Contract Magazine | December 2006

Variety of color, texture, and fibers in panel fabric allows designers to make an interesting - and environmental - design statement in office interiors

By Danine Alati

In today's evolving workplace - where the combination of exorbitant real estate prices and efforts to foster collaboration make open plan spaces a reality - panel systems still constitute a large part of the 21st- century office landscape. And while panel heights may be coming down, physical dividers still delineate many workstations in corporate America, allowing designers to use panel fabrics to make a strong impact on interiors.

What kind of statement panel fabrics will make ultimately depends on the client and its mission - a chartreuse background with a circular pattern might be welcomed by a cutting-edge creative marketing firm, while a traditional real estate developer might prefer the less jarring beige option. Either way, panel fabrics are intended to define workstations as simple, clean work environments, and they needn't be blah. Colors are making a comeback - overall - in commerical interiors, so solids that span the ROYGBIV spectrum are now as viable a solution as the "safe" white-taupe-beige-grey range of neutrals. It's also quite possible to introduce color into panel systems in subtle ways. Carnegie offers some rich color options with Ponte and Scott, part of its Creation Baumann line of 100-percent Trevira CS polyester textiles, as does KnollTextiles with its 100-percent polyester Element panel fabric that comes in six hues from saturated copper to softer argon.

In workspaces where the palette does not lend itself to a more daring use of color in panel fabrics, a plethora of neutral options abound. With the trend now toward "complex neutrals," lightening bold tones make a variety of colors more usable. Light green or muted blue work well as neutrals. Also, subtleties inherent to many neutral fabrics provide depth of pattern and create visual texture. In KnollTextile's Hard Rock acoustical panel fabric, made of 62 percent recycled content, Suzanne Tick dares to combine black and metallic fibers in a colorway called Tiger Eye to create a backdrop that is dynamic yet not distracting. Even white panel fabrics can have a sense of dimension with unique fiber construction. And the benefit of using white brightens up a workspace that might be cramped and might not have a natural light source.

The key to designing an aesthetically pleasing panel fabric lies in offering just enough visual appeal so that it's not bland, but also not so eye-popping that the cube-dweller can't concentrate on the tasks at hand. Tone-on-tone patterns with soothing shapes tend to work well, for example, as in the curved forms of Pallas's Lex line. To spice things up further, bold patterns can be incorporated into the office palette by using them on the panel exteriors. A more vibrant textile pattern on the exterior panel, paired with a solid tone in the same color family on the inside of the cube, forms a cohesive vocabulary and yet does not overwhelm the design scheme. But whether bold and graphic or subtle and textural, looks aren't quite everything when it comes to panel fabrics.

Other concerns include ease of use, installation, and replacement; durability; cleanability; acoustical issues; and environmental considerations. In fact, environmental sustainability not ranks as a main requisite, perhaps on par with aesthetics, when considering panel fabrics. No longer an afterthought, it's a factor from early in the manufacturing process, taking into account such things as percentage of recycled or recyclable fibers, energy consumption, water use, and waste reduction. The cradle-to-cradle manufacturing process is gaining momentum as textile manufacturers increasingly take care to use environmentally responsible methods to provide renewable and recyclable fabric solutions. Eco-friendly fibers such as bamboo or polylactic acid (PLA) - the biodegradable material derived from milk acid- offers designers the means to create usable textiles that remain part of the closed loop. As long as the vertical plane continues to occupy so much of the office landscape, panel fabrics offer a substantial opportunity for designers to make an environmental impact while also creating a design statement.

View the article from Contract's December 2006 Issue

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