Niche Markets: Décor

Digital printing allows today’s print service providers to give their customers exactly what they want every time. There’s no better example of that than the interior design market. Print service providers can turn out limited runs of designs on many different fabrics for end products from wall coverings to upholstery and pillowcases. They can customize and tell interior designers, “Have it your way.” As a result, interior design provides them both abundant opportunities and enticing profits.

But this market niche is not without its challenges. Those entering the interior décor field face a steep learning curve, sizable investment in equipment and a lengthy period of researching fabrics and inks. And as one veteran of the market sector says, it helps considerably to possess the “soft touch...that decorator edge.”

According to Debbie Green, owner of Perspectives in Print, a 32-year-old Export, PA company that started out as a screen printer, diversified into digital printing and now turns out a large volume of fabric printing, the interior décor market’s swift growth has been spawned by a number of factors. First among them, she said, is affordability.

Digitally produced wall coverings are an inexpensive way for retail businesses ranging from teen shops to lingerie stores to supermarkets to remodel and enhance their store appearance by means of coverings in a wide range of sizes and colors. “We go 54 inches instead of the standard 22 and can go any length, with no limitations on roll size,” Green noted. “And because it’s digital, it can be as many colors as you want.”

Another factor is vibrancy. “It’s just much jazzier,” she said. “You could take a store that was formerly all white, and now they have great color. We’ll do boring old dressing rooms that come alive with color. On walls, [retailers] want more graphic design, either through large blowups of photography, or patterns with some branding. They might take what’s used in the store’s interior and repeat it in the dressing rooms.”

Today’s technologies also make possible a great variety of end products that get attention, she adds. In addition to wall coverings, Perspectives in Print creates custom printed lampshades, and fabric for ottomans and day beds, to name a few. The shop can print up to 96 inches wide, on flat acrylics and posterboard, and has the ability to add white on top of color. Moreover, its output looks classy and upscale. “We’re using vinyls that, once the ink is on them, look more expensive than they really are,” she said.

In general, digital printing opens Perspectives in Print to more opportunities. “We used to have to screen print, and for every color you had to set up a screen,” she recalled. “It was very expensive to run small quantities. But now that we do everything digitally, the sky’s the limit. The resolution is really good; it’s much more sophisticated.”

Many of the same advantages have been noted at First2Print, a nine-year-old New York City business that defines itself as a “fabric-printing studio,” and produces output for both sampling and retail sales, said director of operations Danielle Locastro.

“When we started, we specifically targeted clients—designing anything from children’s garments to curtains to strollers—who quickly needed to see their designs on fabric as prototypes to sell to retailers,” said Locastro, a former textile designer. “Now we do short-run production of wall coverings, upholstery, curtains, pillows, tablecloths, baby products, gardening gloves. You can digitally fabric print anything.”

Digital printing is the ideal option for those interior designers who require a limited run of a design. If the design doesn’t sell, they haven’t invested a great deal of money, Locastro said. “You can do as little as three yards,” she added. “So a lot of times, a client might need product for a single home or even a single room. We’ve done interiors for private jets, and for restaurants that have just one location.”

First2Print’s clients tend to fall into either of two categories. One is comprised of designers who are part of in-house design teams for product manufacturers. Others are independent designers whose businesses are based on creating one-of-a-kind products that can’t be found in the traditional marketplace. “They go to custom printing, and we are the source,” Locastro said. “We get a lot of word-of-mouth referrals.”

Good relationships with interior design clients have also been a catalyst for growth at Better Mousetrap, a 17-year-old Long Island City, NY shop that has worked with fabrics since 1995, and serves the hospitality industry, architects, special events planners and museums, as well as homeowners and corporate clients. “The interior designers are feeling more comfortable about digital,” said principal Susanne Jansson.

“They’ve become educated, although it’s taken quite a while, and they better understand how it gives them an edge. They can simply come up with ideas and have them executed quickly and affordably in individual small runs.”

Cautionary Wisdom

Those starting out in the décor market must learn the importance of grasping the end results clients seek, Locastro said. The print service provider must know what the designer will be doing with the fabric. Will it be used for curtains? For chairs? Will it be exposed to direct sunlight? “That will dictate the way you print it,” she reported.

Also prepare to take on what she called “a huge learning curve.” That’s because printers serving this marketplace learn from both good results and from efforts that don’t turn out so well. The learning, of course, doesn’t just involve knowledge of printing, but of fabrics, design, color and more. “There are a lot of variables, and it’s the variables that you have to put together to do it right,” Locastro observed. “You’re always learning. And there’s a frustration factor. You’re dealing with a new technology that hasn’t really been implemented into a product design cycle.”

It also helps to have a background in textiles and design, say both Locastro and Green. At First2Print, staff members all have fashion, textile, or apparel design industry backgrounds. Locastro said. Added Green: “To print on fabric and really get decorator quality, you have to have the soft touch. You have to have that decorator edge.”

Jansson agreed, noting that in this market niche, artistry trumps technology. Fabric makers, ink manufacturers and printer companies can come out with better and better products, but those advancements are comparatively unimportant unless the print service provider knows how to give her client what he or she desires. “It’s knowing what materials to use, how to take the materials you can use and educating the client so the client can come back to you with appropriate design ideas,” she said.

Marketing interior design services often is done through word of mouth and trade show appearances. For instance, to gain its national client base, Perspectives in Print has appeared at many national trade shows attended by retailers, Green said.

Despite the interior design field’s challenges, Locastro believes this marketplace is one boasting what she calls “large growth potential.” Interior design is the perfect place for digital printing, because it tends to involve higher-end furnishings and thus provides a higher price point, she adds. Clients, she reported, “want their rooms and their houses to look different. And now you have the opportunity to give them that.”