To carve out market share engineered decorative surfaces have literally had to infiltrate the hearts and minds of specifiers and convince them that engineered materials are not “even better than the real thing,” they are legitimate in their own right. It’s been an uphill battle fought on many fronts: price, performance, aesthetics, environmental impact and availability. In the ongoing struggle for specification engineered materials have one distinct advantage, versatility. Applying texture to a design changes both the look and the feel of a surface, creating a multi-sensory experience.
Designs used to be specified in terms of color and composition, but now more than ever before there is a textural component. In fact, the feel of a surface, matte, gloss, distressed, pebble and so on, is sometimes more important than the design itself. It is both tactile and visual. The topography of a surface has a profound effect on its lightplay. Texture also takes advantage of the user’s sense of touch, and for designers who seek to create an experience, that is huge. Imagine the feel of velvet. Even with eyes closed the sensation remains.
With the world driving toward shorter trend cycles, the ability to diversify design is crucial, and savvy decorative surface producers understand that a variety of textures can exponentially expand their stock design offering. In fact, fashion moving toward texture presents the decorative laminate industry with a real opportunity to surpass competition from other materials that are restricted by the parameters of nature. “Consider that décor paper printers can match any color or print any design, and textured plate and paper companies can emboss any texture,” says Gary McGillivray of KML Corporation. “We can give our clients exactly the look and feel they wish for.”
NORTH AMERICAN TEXTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Brian Jones, North American representative for SESA, has been involved with texture since the late 1980s, first with release papers and now with press plates. According to Jones, it is worth discussing the use of texture in reference to specific market segments. Within laminate flooring, design introductions frequently employ a registration of textures such as ticking and cathedrals to match woodgrain graphics, with the goal of creating realism.
Fidelity is also the goal in the HPL segment, where textures are added to premium product lines to enhance stone and tile designs commonly specified for counter tops. However HPL is also frequently used in retail and hospitality, where novelty and abstract graphics are more acceptable. In those applications, the interplay of texture and light can create dramatic effect. “In the past two decades HPL producers have adopted the use of texture to maintain market share and increase profits, albeit slightly,” says Jones. “It is a competitive segment. Probably 30-35 percent of HPL volume uses distinct textures.”
Translucent decorative panels require overlays for certain performance characteristics (see Clearly Captivating page 26), making the surface of the panel a natural environment for texture. This addition does more than provide a tactile experience. When backlit, textured translucent panels take on an entirely new visual element.
The newest frontier of texture is the TFM segment that serves the furniture and cabinet industries. According to Todd Wegman, President of Stevens Industries, adding texture has made TFM competitive in a whole new arena. “Designers are looking for realism, but also for something that is unique. With texture, the untrained eye can’t tell the difference between a laminate and a natural material,” says Wegman. “Lots of our middle to high-end customers are using textured laminate instead of real wood and not apologizing for it. The product is visually appealing, but also has depth. The more senses you can appeal to, the more successful the material is in the design world.”
CREATING A FEELING
Recently nearly every producer of decorative surfaces has made some effort toward texture. In North America there are essentially two primary methods used for embossing texture on decorative surfaces, stainless steel press plates and cast release papers. Each technology offers advantages depending on volume and aesthetic detail. In other global markets, where texture is more prevalent, engraved metal belts are also used in continuous press operations. Belts tend to be expensive, easily damaged and difficult to change, which in part explains their absence in the emerging North American texture movement.
“Designers are looking for realism, but also for something that is unique. With texture, the untrained eye can’t tell the difference between a laminate and a natural material.”
TODD WEGMAN, PRESIDENT OF STEVENS INDUSTRIES
Creating texture, whether for press plates or release papers, begins with the design process, which is often a collaborative effort between the press plate or release paper manufacturer and the customer. Nicholas Yardy, Ph.D.,marketing director for Sappi’s release paper business unit, the global leader in release papers for both coated fabrics and plastic laminates, explains that regardless of the media, texture begins as a two dimensional design that is scanned or digitally rendered and separated into layer files that are engraved on a plate or a roll. “There are many ways to engrave, such as multi-layer etching, diamond stylus and direct laser ablation,” says Yardy.
