Do and dye: Company finds signs of growth in custom fabric printing
Banner Sign Co. Inc. of Hazel Park, an 88-year-old family-run printing company, boasts clients such as Olympia Entertainment — through which Banner does work for the Ilitch family-owned Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers — and DTE Energy Co. It also won five contracts for the Super Bowl when it came to town in 2006.
But that doesn't mean things are easy-going for the company's main business of digitally printing banners and fabric graphic materials. Banner faces the same problem as other printers: Advances in technology mean anyone with a computer can run a graphics business, and prices have fallen. At the same time, national franchisers like Allegra Network have taken a bite out of the business for mom-and-pop sign printing shops.
Watching sales shrink during the past few years, Nicole Piach — co-owner of Banner with her husband Nick — tried to figure out how to expand using their existing equipment.
With an eye toward the interior design and fashion industries, Piach launched a new product line called Digital Print Specialties. By using its existing dye sublimation printing process, a type of high-quality printing, the company could print artwork such as photos and patterns onto a wide range of materials to create custom furniture, curtains, wall coverings, tile, clothing — even hospital privacy curtains.
"I really followed the trend in the UK and Europe, which is a little more advanced in the whole digital textile world," Piach said. "They were really expanding what they printed on."
In January 2011 she was online and came across information on the Toronto Interior Design Show, Canada's largest design fair. Piach hopped on the train to check out her competition and was encouraged when she realized no other company at the show was doing this kind of design work.
To test the waters, Piach exhibited at the Michigan Design Center's 2011 MIDEX show in Troy a few months later with a few products she created using stock photo images as source material for the prints.
"There was a buzz about this display with a really cool chair, which was (mine)," said Piach, who had designed a chair with images from Paris and reupholstered it.
After researching and developing her product line, she exhibited at the Toronto show this past January.
"After three days, I had over 400 qualified requests for product information and quotes," said Piach.
Interior designer and HGTV personality Debbie Travis wrote about her line in her weekly syndicated column.
Last year, Banner had revenue of $600,000, and it now employs five people — quite a dip from its high point in the early 1990s of $1.5 million and 12 employees. However, Piach hopes the new line will increase revenue to between $700,000 and $750,000 this year.
Piach has completed several jobs, including suede cushions with black-and-white images of the 1940s for a restaurant, and acoustic panels with images of Italy for a home theater.
The beauty behind the new line for Piach is that she is re-using existing equipment.
"There was very little setup cost besides material," said Piach. "Now I wake up every day and just can't wait to get to work."
She has hired a full-time skilled seamstress and plans to hire a salesperson and another production employee.
"We're at the point now where we have to have a discussion with someone regarding financing," said Piach, who wants to put together sales kits to call on local interior decorators, architectural firms and stores.
Piach also linked up with a fashion design student at Parsons, a design school in New York City funded in part by Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg. The student approached her to print the entire line of her upcoming spring exhibit.
"I'm doing this pro bono to get my name out in New York," said Piach. "My name will be in all the catalogues and printed materials. It's a foot in the right direction."
Piach's new line follows an industry trend toward an increasing demand for mass customization of products, according to Dan Marx, vice president of markets and technologies at the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association in Fairfax, Va.
Marx says fashion and interior design present strong opportunities for digital printers because these areas are not yet oversaturated.
"We're going to see the fashion and interior design markets go really closer to a one-to-one approach. Interior design is no longer 'educated shopping' (such as) going through wallpaper books. It's more about specifying, 'Here's the design, here's what we want.' If you want a couch in a certain print or something utterly unique for your interior environment, dye sublimation printing is kind of leading the charge."
Daniel Cascardo, a fine arts painter in Royal Oak who hired Piach to print his paintings onto scarves, said there is a great need for this printing service in the Detroit area.
"There's nobody in this area that does this kind of thing. Most places are in California, New York or overseas," said Cascardo, who once ran a clothing line in Chicago.
Cascardo agrees that consumers will see more designers using digital printing.
"The industry is leaning toward it because of the ability to do small runs in full color, and the variety (of images) is unbelievable."
Great Wall Custom Coverings Inc. in Ferndale is another digital printer beginning to move away from commercial work into the interior design market, launching its own line of wall coverings.
Launched eight years ago, the company has expanded its print-for-pay work in banners, trade show displays and custom graphics — everything from backdrops to wallpaper for bedrooms, home theaters, bar mitzvahs, schools, corporate offices and retail outlets like Just Baked.
"The stuff we're doing is not really being done anywhere else, and the market is wide open at this point," said Andi Kubacki, co-owner of Great Wall Custom Coverings with Joshua Young.
Kubacki said Detroit's creative world is humming right now, with efforts such as the Detroit Creative Corridor Center adding momentum.
"There is a big push with a lot of textile artists, graphic designers, interior designers and software engineers starting to move here. It's starting to become a creative hub. I think the Detroit area is a great nerve center for this right now," he said.
Although Piach has not ruled out mass producing her own line, she is more interested in becoming a resource for designers who already have a vision and need someone to manufacture their work.
"(Designers) always had stock fabrics and stock tile. Now there's a whole customized world they are able to provide their clients," Piach said.
She also plans to connect with more fashion and interior design students and become more involved in local creative efforts like the Michigan F.A.S.H. Fest and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center.
"I want to concentrate on the local economy," said Piach. "There is a lot of talent in this city and the surrounding area, with a lot of firms that do builds all over the U.S."