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Digital Printing Brings Historic Patterns to the Big Screen and Hospitality

12/07/2018 By Robert Nieminen

The indelible Woody Allen once quipped, “Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” Regardless of your philosophy on mimesis (imitation) or where inspiration originates, what’s given is that the line between reality and the world of film and screen is becoming increasingly opaque. Thanks to advances in digital printing technology, set designers can create backdrops for period pieces in stunning detail and realism at the click of a mouse—and likewise, products designed for the big screen are finding their way into real-world hospitality applications.

In other words, the relationship between fictional (film, TV) and material (physical) spaces is more synergetic than ever. Perhaps no one understands the nuances in both Hollywood and the hospitality market as well as Aaron Kirsch, president and CEO of digitally printed wallcovering supplier Astek and its subsidiary company On Air Designs, which caters to Hollywood production studios. Having started as a distributor of wallcoverings more than 30 years ago, the company’s proximity to Tinseltown opened up unique opportunities just as advances in printing technology were coming online.

Passengers uses digital printing from Astek

“Being in the Hollywood sector, we started getting into digital print about 17 years ago,” Kirsch recalls. “We were one of the very first to do [digitally printed] wallcoverings and came up with the crazy idea to print vintage materials for Hollywood. Some of our first titles in the digital print world were anywhere from ‘Cat in the Hat’ to ‘That 70's Show’—we did all the crazy wallpapers for that.”

Kirsch says the company helped create sets for numerous period pieces by drawing from its “arsenal of wallcoverings anywhere from the late 1800s to more current [patterns], including a lot of 1960s and 70s reprints,” he adds. In fact, Astek boasts one of (if not the) largest inventory of wallcoverings on the west coast, according to Kirsch.

Astek’s extensive catalogue—as well as On Air Design’s in-house design team’s proficiency in creating custom concepts—is proving extremely beneficial as demand for content has skyrocketed thanks to streaming media companies. “The whole industry by itself has really gone crazy now with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, so more new content is needed,” Kirsch explains. “This is the busiest we’ve been with Hollywood in many, many moons, and it’s great.”

Given the health of the hospitality design industry as well, which saw a nine percent increase in projects going into this year according to Lodging Econometrics, it seems the market is ripe for creatives and suppliers that cater to themed projects, both onscreen and off. But for all the correlations between on-air and real-world applications, there are distinct differences too.

Fast & Furious Turnover

In any design project, on-time delivery is crucial, as delays often mean added costs. However, Kirsch notes that schedules are vastly different between Hollywood and hospitality clients. For instance, he recalls how one 3,000-room hotel project took a year-and-a-half for the final design to be approved before Astek could begin printing the wallcovering that would ultimately be installed. With Hollywood, on the other hand, “it’s a lot of fast and furious turnover sets,” he explains.

Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks, uses digital printing from Astek
Bridge of Spies

“These guys [in Hollywood] are on their game. Authenticity and speed—that’s the whole thing with Hollywood,” Kirsch notes. “You cannot falter on time. People are depending on when the product is done and sampling, under very, very strict time constraints.”

He explains that while large design firms like Gensler or HBA, for example, also expect prompt delivery of product for hospitality projects, again, the significantly shorter production timeframe means film and television clients often expect near-immediate turnarounds.

“We’ve had people come in at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday afternoon and needing 1,000 square feet printed by 8:00 a.m. Friday morning. That’s kind of the norm with Hollywood,” Kirsch says.

Nevertheless, whether it’s an authentic, historic print for a themed hotel property or the latest TV drama from the early 1900s, digital printing allows for both accuracy and efficiency—and there’s no designer or producer who doesn’t appreciate those benefits.

Collaboration & Historic Replication

The process of developing digitally printed wallcoverings, flooring and other products for the screen requires close collaboration with television and film production designers and art directors, much like many custom-designed products specified for hospitality or other contract design projects. On Air Designs employs 14 full-time, in-house graphic designers and illustrators that have backgrounds in illustration, fine art, textiles, surface design, art history and work exclusively with studios across Hollywood.

Madmen Digital printing from Astek

In terms of creating new product and patterns, the creative team at On Air Designs will either develop an original concept or look to its extensive archives for images from which to build. “Sometimes it could be an idea we develop from scratch or inspiration from the 1890s or 1900s, for example,” Kirsch explains. “We’ve bought up so many images from the old, traditional damasks to even flock wallpaper, which is kind of unique.”

Flock is a type of heritage textile evoking old world aristocracy with a velvety hand that was recently featured in the Netflix original series, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” as well as episodes of “Westworld,” Kirsch notes. Other patterns from history (and pop culture) have been replicated for the screen from Astek’s archives as well.

Westworld Digital Printing from Astek

“I bought up bold designs from companies that have gone defunct, and I have a room just dedicated to original books from the 1800s and 1900s that you can go back to and do old vintage pieces, like we did for ‘Django’ and ‘Road to Perdition,” he says. Most recently, Astek supplied a large run of vintage wallpaper for “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” which didn’t fare well in theaters, unfortunately, but allowed the company to print on materials other than wallcoverings to an impressive effect.

Technology & Materiality

Utilizing flatbed UV printing technology, companies like Astek are able to print designs on virtually any substrate, including paper, film, cloth, plastic, acrylic, glass, ceramic, metal, wood, leather—even rope, according to Kirsch. Because the printing bed is adjustable, it makes it possible to print on a range of surface thicknesses, and since no printing plates or silkscreens are required, digital printing allows shorter runs to be produced more economically and efficiently.

“The technology has gotten so superior,” Kirsch observes. “We can print up to 16-feet wide, and we can print by two-inch thicknesses. I can print a whole door in one shot, and it’s kind of fun to watch when it’s coming off the printer,” he says.

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At Astek, 3D printing—known as Haptic printing—on a substrate to create dimensional wallcoverings is the next big thing. Rather than utilizing embossing and high-definition printing, Haptic printing creates photo-realistic coverings that mimic the look and feel of artwork. In fact, Kirsch says it was recently asked to produce textured printing for a new Netflix series about a fine artist that captures the essence of the craft without the need to replicate the work by hand.

“Our ability to print on art canvas and create brush strokes without anybody really going in there and painting it so it looks like a real painting is one of the new things that we’re doing,” he says.

Kirsch notes that for the feature film, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” Astek printed fake stained-glass windows over plexiglass that included the raised, leaded tape line to give it a realistic look and feel. Likewise, for the movie, “Angels & Demons,” the company scanned high-resolution images of marble and printed it over glass for the flooring in the chapel set, as well as an iridescent, metallic foil for flooring used in “The Hunger Games.”

Back to Authenticity & Community

At the end of the day, Kirsch says it’s been extremely rewarding to be able to “give authenticity back” to the industry, thanks to the ease with which Astek can recreate patterns and products from bygone eras. “When we started this business, wallcovering wasn’t used much on sets, and we feel like we’ve recreated a renaissance with the art directors and set decorators getting into all the historic prints,” he says.

Kirsch adds that the company has been involved with local charities and hosting events along with the film industry that has really helped bring people together in meaningful ways. “It’s just been kind of warming in the sense of building a community like that,” he concludes.

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