wolgast is an active member of Color Marketing Group (CMG), an organization that spans every aspect of design. “It has become a group where we really have to mine our own stuff because we are moving fast enough that we have to translate what we are seeing in front of us pretty quickly,” says Wolgast. “As trends are moving so fast CMG gives the opportunity to mine for ideas and translate information. At the same time we crosscheck within related industries of what we are observing in the marketplace. It is a pulse, so to speak, a great research sounding board. If I see that purple is being discussed for auto interiors, I might be inclined to be more daring in my color selections for laminate products.”
There are many different levels of expertise that the designers are called on to have at any one time. “Design is about finding a solution to a set of criteria,” says Garlington. “And this is another point where the laser is advantageous, it allows us to deal appropriately with big customers as well as very short run customers.” The design team uses their research and personal inspirations to do open décor development that they anticipate will meet the upcoming market needs. Simultaneously they work with companies to fulfill their unique design objectives. “We use partnering discussions,” says Murnane, “we are not just an order filler. We have some customers who have strong in-house design departments, and we are their printer. We’re here to help them achieve what they are looking for in a range of color on press, but their designs are already realized.” The Interprint team also performs line reviews for clients to identify new opportunities in their design offering. They make suggestions relative to current trends and colors, and help customers to create a well-balanced product line.
The Technology of Art
While the designers are the creative force behind décor development, bringing a design out of the ether and onto paper is a collaborative effort. Garlington explains, “Yes, the laser is phenomenal, and we have high-speed presses and everything else, but the equipment alone isn’t the advantage. It is the combination of the company’s foresight to invest in good technology coupled with picking really good people to run those machines. That is the gain. The machines without people are just metal.” Each step in the process of bringing a design to life is overseen by an expert.
The actual printing of décor paper is done with the rotogravure method that uses engraved cylinders to apply pigments to paper. With the completion of their in-house laser engraving facility in 2009 Interprint USA solidified its position as a very vertically oriented printer. This dramatically decreased the time and cost involved in proto-typing new designs. “It used to be 3-6 months for us to develop a design for the cylinder and proof it, now we are overnight,” says Wolgast. Not only does this allow designers to dabble in short term trend development, but it also empowers them to provide a heightened degree of customer service. “There have been times when we have cylinders on press in the morning and something is not quite right. We can adjust the file, have lunch with the customer, and then have the cylinder back on press that afternoon,” says Wolgast.
There are 5 Elements to Good Design:
Once a material is chosen/modified/created by the designers it goes to the reprographics department to be made into a usable format. The repro department scans the material for structure. The subsequent file undergoes a separation process that pulls the design apart into different “units” that equate to layers of pigment on paper. Each unit requires a different engraved cylinder. The design can undergo “plastic surgery” in the repro department. Knots can be moved or eliminated from wood grain, boards can be knitted together and any other necessary adjustments can be made to make the presentation meet the designers’ intentions. Next, a set of test cylinders are laser engraved and used in the lab press. If the design works it goes back to the laser center for engraving of the production cylinders
“The laser engraving has really helped with the development of designs and the production quality,” says Wolgast. Garlington agrees, “The sheer fact that we have an engraving department that we can have a reasonable conversation with, that is concerned with the quality of the end product and not the bottom line, is a tremendous advantage.” Interprint also has in-house capacity to strip and plate printing cylinders, so they can be re-engraved with relative ease. “It certainly does allow us the possibility of doing more development, of becoming more specialized,” says Murnane. And since each successful design is backed up by a digital file and a physical manuscript, even obscure patterns can be re-run with absolute accuracy.
Purposeful trend development requires a five-year, a three-year and a next year outlook. It starts with the far-out, broad view of fashion and then refines that perspective into the near future. In the long term everything from fi ne furniture in Milan to vegan footwear is taken into consideration. Color stories and textures that begin to repeat across multiple disciplines are indictors of emerging trends. At the three-year outlook enduring styles come into focus, and as the time frame narrows, what is happening next year should fit in. The design team at Interprint closely watches as trends taper into being. They diligently work to create designs that are both timely and appropriate for laminate, which must co-exist with other elements of design. But they are also innovators and artists, and within Interprint they have technology at their fingertips that allows for limitless possibilities.
From present, zooming out to next year, the design team at Interprint is helping customers to respond to the recent economic downturn that has impacted the housing market. Analysts predict, nearly unanimously, that turn around will come to the North American market by 2010. Laminate manufacturers need to be ready, particularly since people will be more cautious about spending. “We are looking to take advantage of the gains we get from laser to go back to those good running wood grains that have been in peoples’ lines for 10 and 20 year and re-create the manuscripts for a fresh look,” says Wolgast. One prediction, based on historical trends, is that people tend to gravitate toward the familiar in times of uncertainty. Many companies realize that there is a great opportunity to refresh their current lines now. This way, when the housing market does recover, they can offer enhanced traditional designs without putting out the same product they had three years ago.
The three-year outlook for Interprint décor development responds to the industry’s need to prove that composite panels and decorative surfaces are not the products of last resort, but desirable materials in their own right. And while the design team is always hunting for the next classic, they are also experimenting with designs that are impossible to find in nature. “We develop designs with realistic expectations in the market,” says Murnane, “but we are also trying to introduce talking point designs that may find some footing for discussion, that might be a new direction of development.” Garlington agrees. “If all we’re ever doing is a photo-realistic copy of stone, then we are missing the point. A graphic image or an abstract that is really good could take hold. The younger clientele is becoming design savvy enough that if they are presented with a good option they may, strange as it may sound, choose laminate over solid surface or stone. The visual image that the laminate is supplying simply can’t be achieved by other materials.”
Looking five-years out into the future allows for even more expansive possibilities. In addition to aesthetics, designers are beginning to contemplate adding value to the décor paper. An example is creating “active” laminate surfaces using thermal temperature changing inks similar to those found in kiddy cups and spoons. A hot pan placed on a counter top could radiate a color signature that tells that the surface is hot. In response to the trend toward sustainability, an exciting concept is developing décor paper with photovoltaic inks so that a sun-filled living room is putting power back into the house via the floor. Where technology and art converge anything is possible.
Bringing it Home
Whether it is the familiar comfort of a wood design or an edgy boutique graphic, Interprint’s design team knows that one thing is always true when it comes to décor development. It must be aesthetically pleasing. “Advanced technology and emotional selling points are great,” says Murnane. “but it has to look good. Design is still star number one.” If making maple more demonstrative or creating a viable abstract composed of stick figures seems like a big job, that’s because it is. For the designers at Interprint, décor development is a blend of customer service, make believe, fashion and precision. Thankfully they have access to sophisticated technology and a brilliant production team to help with the task.
“We develop designs with realistic expectations in the market, but we are also trying to introduce talking point designs that may find some footing for discussion, that might be a new direction of development.” Rick Murnane, Product Designer Interprint USA
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