A Studio Visit—Inspired Surface Imaging at Designtex

Designtex Office Image

I recently had the opportunity to visit Designtex’s Portland, ME surface imaging studio. [See photos below]

Portland Maine is even more picturesque and quaint than I imagined it would be—and it’s home to Designtex’s surface imaging program, complete with large-format multi-substrate precision-printing capability and staff of artists, craftspeople, and technologists.

Lighthouses dot the coastline; the buildings are old in the most attractive of ways, and the rush-hour traffic on cobblestone streets seems like a glorious reprieve from the gridlock of most cities. In fact, there weren’t many traffic lights, signs, or any billboards there. I almost felt transported in time.

Portland is the largest city in Maine with a population of roughly 66,000, with a history as rich as its fishing industry. It’s also a foodie town, with a serious restaurant scene; it is purportedly an incubator for celebrity chefs. The food really blew my mind, from potato flour doughnuts and lavender lattes to world-class ceviche. The town has the feeling of a hip artist’s enclave—there seem to be a lot of paint shops in the downtown, and art students are fairly ubiquitous thanks to Maine College of Art. That sort of creative spirit is evident in the cafes, boutiques and businesses. Designtex is no exception.

Designtex acquired Portland Color in 2011, after years of collaboration on projects. Portland Color started as a photographic arts printer, and evolved over the years but maintained a culture of support for the arts by hiring artists and allowing them to use and experiment with the materials and printing processes used in the day-to-day business in their off-hours. It’s a legacy which is still alive and well in the 26,000 sq. ft. facility in Portland. It sounds to me like the perfect way to keep employees inspired, while encouraging material and process innovation. And it appears to be working.

When I entered the facility in Maine, I was immediately struck by how much creative energy is literally emanating from the walls—from the fine art prints to colorful proprietary wall coverings— a conference room has even been transformed into an installation by artist Elizabeth Atterbury, using Designtex wall and window treatment products printed with artwork created exclusively for Designtex.

"We value artists’ attention to detail and creative problem solving. The team in Portland brings creativity and thoughtfulness to client projects and all of the steps in the manufacturing process— combining art, design, and craft. We have a collective passion for pushing the digital print medium and seeing what it can do." —Irina Skornyakova, product specialist in the Surface Imaging Studio 

Clearly, digital surface imaging is a powerful visual medium and the team at Designtex has created a four-pronged approach to helping clients achieve their goals within a full spectrum of needs, timeframes and budgets. The first level of surface imaging materials is called By The Yard and is a simple way to order set-priced wallcoverings and textiles. By The Yard orders are printed on demand. 

A second option is the Made to Measure collection from Designtex, complete with a useful (and fun!) web tool, which allows users to simulate wall coverings in the context of a space at scale. You can change the repeat, the color and size of the patterns and more. Made to Measure accommodates a fair amount of customization, without venturing into the pricier realm of fully custom work.

A third, unique offering, the Portfolio program is a collaboration of Designtex and artists from around the world. It allows clients to select from a range of high-performance materials and pair with imagery, which has been produced specifically for printing at a range of scales and substrates. It’s a real win-win for the clients, and the artists who find new venues for their work; Designtex takes great care in working with these artists that the image rights and artistic integrity are protected and the essence of the work shines.

Bespoke is the fourth Designtex Surface Imaging option, which provides clients with a complete custom experience. From concept to completion the client’s ideas, branding and identity, imagery, environment, light and space, building code, durability/cleaning requirements are considered holistically. Projects move quickly with this high-functioning team and are fully collaborative with outside design teams. Digitally printable substrates which include wall coverings, films, magnetic materials, textiles, wood, metals, plastics and even ceramic. 

I found the production side of the facility to be bright, clean, climate-controlled, fairly quiet and noticeably absent of the smells associated with printing processes—a product of the company’s commitment to health, safety and the environment. They’ve forged a partnership with home goods retailer West Elm, using a textile created from recycled plastic bottles, and stitch yarn waste from Steelcase. It’s quite attractive, and now is being used as a substrate for printing as well.

There are a lot of large machines in the production and finishing areas, and friendly knowledgeable staff, too. One machine is called the Vutek, and cures ink using energy-friendly and low-heat LED lights. It prints with a high-level of precision on rolls, sheets and even textured materials. Nate DuBuque, a skilled technician stands by, ready to catch and mark any potential flaws. Designtex has a very low tolerance for imperfections—significantly lower than industry-standard. All the machines are color-calibrated and have color match profiling for special colors (such as Pantone colors) for each machine and substrate.

In the finishing area, the printed materials get inspected, mounted, coated, cut and otherwise prepped for shipping and installation under color-controlled lighting. (As you can tell, I was very impressed by the color correction in such a large facility!) Among the many large machines, there is a quality-control setup, which uses cameras mounted to the ceiling in order to check the alignment of sections up to 20 ft. long.

Among the many machines, a coating machine called a Drytac Versacoater administers several different options for coating, including one called Guardian, which is UV cured and appropriate for high-traffic and harsh cleaning materials like bleach and alcohol. The process seems very cold and technical, but the staff approach the machines with a kind of tenderness. The results are products, which look rich and are highly functional.

Karen Gelardi put it best: “It’s not just the equipment here, it’s the equipment plus the people.”

Designtex sees itself as a placemaking company with a focus on materials and they view digital large-format printing as a robust storytelling tool to create emotional resonance in the built environment and inspire engagement. It’s obvious too that the solutions they achieve are no small part a result of the open, collaborative environment which they’ve fostered between clients, staff, artists and designers.

“It’s always design. We all live and die on design.” –Ralph Saltzman, Co-founder and former president of Designtex


PS. I never thought I’d say this, but the real Maine lobster rolls are worth it (the calories, the trip, the cost—you name it).


Designtex, a subsidiary of Steelcase, is actually headquartered in New York City but has sales offices worldwide. They are a leader in the design and manufacturing of applied materials for the built environment with an ever-growing library of over 8,000 materials. As a company, they have made a commitment to sustainability and reducing environmental impact through innovation and research.



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