Inspiration Is Everywhere
By Larry Thomas
Whether they are at the grocery store, enjoying a European vacation, or just about anywhere in between, fabric designers are always on call.
True, they may ignore their inbox and shut off their business phones when they are not officially on the clock, but they can’t predict when the creative juices will be stimulated. It could be the unusual color palette on the shirt of a passerby, or a mural painted on the side of an aging building undergoing renovation, or a piece of furniture on a television show.
When the juices start flowing, out comes a camera phone, tablet, or even an old-school sketch-pad.
When they are designing a new line, it doesn’t take long for them to accumulate hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures and sketches – all of which have to be reviewed, along with the usual sources of inspiration such as shelter magazines, design journals, industry trade shows, and social media sites such as Pinterest.
Inspiration, in a word, is everywhere. Designers just have to be keen enough to recognize it.
What follows is a brief look at what inspires some of today’s top outdoor fabric designers. They also discuss how they entered the fabric business, and highlight a few innovations we can expect to see in their product lineup for 2021 and beyond.
Design Director, Sattler Corp. (Outdura)
Even when she’s technically off-duty, Gloria Tsocos says her quest for design inspiration doesn’t take a holiday. Her camera phone is her constant companion because it’s impossible to predict when she will stumble across something that spurs a design idea, and she must have a record of it.
“My inspiration comes from everywhere. It can come from something I see in the fashion industry, or it can come from something I see at the grocery store,” said Tsocos, the Design director at Sattler Corp., which produces the Outdura line of outdoor furniture fabric. “But when I see it, I take a picture of it.”
Of course, she also visits trade shows such as Heimtextil, the giant textile confab held each January in Frankfurt, and the Casual Furniture Market, the outdoor furniture industry’s annual gathering in Chicago. But it’s her everyday interaction with people and their surroundings – and her ever-expanding camera roll – that keeps the creative juices flowing.
“It’s all about understanding the customer. Once you’ve done that, you can pinpoint what they need,” she said. “The outdoor (furniture) channel is a very different customer, and you have to understand how the aesthetics are so different.”
One very important way for Tsocos to better understand Outdura’s customers is by traveling with the company’s sales teams. While that may not be modus operandi for a lot of fabric designers, she thinks it’s critical to the success of her design team.
“I like to listen to the sales presentations, talk to the customers directly, and evaluate their lines,” she said. “That’s the only way to hear first-hand what people are saying about your product and your designs. It’s a nice opportunity for me to see all of that.”
Tsocos likes to follow up on those meetings with a visit to the manufacturer’s showroom, where the proverbial rubber meets the road.
“It’s important to see what fabrics they actually picked up. Some of them really surprise me, but that’s part of what makes it so interesting and so worthwhile to be there,” said Tsocos. “Sometimes, I’ll just step back and say, ‘Wow, I would never have thought to use it like that.’”
But she learned long ago not to get offended when that happens, and she takes a very pragmatic approach today once a line is in production.
“As long as it runs looms, I’m for it,” she quipped.
Although she has overseen outdoor furniture fabric design for Outdura since 2015, the bulk of her career has been spent designing fabrics for various mills and jobbers that serve the contract, OEM, and custom fabric markets.
Immediately prior to joining Outdura, she developed custom fabrics for hospitality customers at New York-based Cowtan & Tout, and also had a two-year stint as an independent Sales representative.
Tsocos also has worked as a designer in the contract segment at Wearbest Sil-Tex and spent five years as a professor at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where she earlier earned degrees in textile technology and marketing.
Earlier in her career, she was a designer at Victor Mills and Arc-Com Fabrics, and also spent time as a freelance designer, where she designed fabric for the bedding and hospitality markets for clients such as Mastercraft, Hoffman Mills, and Momentum.
One of her biggest challenges since she shifted her focus to outdoor furniture fabric has been understanding the scale of the pieces where her fabrics might be used, as well as the nuances of cutting and sewing outdoor fabric that differ significantly from most contract cloth.
“In outdoor, you don’t want to go overboard with the details of the design,” she said. “In contract, they will just put a nice decorative jacquard on a big chair or a big sofa, but you can’t always do that in outdoor because it will be used in a much smaller space.”
Tsocos also admits it can be challenging to constantly develop new designs that incorporate white, which currently is in “every single SKU” in the line and probably will be for her foreseeable future.
