Designs on Digital Decor: An interview with Rachel Nunziata

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Rachel Nunziata has been involved in the development of digital decor from the start of the revolution for using digital print technology as a method for interior and in-store design. In this blog, I ask her views on the development of this fast moving and visually expressive sector, and what she thinks is shaping the future of digital decor.

What is your background?

I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging from Ringling College of Art of Design in Sarasota and spent a lot of time in the darkroom, digital lab and developing my studio lighting skills. with it darkroom printing and studio lighting experience. During my study I enjoyed styling and producing shoots, I enjoyed putting things together. When I left, I then worked on photography industry and that is where I started my career in digital printing. When I graduated, I worked in the photography industry as an assistant then realized I didn’t want to necessarily stay behind the camera and that is where I started my career in digital printing.  It was great as I had experienced the photo industry's transition to digital – so I have both darkroom and digital experience which was a very exciting time.

I also explored a lot of new things in my time with LexJet which is an inkjet media and wide-format equipment reseller based in the US. During this time I focused on the photography market for media which is the industry I know well. I consulted with artists and photographers about wide-format printing, teaching them new applications and ways to develop their business. This is where I saw the change in digital production for fine art and it was clear that décor was happening also. My role changed from sales in photography and I was appointed to spearhead the décor movement in S-One (holding company for LexJet) and put all my time and energy into the market and as a result really fell in love with décor. With my creative past and the foundation of my learning, I saw that a big demand for décor along with original content was inevitable. At that time I was selling Aqueous, Latex and Solvent and I quickly learned how to use aspects of the photographic market such as good content and turning it into a revenue focused décor business. This was around 2013.

So in your experience, the décor market is quite diverse?

Yes, of course, across a large geographic area and this is mainly due to taste and practicality. In the US many states and regions have style differences, the US is fragmented and often times you’ll even see buyer and design show's divided up into two separate events; one for the west coast and east coast. In Atlanta, there is a huge design centre for the contract market with many designer showrooms and in the Carolinas there are many traditional textile mills and furniture manufacturers. New York and LA are both important by being close to design, especially fashion. LA is interesting with the growing maker movement with co-shared workspaces coming up and this is driving more production for décor.  This is also true of New York, Brooklyn has been a major incubator of not only emerging talent but US-based manufacturers.

What in your opinion is the major value of digital printing?

I love to use the example of digital printing in hotels. The commercial contract market is tough to crack – there are obviously the hotel owners and groups, maybe a project where they are doing a refresh or building a new property – contractors, material specifiers (specifiers and sample librarians are the gatekeepers)  and there is a lot of opportunities because a lot of them own multiple brands. For example, the Marriott has a number of different brands with different identities. Additionally, the boutique market is growing considerably – so for the main holding company, there is an opportunity to create new brands quickly using décor as a key distinguishing element.

Give me an example of a hotel brand that you like?

Hotel Indigo is one of my favourites. All the wall art (wallcovering in each room) is digitally printed and everything is localised – San Diego is particularly focused and it brings forward an immersive experience into the mix. They really know the market that they are going after (Millennials) and they are creating as I say this immersive experience that is right for this age group.

But this change isn’t occurring only in hotels, also retail. The retail flagship stores – for example, the classic Macy’s on 34th Street in Manhattan is somewhere I make a habit of stopping when I’m in the city to see how the space changes over the years.

The luxury retail market and high-end luxury brands have been struggling to keep legacy customers and connect with new consumers - so you’ll now see luxury brand’s focused on stores that provide elements of experience; not necessarily overfilled with goods fighting for the attention of the consumer.

What other trends do you think are going to be big?

Obviously, maximalism in design is coming back as a retort to minimalism. One other thing to note as this trend is not just about commercial space as individual consumers want this kind of ability to express themselves in their own homes as well.  We don’t want to see matching furniture or patterns in our homes as we want to be unique. Packaged room sets are no longer what people want – there are so many options in the market – easy to shop online – people want a bit of anything and new design anywhere and this is breaking the traditional buying patterns, whether retail, hotel or home. There is a correlation between the economy and different markets – it is a reflection of the new possibilities that digital can give you.

