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The Fabric of Art

(June 2010) posted on Mon May 24, 2010

Find out how Rusty Arena applies his passion for art to a long-running career of creating unique, screen-printed home décor.

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By Andy MacDougall

In today’s industry, which is estimated to generate around $2 billion annually in sales in the U.S., there are three subsectors. The largest is for mass -produced patterns, mostly made offshore on high-speed, automated, rotary screen presses or by web-offset printing, with product targeted at the domestic housing market. Wallpaper competes with paint as the finish of choice. So it comes down to price, fickle consumer tastes, and the demands of the renovation and new home market.

The second distinct sector is a growing custom market fueled by large-format digital printers, which allow for photomurals and short-run specialty items or themed wallpapers for use in stores, offices, and homes. The final sector is also growing, and includes smaller boutique operations like Rusty Arena Designs, which uses old-school methods to produce its work. Characteristics of this sector usually include a combination of original and custom designs, 3-D or specialized finishes on a wide range of tactile materials, or classic patterns that evoke old-world opulence. Some companies specialize exclusively in reproducing classic and antique wallcoverings for restorations and historic landmarks. Although the smallest segment of the wallcovering business by sales volume and yardage produced, these custom shops earn the highest dollar per square foot for what they make.

Houston, we have a squeegee
A meeting with clothing designer Michelle Ballas led to a contract to create images to be printed on suede hides. They were an instant hit and produced requests for fabrics printed with more images, which in turn led Rusty to a Houston screen printer named Jim Wicker. According to Rusty, Jim was a great guy with an incredible sense of humor. He had to have one, as he had just gotten rid of a complete fabric-printing operation after failing to find a designer who could work in the medium and produce a high-end product. Here was an artist who had great designs, customers, and needed a screen printer. Talk about a day late. They both decided to give it a go and set about putting together a new facility to print 100-ft bolts of multicolor fabrics. There were two big problems—if you don’t count their business plan, which was essentially let’s make it and then sell it. They had only $1000 in startup capital, and the tables they needed wouldn’t fit in the existing
loft space.


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