Easy Ways to Add Flash Without Wasting Cash

New color infusion processes and decorative thermoplastic finishes can help designers add visual punch to a space while remaining under budget.

06.01.2012 by Kenn Busch


“How can we get the most bang for our buck in design?”

This question never gets old, nor will it. Winning a project proposal means being able to deliver more for less—ever more for less and less. The globalization of trends and tastes through travel and electronic media has raised expectations, forcing designers and materials suppliers to become more innovative and creative.

Finding solutions to add impact without ballooning the budget requires designers to be willing to rethink materiality, and even, sometimes, to take a few liberties with reality. This CEU will explore new ways to bring uniqueness and dazzle to your projects, and delight your clients by using materials that:

  • Offer fresh, stunning visuals at a fraction of the cost of materials typically specified to deliver the same impact
  • Are more durable and easier to care for than traditionally specified materials
  • In most cases, install quickly, easily and on top of existing surfaces (in the case of remodels) or standard build-out surfaces, minimizing the hassle and mess

energizing your spaces—the global quest for greater visual impactVibrant, glowing, glossy surfaces have stormed commercial markets, particularly in Europe, setting new standards for environments that feel almost alive.

According to the trend table experts at this year’s Heimtextil exhibition in Frankfurt, the use of intense colors:

“...sets the scene for a new kinetic lifestyle feel, emerging from a synthetic artificiality into the everyday world; the energy-laden, vibrant tones radiate with self-assurance. The ease with which color, light and material are combined is stimulating and infectious. An ultra-modern and grown-up style puts color in a contemporary context.

“Intense colors grab attention and spread optimism, radiating out in varied, highly saturated tones. They are fresh, bold and penetrating, and the light-play has no boundaries. Shadows, overlaps, reflections, illusions, Technicolor and chameleon effects, as well as unusual patterns encounter intense, monochrome surfaces that celebrate color in its purest form.

“High-gloss, coated, colored laminates, and overlain, fluid and flexible materials emphasize the luminance of monochrome-colored surfaces. Technical materials seem to radiate light outwards from inside.”

Bold, intense, over-modulated colors inspired by computer and tablet screens, and carried by reflective, refractive or translucent materials add dimensional layers to an otherwise square or unremarkable space. Surfaces that play with gloss variations and texture multiply the effect of point-source decorative or functional lighting, creating a dance of illumination that envelopes everyone in a space.

These bold colors and textures are often juxtaposed with monochromatic panels or rustic expressions like barn board or raw metal, balancing the energy of overall installation.

There’s something unquantifiable about the appeal of such environments, but there’s no denying that the human brain is stimulated by this kind of visual contrast. Flat, shadowless overhead lighting on flat, monolithic, absorptive surfaces creates a muted two-dimensional world that neither excites nor inspires, like a cloudy sky at midday. Strong light with shadow and reflections, on the other hand, engages the mind, like the seashore at sunrise, a city street lined with glass buildings on an early summer evening or a clear, starry night.

playful substitutions—the duality of materiality and designIn advertising, they call it “borrowed interest”—using visuals or sounds not related to the actual message to draw the audience in for the message delivery. While there’s not yet a commonly used term in design, the practice of whimsically divorcing a material or design from its natural context is gaining popularity. Call it dishonesty in materials, done not for the sake of subtle imitation in lower cost or increased durability—like a woodgrain on laminate—but purely for impact, to make a playful statement on the eroding boundaries of materiality.

Turning the concept of “honesty in materials” on its head to an absurd degree inspires people to experience their surroundings in a fresh way and, as with the use of glossy and vibrant surfaces, brings a new dimension to a space.

Bringing this kind of extra energy to interior design doesn’t have to break the bank. Whether it’s new construction, a remodel or simply freshening up a lobby feature wall or mall store entrance, clients are asking their designers to create million-dollar looks for pennies on the dollar.

Fortunately, suppliers have been exploring ways to modify and customize several classes of materials to meet these demands. They can be specified at much lower initial costs, allow for quick and easy installation, and are easier to care for over their installed life, all without sacrificing visual appeal.

standard materials, fused with bold colors and imagesMakers of high-end architectural materials are developing ways to add unique value, color and design to what might otherwise be considered standard, static materials. One proven process involves “infusing” color, digital designs or images into a proprietary coating applied to base materials, including:

  • Aluminum w Fabric
  • Glass w FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic)
  • Ceramic w Wood (MDF or hardboard)

Up to 10 different, unique colors can be applied in this fusion process, which is akin to large-format digital imaging—each color and detail is precisely controlled for varying levels of intensity and placement on the substrate. Because it begins as a computer file, the infused design can be just about anything, including any number of stock patterns, colors and images. Colors in stock images may be altered and customized, or an original client-supplied image can be tweaked and enhanced for maximum impact.