“It’s going to get rain on it. It’s going to get dust on it. It’s going to get pollen on it, but it has to have white,” she said laughing. “But that’s a great tribute to the acrylics that we use. They’re so easy to clean.”
She said it typically takes nine to 12 months to design an outdoor fabric line – from finding the right yarn, to getting the perfect dye, picking the right coating, making samples, and creating marketing materials. And that’s a very condensed list of everything that has to be done.
Those lengthy development times, combined with the long lead times needed by casual furniture manufacturers, mean that Tsocos and her team are now hip-deep into designing fabrics for the 2022 retail selling season. (To put that in perspective, the 2020 selling season just passed its peak, and retailers are scheduled to get their first look at manufacturers’ 2021 lines this summer and will be placing orders by fall.)
“The customer always wants to see something new – whether or not they buy it. That’s how you start a conversation with them,” she explained. “You may not sell oodles and oodles (of the new fabric), but you have to have something new to show them.”
Tsocos was hesitant to discuss specifics of the 2022 offerings since the line is still several weeks away from being finalized, but said customers are likely to see an extension of the “more modern design offerings” that her team has developed in recent years.
For the 2021 season, pastels and soft colors are the rule, and some decorative jacquards with a small repeat are being added for good measure. Plus, a very successful collection from the 2020 lineup called Static is being enhanced and expanded.
Once the lines for 2022 are wrapped up this fall, there’s only a short respite before plunging into the 2023 line, which means, “I have to come up with another great idea,” she quipped.
Despite those frustrations – and the industry’s obsession with white – she says she thoroughly enjoys what she’s doing and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“It’s a lot of fun. I enjoy the development part of it, and I enjoy the technical part of it,” Tsocos said. “We do all of our own designs. We don’t purchase any artwork. That allows us to be creative and have fun with it.”
Director of Design, Phifer
When the coronavirus pandemic caused many of this year’s major trade shows to be canceled, and retail sales to fall precipitously, Monica Thornton and her design team saw an opportunity.
Thornton, who is director of Design at Phifer, a key supplier of outdoor furniture fabric, said the near total shutdown of the economy has been an ideal time for tinkering with fabric designs and yarn constructions that may wind up in the company’s lineup for 2022, 2023, and beyond.
That’s because many of Phifer’s retail customers were closed for an extended period, which resulted in an extended slowdown at the company’s principal factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“It has given us a lot more time to get prototypes through the factory and tested,” she said. “This is our wheelhouse. Our R&D department is fully staffed and working hard every day.”
For competitive reasons, Thornton didn’t want to discuss many details of the projects her team has been working on, but there’s no question that the pandemic hasn’t shut down the creative juices that have been flowing throughout her 30-year career in the outdoor fabric segment.
“We get inspiration from everywhere, and we normally attend various design and trade events, including Maison & Objet, the High Point Market, SPOGA, and the HD Expo, to observe product trends and get inspiration from many different industries,” she said. “In addition, we attend several professional color meetings where we discuss color trends that are forecast for the next few years.”
But with many of those events canceled or postponed this year, she and her team have spent even more time on the Internet – perusing sites such as Pinterest, as well as those maintained by dozens of consumer and trade publications covering a wide variety of industries.
“We’re not looking to just duplicate what someone else is doing. We want to come up with our own spin,” she said. “It’s important to figure out how it would work for us.”
While Thornton’s current duties at Phifer also include oversight of window shade, marine fabric, and commercial flooring design, outdoor furniture has been in her portfolio for three decades and is very likely to remain there.
Phifertex – Dupioni Chile Ice Blue.
GeoBella – Passages Lagoon.
Phifertex – Dupioni Aquamarine.
Phifertex – Cole Stripe Ice Blue.
GeoBella – Venetto Lagoon.
Phifertex – Gannon Revive.
Before joining Phifer seven years ago, she was Creative director at Plantation Patterns, a leading producer of outdoor cushions, pillows, umbrellas, and other accessories. Prior to that, she spent eight years as a Fabric designer and Trend manager at outdoor furniture resource Home Casual, and was design director at Twitchell Corp., a major outdoor and industrial fabric resource, for 11 years.
