As with just about everything else, the world of exhibit fabrics has changed considerably over the last few years. Not only have countless eco-friendly materials become available, but as a result of rising costs and shrinking budgets, more and more exhibitors are turning to lightweight, cost-effective fabrics — and innovative ways to integrate those fabrics into new and existing architecture. But based on what I’ve witnessed over the last five or six years, here are four of the most important and applicable advancements in exhibit fabric.
1. Fabric Panels in System Architecture
Up until a few years ago, fabric exhibit structures mostly featured stretched fabric covering a tubular aluminum frame. However, that all changed in 2005, as several manufacturers began carrying fabric lines with squishy foam stitched to the edge, which allows it to be inserted into the groove found in the center of the posts and beams used in most system architecture.
Thus, instead of using traditional tension-fabric support systems, which often create curved architecture, fabric panels can now be used with existing or newly purchased system architecture. For exhibitors, this means that large panels or entire walls can be made of lightweight and cost-efficient fabric rather than solid materials. In fact, whereas designers were often limited by standard solid-surface panel widths — traditionally 4-by-8-foot sheets — pairing fabric panels and system architecture means that panel sizes are almost limitless.
In addition, pairing fabric with systems offers a unique aesthetic, softening the often cold, hard look of traditional system architecture, and providing a unique canvas for lighting. And of course, given the advancements in fabrics and printing, these fabric panels can be printed with endless variations of graphic designs, images, messages, etc.
Finally, fabric/system hybrids are lighter weight than traditional rigid panels, which means they cut costs on transportation and drayage. Plus, while fabrics can rip and stain, they’re generally more durable in the long term compared to solid panels, which are easily chipped, scratched, delaminated, etc.
2. Flush Fabric Extrusions
Similar to the fabric/system hybrids, I’ve started to notice a wide range of companies that produce a fabric with a silicone strip stitched to the edge, which then slips into a slot in special fabric-frame extrusions. As a result of this new combination, the extrusion can be completely covered by the fabric or sit flush with the face of the extrusion. Both looks are clean and modern. On larger extrusions this also offers space behind the fabric for internal lighting or LED arrays.
With this option, the silicone strip allows you to easily adjust the tension of the fabric by adjusting the depth at which you position it in the extrusion groove. While most tension-fabric exhibits rely on Lycra-knit fabrics to stretch and smooth the surface, the silicone strip means you can often work with non-stretchable fabrics and still tension them flat and smooth in this type of display.
One limitation to these new systems, however, is that the extrusions cannot be bent due to the tight tolerances of the fabric groove. So at least for now, I’ve only seen them used in straight, box-like constructions.
3. Honeycomb Fabric Ceilings
Just about any time you put a ceiling on a space — be it an exhibit conference room or a backyard patio — the space suddenly becomes more cozy and intimate. However, slapping a ceiling on part of your exhibit architecture is often easier said than done.
That’s because if you’re using solid-material ceilings in sizes larger than 10-by-10 feet, most show regulations require that exhibitors install sprinkler systems that extend below their ceiling or use a fire watch (a firefighter stationed beneath the ceiling for all hours the exhibit is open). Since both options are costly — and quite frankly seem a little ridiculous to attendees — most exhibitors either opt out of ceiling structures altogether, or they use special fabrics to bypass the stipulation.
Until recently, many exhibitors going the fabric route have been limited to the use of various non-stretch wide-mesh materials, or Smoke Out, a ceiling fabric made especially for the exhibit industry. In the case of a fire, both show-approved mesh fabrics and Smoke Out allow smoke to escape skyward and water from the convention center’s sprinkler system to flow downward. However, you can’t print on either of those fabrics.
New to the fabric market is a stretch fabric called Honeycomb that can be dye-sublimation printed. Because it’s a stretch fabric, curvier shapes are also possible with ceilings now. Plus, with the Honeycomb fabric, light also pours through the fabric like water, so you can produce a large overhead graphic without significantly shading the area beneath it.
4. Acoustic Integration
Exhibitors have long used thick acoustic panels covered with fabric or draped folds of heavy velour to dampen or diminish sounds emanating from loud theater presentations and demos, or simply to drown out the ambient noise of the surrounding frenetic trade show floor.
Now there are new sound-absorbing fabrics on the market that are so compact they can be integrated into fabric systems. Thus, you can create the same sensual organic forms that tension-fabric systems are famous for — or even gigantic, straight panels — and still obtain the privacy provided by acoustic panels, velour, and even hard-wall booths.
— Hilary Howes, experience stager, Hilary Howes Consulting, Washington, DC