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The infusion process literally transfers and embeds the colors and images into the coating bonded to the substrate, leaving all of the original properties of the substrate. No further treatment or coating is required; the decorative layer is the final surface. Supplied images must be print quality, 300 dpi at full scale, although 150 dpi may be acceptable depending on the design. Approximate PMS color matches are also available.

In the above images, what might at first seem to be random watermark patterns are actually a carefully created digital file, inspired by satellite photos of comets. But because the minimum order size is one sheet, these files can be manipulated to eliminate exact repeats from sheet to sheet for a more organic-looking installation.

The ability to apply designs to different substrates multiplies your creative possibilities and opens up limitless opportunities for creating highly original, themed or unified design projects. Each base material brings with it different properties that will affect the impact of applied visuals, but they all must be able to withstand high levels of heat involved in the fusion imaging process.

All of these materials are commonly specified, requiring only the typical methods of fabrication and installation—the fusion imaging process has no effect on the material’s properties in this regard.

substrate: aluminumAluminum is a natural go-to material for high-impact interior design. It’s durable, easy to care for, resists chemical stains and scratching, reduces noise levels and carries a Class A fire rating. It also looks sleek and modern, is lightweight, easy to handle and install, recyclable, and has up to 49 percent recycled content, depending on your supplier.

Aluminum also makes an excellent canvas for further decorative treatments. Because it is a relatively soft metal, the surface can be etched, ground, hammered, distressed and otherwise manipulated without degrading its integrity and durability.

Fusion design coatings benefit from aluminum’s natural sheen (either satin, gloss or ultra-gloss), which adds vibrancy to the printed colors and designs. Four-color photorealistic images are particularly vivid on white aluminum.

To add yet another dimension, gentle swirls and patterns can be hand-ground into the surface before the fusion process to give each sheet unique character. The ground designs multiply the play of light in the space, and shift as you move around the installed sheets.

Fusion-printed aluminum sheets are suitable for many areas, and have been specified as accents and feature walls in bars, restaurants, hotels, clubs and any other number of places where high-impact visuals add to the energy of the space.

The details on aluminum treated with the fusion imaging process:

  • Available in 4-foot by 10-foot, nominal, unbacked aluminum
  • Ships with clear protective film for ease of handling
  • UV stable (depending on installation location; not recommended for outdoor use)
  • High abrasion resistance
  • Scratch and chemical resistant properties are enhanced by the proprietary fusion coating
  • Can be applied directly to drywall
  • Made in the USA in an ISO-certified facility
  • Clean surfaces with a soft cloth using a household cleaner—waxes, most household glass cleaners or ordinary soap and water. Good furniture or automobile waxes can provide additional protection and luster.

substrate: frpLegendary for its toughness, FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic or fiber-reinforced polymer) is also an ideal carrier for fusion-printed designs and images.

FRP panels can be textured, smooth or translucent, and are available in a variety of thicknesses. On translucent panels, the image is applied to the back of the panel, creating an incredibly durable carrier for the design. This is often specified where a high degree of optical depth is desired. Fusion-imaged translucent FRP panels are also ideal for backlit applications.

Because fusion imaging doesn’t alter the inherent properties of FRP panels, it’s perfect for walls near water or food and in clean rooms.

Fusion-imaged FRP has proven itself in high-traffic areas, particularly public spaces like the gift shop in the Phoenix Zoo, which was recently remodeled in a Moroccan theme. The project’s designers also wanted to use Moroccan floor tiles for wainscoting around the walls and toe kicks on gondolas, but it was far too expensive. Real tiles were scanned and imaged onto smooth, white FRP, cut into strips the same size as tiles, and installed and grouted on the walls and around the bottom of the displays for toe kicks. The result: a vivid, authentic tile look with the durability of FRP and a very low cost relative to real tiles.

FRP panels were also imaged with Persian rug patterns and used to simulate a traditional Moroccan wood ceiling on this project.

A major pet store chain is installing imaged FRP printed with gravel below their display aquariums, saving the time and expense of constantly cleaning the gravel normally found in those tanks.

substrate: ceramic tile and woodAs with other substrates, many commonly available ceramic tiles can be infused with your images or images from the supplier’s library. If needed, tiles can be sequentially numbered on the back to ensure easy installation. 