Once engraved, press plates are often chrome plated to protect the design. The entire plate is then used in the laminate pressing process to physically distort the melamine saturated décor paper that is the surface of the laminated material. Stainless steel press plates are very robust and can be used repeatedly in high-volume production runs.
Sappi developed a radical process for creating textured release papers in the 1980s. “A liquid acrylic coating is applied to a paper, constructed specifically for use in release applications, and then brought into intimate contact with an engraved roll” says Yardy. “Instead of mechanically deforming the paper with heat and pressure to impart the texture, Sappi’s process permits the liquid acrylic to flow and fill all the details on the engraved roll, that is followed by solidification via electron beam initiated free radical polymerization. This process creates a single sided textured release paper in roll format. We don’t use heat, pressure, or volatile organic compounds; it is a very efficient sustainable method of imparting texture.” This molding process, unlike traditional paper embossing, prevents relaxation of the release paper’s designed texture with use, resulting in very precise robust designs. Release papers can be used either in roll format with continuous presses or in sheet format for the single/multiple opening high-pressure press laminating operations. The texture on the release paper embosses the surface of the laminated material. At the end of the cycle the release paper separates from the decorative laminate, and depending on certain variables, can often be reused several times.
Effectively introducing texture into product lines is a big investment for laminators, but careful execution can yield big return. The best approach depends on the size of an operation, the intent of the product and the volume of production. Press plates tend to be a bigger investment than release papers, but they last longer. It is not uncommon for laminators in the development stage of texture to initially experiment with release papers for diversifying texture, and then switch to press plates once a design is established. McGillivray points out that “Set up time and flexibility is also a consideration when using embossed press plates. It does slow down production when different change outs are needed. With that in mind, cost considerations are necessary to go from high production to complex orders.”
“Designers are hungry for texture. Simply making the A&D community aware of what decorative laminates offer in terms of texture elevates the overall perception of the materials.”
BRAIN JONES, NORTH AMERICAN REPRESENTATIVE FOR SESA
Each method presents aesthetic advantages as well that are better suited to different market segments. Press plates impart deeper, more visceral, heavy textures. Used in high volume for short cycle presses where a single set of plates can be used, the capital investment is fairly low and higher efficiencies can be met than with release papers. On the other hand, it is easier and more cost effective to diversify texture with release papers. The process of acrylic casting also results in a more refined aesthetic features and haptic qualities. Yardy explains, “For release papers at Sappi, we are aggressively moving toward direct laser engraving technologies and we have shown texture replication capabilities of features sizes below the wavelength of light. We can control not only the macro and the micro, but also the nano-texture, allowing us to work on hologram and diffraction patterns.”
A successful investment in texture is as much about education and marketing as it is about technology. “Designers are hungry for texture. Simply making the A&D community aware of what decorative laminates offer in terms of texture elevates the overall perception of the materials,” says Jones. “SESA supports these efforts at shows such as NEOCON and IIDEX.” Another effective method for conveying the value of texture to designers is tangible sample chips. “Designers are excited about seeing our samples for the first time in a long time,” says Wegman. Stevens’ approach of presenting a wide variety of textures on different samples of the same décor design clearly illustrates how texture changes the overall visual effect. “We thought there would be a clear connection between a certain design and a certain texture, but it is all over,” says Wegman. “Texture is a whole new dimension for customizing the aesthetic and that is thrilling to the end user.”
The other definitive advantage of texture is that it creates an opening for decorative laminates, particularly TFM, to compete with higher price point materials, and that is crucial to successful marketing. Customers that generally buy commodity product are less likely to upgrade, even though added texture in decorative laminates results in a marginal price increase. The real market opportunity is from the top down, reaching customers who are used to paying for premium materials. For them, textured decorative laminates offer superb aesthetic quality at a price that is significantly less than they are already paying. As texture becomes increasingly important to the specification world, decorative surfaces producers have the opportunity to assert the advantages of fully customizable materials.
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