“Outdoor fabrics have to be very strong and durable, so sometimes this can create more of a challenge,” said Thornton. “Phifer’s PVC products have a very specific sheen structure, and finding avenues to make PVC products different each season can be very challenging. We rely heavily on unique dobby and jacquard weaves, as well as bold color combinations, to set ourselves apart.”
PVC products are used primarily for sling seating and are sold under the Phifertex brand name. They feature PVC-coated polyester yarns that deliver a fabric that is flexible but has very little stretch, she explained, noting that PVC also makes the fabrics water resistant and quick drying.
Outdoor cushion and pillow fabrics, which often are used for custom orders and designer sales, are sold under the GeoBella brand name. In addition to being water resistant and fade resistant, the fabric is recyclable, said Thornton.
In a typical season, the company will have 350 to 400 fabrics in the line, including about 30 that are kept in stock for quick shipment. A few of the in-stock selections have been in the line for more than a decade – an eternity in the outdoor or indoor furniture business.
“Our customers always want to see what’s new, but they also want something with longevity,” she said.
According to Thornton, it takes at least six months to develop each season’s fabric line, which means she and her team are already deep into the design process for the 2022 fabrics and are even thinking ahead to the 2023 season.
She said the 2021 line has been well-received by manufacturers, and they’re confident retailers will have a similar reaction when they see the products at upcoming Casual Market Chicago.
For the 2021 season, she said the company is unveiling a new yarn coating that gives its PVC fabrics a velvet-like feel and a matte sheen – doing away with the notion that PVC fabrics must have a stiff feel to be durable.
“Soft, contemporary design trends are continuing for this season as they provide a balance between nature and technology, but we’re also seeing a hint of traditional design with a bit of a vintage feel,” Thornton said.
In addition, she said the recent uptick in demand for wicker and rattan products “provide a fresh and exciting way to mix modern and traditional outdoor fabric styles” and reflect a continuation of the blending of indoor and outdoor furniture styles.
Another sign of the influence of indoor design is the recent surge in popularity of navy in the color palette. She said blue has been a staple in the lineup for years, but darker blues such as navy have grown in popularity more recently, especially when they’re used in pillows and accent pieces.
“This season’s color palette has real purpose and emotion, and appeals to a very diverse consumer market,” she explained. “We are using multicolored and vibrant fabrics that are specific and special when used with a simple furniture frame. We also are using very soft and ethereal hues that layer in well and are cozy, restful, and peaceful.”
Executive Design Director, Glen Raven Custom Fabrics
For Greg Voorhis, design is all about collaboration.
Good design, he says, is not dependent upon the talents of any single designer or one person’s ability to navigate complex design software better than anyone else. That’s why he’s constantly communicating with team members who are based in France, China, and throughout the Carolinas, which is his home base.
“The design team is the company,” Voorhis said. “It includes R&D. It includes Sales. It includes Marketing. It includes Planning. We all come together and coordinate our efforts. As a company, Glen Raven is all about collaboration.”
He says the emphasis on collaboration is one of the keys to keeping Glen Raven’s well-known Sunbrella performance fabric in a leadership position in the casual furniture industry.
Sunbrella, he noted, was focused exclusively on the outdoor furniture segment for many years, but more recently has expanded into indoor furniture as the demand for performance fabrics has skyrocketed.
“It has become a fabric that can go just about anywhere,” Voorhis said. “There’s a big segment of the line that crosses over (for indoor and outdoor use), but some things are designed specifically for people who want to use them outdoors. It all comes down to personal taste.”
Cleanability and ease of maintenance – a staple of Sunbrella’s success in the outdoor market – has translated well to the indoor market, and has been an especially effective sales tool as consumer demand for custom upholstery has reached new heights. Plus, manufacturers of outdoor furniture increasingly are incorporating indoor furniture designs into their collections, further blurring the lines between the two segments.
“For us, the design process for indoor and outdoor is all the same,” he said. “There are no constraints on the type of yarn. We can do things with technology that makes just about any indoor fabric look like an outdoor fabric.”
Voorhis, who has worked for Glen Raven for 23 years, was a budding artist and painter while growing up – he and a few classmates staged their own art shows in high school – but moved into the world of fabric design shortly after completing a degree in visual arts from Lander University in South Carolina.
Today, his artwork is largely confined to regular painting and drawing sessions with his two children, but he has no regrets about his career path and enjoys the daily challenges it brings.
