Fabric Structures

No Boundaries

Fabric structures, the once and always lightweight workhorse, create a limitless design dimension.

Twenty years ago, the phrase “fabric architecture” referred to an outdoor tent or restaurant awning. Today, an ever-expanding palette of materials and vastly improved structural, lighting, and graphic technologies allow fabrics to escape the awning and take on new roles: multimedia canvas, iconic sculpture, branded totem, and architectural skin, just to name a few.

“In the past, people thought it was crazy to use fabric structures when they could use more traditional building materials like wood,” says Cynthia Thompson, president and founder of Transformit (Gorham, ME). “But as we started to sell this strange way of doing architecture, clients started to use it for everything from space articulation to art.”

In fact, fabric is now an architectural staple and designers view it as a way to extend the experience of a space. “Clients are not just thinking of it as a lightweight solution but as a sensorial experience—using fabric’s attributes and taking it to the next level,” says Leo Boczar, director of communications for Fabric Images (Elgin, IL).

With so much still to learn about how to use fabric in architectural applications, companies are continually finding new ways to exploit the material world. Innovations ranging from smart textiles to cross-pollination and sustainability keep fabric architecture a realm of almost limitless possibilities.

Why fabric?

A quick look at fabric’s qualities provides compelling reasons to specify it for a range of installations. It’s lightweight, easy to ship, portable, and fills a lot of space compared to what it ships in. It can take on virtually any shape and be installed or knocked down quickly with few or no tools.

“Architects see it as an intelligent way of building walls and ceilings,” says Gareth Brennan, president of Eventscape (Toronto). “With advances in 3D software, you can design things that in the past you couldn’t even imagine.” And innovations in fabric technology enable multiple, and seemingly incompatible, characteristics to be combined into one material—for example, soft, lightweight, sturdy, and printable.

Fabric is also an attractive solution for filling a lot of space without the cost or weight of more traditional materials. “There’s a kinetic aspect with a lightweight structure that you simply can’t get with a heavy material,” says Carl Royce, lead designer for Studio Lilica (Duarte, CA). The ability to project video on fabric or print full-color graphics for indoor or outdoor installations also makes fabric an appealing alternative to other substrates.

Innovations in fabric architecture

When it comes to innovation, companies like Eventscape are staying ahead of the curve, spending a great deal of time testing new materials in their own R&D departments. “Where in the past we were limited to a small palette, now there are thousands of new materials, with new ones coming out every day,” says Brennan. “We experiment with them so that when we get a new project, we know what the capabilities are.” 

So-called “intelligent” fabrics are part of the newest crop of materials. “Smart” textiles transmit power and data; the fabric is woven with conductive fibers that allow electrical currents to pass through the membrane. There are also materials that control messaging via integrated LEDs or projection.

Other companies are not only testing new fabrics but also having them custom-made to suit their needs. “We’re not limited by what’s in our toolbox,” says Leo Boczar of Fabric Images. “We go directly to the mills, source what we want, and they create it. And that really opens the door to what people are specifying.” Cross-pollinating materials—borrowing fabrics from one industry and using them for another—is another trend. For example, textiles with inherent antimicrobial properties, which are typically used in the filtration industry, can be used in a health-care environment. And durable military materials might be used for highly trafficked interior applications.

The structural framework for fabric, which is typically aluminum, has also seen vast improvements in the last 10 years—and it’s getting stronger and more lightweight all the time. In some cases, rather than hiding the framework, companies are finding ways to make the structure part of the overall effect. Transformit developed Shadowgraphing when creating a puzzle effect for a museum exhibit. By constructing the framework to mimic pieces of a puzzle and backlighting the fabric, they were able to achieve just the right balance of fun and complexity.

Shades of green

Sustainability is one of the biggest movements in the fabric industry right now, and designers, manufacturers, and architects are all trying to do their part for the environment. According to Thompson, fabric architecture by its very nature treads lightly on the earth. “It’s lightweight and it doesn’t take a lot of energy to make or ship, so it works into the sustainable world without even trying,” she says. “Also, a lot of fabrics are recycled or upcycled—for example, fabric made from nonfabric materials, such as recycled plastic bottles.”  She adds that more and more clients are requesting a carbon footprint of their tradeshow booth, including how much energy it took to ship it. And architects are seeking ways to make a green statement, such as how fabrics are made and how clean the water is leaving the fabric mill. At its own office, Transformit recycles aluminum and has installed solar panels to reduce energy consumption.

Eventscape is also greening up its act, reducing on-site waste and creating skin structures with LEED-certified materials. Other green measures include giving structures a new life elsewhere to keep them out of landfills.

But Fabric Images’ Boczar sees many “shades of green” when it comes to sustainability initiatives. “Everyone’s definition of what is ‘green’ is different,” says Boczar. “If you combine recycled materials with environmentally unfriendly inks, what good is that?” He notes that the ink industry still has a way to go to create “green” inks that have the same quality, durability, and saturation as traditional inks. But Boczar says he is pushing back on ink manufacturers to transition from oil-based to water-based inks to lessen their impact on the environment.

Lighting and graphics

Although fabric structures are not typically used for wayfinding and other signage, designers are finding more and more opportunities to add a graphic component to fabric. Whether using traditional printing methods—dye-sublimation for interior applications and inkjet printing for outdoor projects—or nontraditional methods such as projection, or both, graphics are adding yet another dimension to fabric architecture. Once the framework is in place, it’s easy to change out graphics like you change your clothes, Thompson explains. And manufacturers are constantly creating new materials that will accept graphics, to give architects and designers more options.

One of the most important aspects of any fabric installation, however, is lighting. “The inherent nature of textiles is that they’re luminous,” Brennan says. “You can use LEDs in a range of colors and the fabric can essentially change hues to match a desired emotion.” For example, a fabric installation in a brainstorming office could incorporate LEDs that are programmed to elicit a targeted response. It’s also possible to combine a static graphic image with moving video, which is something that can’t be done with too many other materials.

Fabric’s future

Although companies that create fabric structures have long seen the substrates’ potential, there is still a learning curve for designers and architects. “One challenge is educating people who have never worked with fabric and making them understand that it’s not just about using it as a substitute for another material,” Thompson explains. “But once they get it, they’re willing to experiment with new ways to apply it to architecture. And the payoff is huge. “You can create without boundaries, the end result is often dramatic, and the architects feel like they’re breaking new ground,” Brennan adds.

So what’s in store for fabric architecture? Sustainability initiatives will drive the development of more environmentally friendly fabrics, inks, and practices. And Bruce Dickinson, vice president of Rainier Industries (Seattle), predicts that all fabric will be made from recycled materials in five to 10 years. Companies like Rainier and Eventscape will continue to explore new ways to integrate fabric with traditional architecture. “I think you’ll see more lightweight, mobile, and contained fabrics,” says Thompson. “But that’s nothing new. Fabric has moved itself into the future with qualities it’s always had.”

--By Jenny Reising, segdDESIGN No. 19, 2008

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