Will digital simply take over with analogue becoming a thing of the past?

I don’t know if digitally printed wallcovering will ever exceed analogue in production scale and volume – but it will when it comes to personalisation. I would imagine the number of long-run analogue will decrease and the short run digital will increase even across textiles.

I have also seen the phrase 'small batch' production come up a lot more indicating it is becoming mainstream. Sometimes you can see when you are just walking through stores you can almost see what manufacturers are thinking.

So the power has shifted?

Yes, the consumer is more powerful and this is a big part of it and it is driving change. The response that we are seeing in a lot of traditional print industry tradeshows can even be seen in booth design – they are all trying to figure out how to connect with designers.

Had a great talk with DuraVibe at SGIA – they convert fabrics for pigment, latex, reactive and dye sublimation. They have a new range of latex friendly fabrics which is also HP Certified. I also met and spoke with one of their best customers from Atlanta. She works with designers and turns their ideas into home décor applications and bringing them to life, which sometimes has a learning curve.

The most complicated part of the process when working with designers is getting them to understand the actual print design process. Once they realise what is possible it really opens up a new world of opportunity. This is the most exciting part.

So do you think that one of the key things that need to be done is to connect with, and inspire designers?

Yes, and because they are such visual people, they really have to see it. Just talking about it isn’t enough. It is so critical that Pure Digital is doing what it is doing, we have to come up with a simple way of inspiring, explaining and educating people then demand will really explode.

Why is the print industry not doing this so well?

The print industry has been in a traditionalist mindset as they think of themselves as a service, an afterthought, they are therefore not part of the creative process. And people are getting better at this. There are many that are repositioning and rebranding and being more of an agency. People think print and banners. They think about temporary things that help when needed such as marketing campaigns but not as a core proposition. They need to start thinking like manufacturers. Printers aren’t really driving the change but are in the middle of it. The manufacturers who aren’t implementing digital are also missing the mark. And printers in the middle could manufacture end products. It has to be up to the printers to revitalise the channel and connect the two together, or simply be the manufacturer.

For example, at one of the largest furniture fairs in Chicago, I spoke with a company who manufactured acoustic material for the contract market and knew someone who had a digital printer and said they wanted to start customising. They asked this particular person who was also wanting to revitalise and found the right person who was a PSP and now they are digitally printing on acoustic material together during the manufacturing process as an additional in-plant revenue stream. Total win-win.

What needs to change in order for printers and designers to connect better?

In one word, more collaboration. This is the strongest and quickest way to get exposure – this is a really smart way to work together as there is enough business there, you just have to figure a way to get it.

The opportunity is there along with the demand and all the key ingredients and I think all printers need to keep in mind that not every strategy is the same. Some are closer already to a new market such as décor and this is different for everyone.

So from printing flags to décor is easy?

No, not exactly. But the jump isn’t as far as you think if you collaborate and open up to learning new things. I was teaching distributors how to teach their customers (the end user, in this case, was the print service provider) how to learn from exterior markets and other facets of design.  Design and decor are both extremely vast, so it was critical for me illustrate the various verticals and segmentation within parts of that industry printers can capitalize from right away.  Look at your own customer base and grow slowly. You don’t have to go from flags to high-end décor – it is a journey that requires time and experimentation. There is a local PSP I know, quite large, they went from flags to décor. But what they did instead of trying to integrate – they created a separate brand and website to deal with this new one. Their facility was fully equipped including a grand format HP L3500 latex – the HP way linking in and printing wallcoverings. They started with floor graphics and then textiles. They started printing wallcovering in-house and this was successful over time.

What do you see in the future?

I am seeing and hearing an eagerness for more texture and haptic experiences. Design, and cohesion, a haptic end product by means of a holistic approach. We are seeing more in conductive inks so more technology layers with more functionality to it = more design and function coming together (a new convergence). It is experimental right now, but there may be a way to scale this and I definitely see this coming together and merging with digital print.   

Contact Rachel via email rachelnunziata@gmail.com