The fusion imaging process can also be applied to wood, such as planks, MDF panels and hardboard, although it’s not recommended for flooring. Imaging allows the beauty of the wood to show through the designs or images.

substrate: glassGlass can be imaged for backsplashes, table tops, doors, partitions and other applications. The glass itself is usually supplied by the customer and can be tempered or annealed. Beautiful solid color or translucent glass can be created with infusion imaging.

substrate: textiles and fabricCertain specialty fabrics are compatible with the infused color process, and can be used to create tapestries and other fabric applications. To withstand the heat of the fusion imaging process, they must be close to 100 percent polyester, or down to 80 percent polyester and 20 percent rayon. Silk, for example, would melt; cotton would disintegrate.

decorative thermoplastic panelsLightweight, durable thermoplastic sheets are the Swiss Army knife in a designer’s toolbox. Able to mimic different materials in different applications, they’re available in flat and 3-D structured surfaces, each sharing the same basic properties:

  • Lightweight and flexible, yet completely rigid when laminated
  • Superior impact, chemical and stain resistant properties
  • Easy to fabricate and install; they can even be installed with a pressure-sensitive adhesive backing, staples or screws
  • Special overlapping edge configurations hide seams
  • Most are vacuum-formable
  • Can be die cut and screen-printed
  • Engraving sheets, signage edge-banding and imitation mirrors available
  • Some are available with 40 percent recycled content (ISO 14021) and compatible with the LEED MR4 Recycled Content Credit
  • Must be cleaned with mild soap and water—never with abrasive materials or harsh detergents
  • Made in the USA and shippable via common carrier.

While several designs are offered with specific application and material substitutions in mind—rolled-tin ceiling tiles, carved MDF wall panels, light diffusers, crown molding, back splashes, wainscoting—thermoplastic decorative sheets are infinitely useful.

Sheets with structural textures come in several different collections, from antique to contemporary, abstract to geometric, and in micro and macro scales. Some may also be “two-toned” with the addition of a second finish (usually gold, chrome or a patina) to the tips of the structural details.

For damage-prone applications, retail stores or medical facilities, where shopping or equipment carts do daily battle with architectural surfaces, designers can specify thermoplastic sheets in which the surface color runs through the depth of the material, so even deep scratches and gouges won’t ruin the harmony of the décor.

Three-dimensional light diffuser panels add a contemporary look to the standard fluorescent light diffusers typically found in office and commercial interiors, and create more pleasing dispersion of light and a brighter environment overall.

Real-world success stories using decorative thermoplastic sheets include:

  • Major hotel chains, like Hilton and Hyatt, have used 3-D light diffuser panels in a wave pattern to economically and quickly update their fluorescent bathroom fixtures. A refresh of hospital corridor lighting is benefiting from the same approach.
  • The same hospital, looking to freshen its patient rooms “on a dime,” is replacing worn, dated surfaces in nurse’s stations and on patient room headwalls. Thermoplastic sheets in woodgrain designs install quickly and with no mess, and are exceptionally easy to care for in healthcare environments. This approach prices out at $1,200 per patient room and can be turned in a day, verses $20,000 to replace the headwalls (not including several days of out-of-service time).
  • Replacing sculpted MDF wall panels. Thermoplastic sheets are easier to care for and are one-third of the cost when you factor in installation.
  • Feature and accent walls in hotel lobbies, where you want something with some visual impact but don’t have the budget for stone or travertine. Thermoplastic sheets “are pretty much ready to install and really make a statement,” says one designer.
  • Refreshing a wall in the service area of a Denny’s All Nighter on a major college campus. The owners wanted to change the look but didn’t want to go to the expense of removing the existing tile and installing something new. The thermoplastic panels mimic heavily carved MDF, and were easily installed right on top of the existing tile. It meets all the health codes for use in a food prep area, but needs to be kept away from heat (which wasn’t a problem in that area). Heavy carved MDF wouldn’t have been an option, due to all of the water splashing around.
  • A family restaurant wanted a wood plank ceiling, but installing stud framing and the wood itself just wasn’t in the budget. A decorative, pear wood-toned thermoplastic in a realistic custom texture solved the problem by simply replacing the existing acoustic tile—no change in the ceiling structure was required.
  • A shiny, metallic, quilted thermoplastic panel was the theme-appropriate update for a frozen custard restaurant.

This comment from a designer who specializes in restaurant chain remodels succinctly sums up the value decorative thermoplastic foils bring to her business:

“We use it to constantly to replicate materials that either don’t make sense to use in a restaurant environment or they’re cost-prohibitive. We use it to get some bang for our buck. It’s the ‘sizzle’ that doesn’t break the bank.”

budgets and high design are not mutually exclusiveArmed with a global view of design trends and an in-depth knowledge of materials like those discussed in this article, designers are no longer forced to reign in their vision just to meet budgets.

In fact, carefully selected, visually stunning materials will also reduce installation time and maintenance costs, providing a better return on investment over the life of the project. The result? Happier clients, more unique environments and a new way to achieve maximum impact with a minimum of investment ... in other words, more bang for your buck.