Sustainability and Innovation on Display in Wallcoverings Industry

02/11/2020 By Robert Nieminen

Editor-at-large Robert Nieminen reports from the Wallcoverings Association annual meeting in Clearwater Beach, FL, about the topics and trends the industry is talking about right now.

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[Start transcript]

Robert Nieminen: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to the I Hear Design podcast. This is Robert Nieminen, editor-at-large, interiors+sources, and thanks for tuning in. I just got back from beautiful Clearwater Beach, Florida—my apologies to you listeners out there in colder climates—where I attended the Wallcoverings Association annual meeting.

Each year the industry gets together to discuss the issues that are important to the manufacturers, suppliers and stakeholders who are in the wallcoverings world, as well as to network and take in some educational sessions.

One of the sessions I attended was particularly interesting, and I wanted to share with you guys. It was delivered by the Vinyl Institute’s CEO Ned Monroe. I actually wrote an article about it that you can read on our website. To give you a quick recap, the session was about the threats and opportunities facing the vinyl industry today.

There were a couple of things that struck me about Monroe’s presentation I think you’ll find interesting. We all know that vinyl is kind of a controversial word in the design industry, given that it’s been placed on the red list for containing some chemicals of concern that may be harmful to human health.

Nevertheless, a survey by the Vinyl Institute showed that the use of vinyl wallcoverings has increased by 13% over the past four or five years, and 85% of interior designers still specify vinyl wallcoverings because of its durability, lifecycle costs and ease of maintenance.


Photo: Dan Brandt, president, Wallcoverings Association, kicks off the 2020 Annual Meeting in Clearwater Beach, Florida.

Despite the negative press vinyl gets, it does make sense that people are still specifying it when you consider the fact that a lot of other products out there simply fail in really demanding environments like hospitals.

In fact, Monroe pointed out that the Oklahoma State University Medical Center recently experienced a mass of product failures and furnishings and upholstery that cost them about $8 million. Money that could have been spent on cancer research and treatment.

Another interesting point he made was about a myth out there that PVC can’t be or isn’t being recycled. He said in 2014, actually 904 million pounds of PVC was recycled. There’s been a 40% increase in landfill diversion, which, you know, it’s not perfect, but it is a start.

I had a chance to talk to Ned after his presentation and asked him to go a bit deeper into the topics he discussed, in which he identified the three biggest threats and opportunities to the PVC industry, which are reputation, perception and advocacy.

From our conversation, I gathered that the Vinyl Institute is working really hard to educate people on a couple of key points about vinyl products.

One, that it has a very compelling life cycle story which is true, and two, that in some applications it’s simply the best solution out there.

For example, in a conversation I had recently with Jane Rohde of JSR associates, who we profiled in our June issue last year, she mentioned that PVC pipes are a better alternative than metal pipes when talking about drinking water supply lines. While metal corrodes, PVC won’t, and it has a much longer life cycle.

Ned added that PVC pipes also require less energy to push water through the pipes and have less embodied carbon than metal ones. In other words, there are certain trade-offs that need to be considered depending upon the application in question.

During our conversation, one of the things Ned said to me was, ‟We’ve done a lot, we have a ways to go, but we’re really committed. The Vinyl Institute and the industry is completely committed to telling the good stories that we have in recycling. We’re going to do more in landfill diversion. We’ve had a 40% increase in landfill diversion since 2014, and we’ll continue on that journey.”

I know a lot of you listeners are probably cringing at the idea of specifying vinyl, given the inherent contradictions of using a product with known chemicals of concern, and I get it. I’m not advocating for vinyl one way or another.

However, I also had the chance to meet with a number of manufacturers during the event. I’ll talk about some of the trends I was seeing in a minute. But there there’s something really promising about the vinyl conversation I want to share with you guys.

As I was talking with Dalton Kerr and Moneah Ronaghi at National Solutions, they told me about a new PVC product they’ve developed called Create that doesn’t contain any red list chemicals, so no heavy metals, no phthalates, etc., and it performs as you would expect vinyl to. They said it has an EPD and an HPD to boot. In other words, it’s kind of a ‟green PVC product.”

Now, I haven’t seen it yet and I can’t attest to its performance. But if these claims are true, I think it could be a real game changer for the industry.

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One thing I can say for certain is that everyone I spoke with, from J. Josephson to MDC Walls to 4walls and others, mentioned how big of a priority sustainability is to the wallcoverings industry.

Every company talked about how they are looking at best practices to improve their manufacturing and recycling efforts. Biophilic design was mentioned more than once, as was their efforts to meet NSF requirements.

Another theme or trend I heard a lot about was the demand for customization. Thanks to digital printing, a lot of wallcoverings manufacturers are now able to offer one-of-a-kind products with much quicker turnarounds and traditional customer requests from their existing lines.

Online tools and automation are giving designers greater access to create their own designs with big, bold patterns and more color options than ever before. In other words, the level of design that wallcovering suppliers are offering to create impactful spaces has never been higher, which is really cool to see.


Photo: Wallcoverings Associaton members take part in the 2020 Annual Meeting in Clearwater Beach, Florida on January 25–28. The Annual Meeting attracted wallcoverings manufacturers, distributers and suppliers to the Sandpearl Resort, where attendees experienced two and a half days of carefully curated educational sessions and dedicated networking.

Acoustics was another topic that was discussed more than once. With advancements in technology, some of the manufacturers I spoke with said they can now create products with micro perforations in them that, when combined with the right backing can help absorb sound.

One supplier even mentioned that they’re using recycled plastic bottles to create an acoustic product.

There’s plenty of innovation happening in this industry, which I’m happy to see. And let’s face it, the world is a noisy place. I say the more beautiful and functional acoustic products out there, the better.

As far as markets go, health care and hospitality were the two that kept coming up in conversation as being the biggest areas for anticipated growth for most of the wallcoverings companies this year.

Although there’s been some slowing of projects, MDC Dan Brandt said hospitality will still dominate as far as demand for wallcovering products due to a lot of renovation work that’s out there.


Photo: Matthew Young, executive director, Wallcoverings Association addresses WA members including manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, designers and specialty manufacturers who attended the Annual Meeting for educational sessions and dedicated networking.

Greg Koeberer of 4walls noted that they’re anticipating the most growth in the boutique hospitality market in 2020, with a focus on storytelling and locally inspired materials, which I thought was interesting.

In terms of trending looks, I had a really great conversation with Carla Marzano, at J. Josephson, who shared insights from a number of brands they have. They’ve created some beautiful products inspired by everything from menswear to wood looks.

She showed me a series of beautiful products that embody the trend toward artwork on the walls so really large statement designs and painterly effects. I also saw some line drawings representing geometric patterns in varying scales. Some more painterly effects with verticals that are emerging as our lux finishes, from matte to metallic, with beautiful textures that she referred to as ‘new glam.’

Of course, authenticity is still a buzzword and a trend that’s coming through in a variety of different products, especially in wood looks from both bold and more subtle textures and tones.

That’s kind of it in a nutshell, in terms of what I saw and heard from the wallcoverings industry, which is a lot when you consider that this all took place in the span of a day. The white sandy beaches were the perfect backdrop too, I have to admit, and I wish I could have stayed longer.

I think I walked away with a lot of optimism in terms of what this industry is up to and what you guys can expect to see in the years ahead.

If you haven’t been paying much attention to the wallcoverings industry lately, I urge you to give them another look. Well, that’s it for now. Thanks again for tuning in. I hope you’ll join us again soon. Be well everyone.

[End Transcript]

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