“Now, I only paint walls and molding,” he quipped.
Balance – Create Haze.
Balance – Surround Dusk.
Balance – Embrace Indigo.
Balance – Nurture Indigo.
Balance – Renew Earthen.
Balance – Calm Graphite.
But the world of art still plays a major role in his work by providing some of the inspiration for the fabric designs he and his team develop. Voorhis says he, and about a half-dozen other team members, regularly travel the world – often with Sales or R&D people – looking for design trends and translating them into the needs of Glen Raven’s customers.
“Inspiration comes from everywhere. It’s what you’re seeing in fashion. It could be something you see on a Paris or New York runway. It could be something you see on a TV program,” he explained. “When all of these things are mixed together, you can begin to see some sort of commonality.”
Trends in the art world, according to Voorhis, are often indicative of themes that might not be in widespread use for another two or three years, but it’s still important to identify them as the design team peers into the future.
“It’s a constant process,” he said. “We’re constantly working on fabrics for various collections since it takes a good six to eight months to develop a new collection from start to finish.”
But the bottom line, of course, is fulfilling the needs of his customers, which is yet another reason that collaboration is so critical. He says it is not unusual for his team to develop an exclusive fabric for a specific customer – a process that usually takes three months for a single design.
“We’re looking to be influenced by our customers, but we also want to influence them, in turn. It’s a bit of a cyclical process,” he said. “We have to partner with our customers to bring the best possible new product to them.”
Outdoor furniture manufacturers will have Sunbrella’s 2021 line on display for their retail customers in September at Casual Market Chicago. That means Voorhis and his team already are waist deep in designing the company’s 2022 line, which it will begin showing to manufacturers during the fourth quarter of this year.
“That’s why we’re so closely tied with Sales and R&D,” he said. “They will learn something and talk to us about it. Then we come together and deliver the product.”
For 2021, Sunbrella’s major rollout is called the Balance Collection, which aims for the perfect blend – a balance, if you will, – of color and texture.
“We’ve used eclectic color combinations to catch the eye, but they’re combined with neutral base colors such as clays, greens, and hazy blues,” Voorhis explained. “Blue is out there in the marketplace a lot, but an important aspect of this new line is the layering of colors and the combination of colors.”
The Surround fabrics, for example, feature a contemporary block stripe with alternating color pops, while the Infused group is dominated by a small scale, pixelated diamond that mimics a cross-stitched effect.
The Bliss group, on the other hand, features a bi-colored, twisted yarn that is fused with solid color. That combination delivers a textural grid effect and is available in 10 colorways.
In addition, the Nurture group delivers a more elegant texture with its loopy boucle yarn. It is available in 10 colorways dominated by comforting neutral and nature-inspired solids.
There’s also the Calm group, which features a tropical design with the look of a hand-drawn pattern, and Centered, a modern bar stripe with blurred edges that convey softness on an otherwise rigid layout.
Voorhis said all of the new fabrics feature a luxurious hand and are resistant to fading and the degrading effects of sunlight. They also are easy to maintain with bleach-based cleaners.
Design Director, Outdoor & Performance Fabrics, Bella-Dura Home
When Sarah Keelen was a child she always admired the hand-woven placemats, napkins, and tablecloths made by her great-grandparents, Walter and Esther Lansinger – two teachers who operated a weaving business on the side.
After they died, when she was in the second grade, her family inherited “many boxes of yarn” and two wooden looms built by her grandfather. According to family legend, Walter Lansinger built the looms from discarded maple furniture and had the designs patented.
Keelen, who is now Design director for Outdoor and Performance Fabrics at Bella-Dura, said the looms and the boxes of yarn gathered dust during the rest of her childhood. But that changed rather suddenly after she enrolled in a weaving class during her final semester at Syracuse University, where she was pursuing a degree in psychology.
“I decided to take that class to learn how to use the looms – and I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I soon enrolled at FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City) and have been designing woven textiles ever since.”
Walter Lansinger’s looms aren’t in use today, but she still regularly uses placemats and napkins made by her great-grandparents. “I love to imagine my great-grandparents’ hands weaving them, and I find their design choices endlessly inspiring,” Keelen said.
So inspiring, in fact, that her design team’s first Bella-Dura Home line included a texture based on one especially colorful placemat. The pattern was appropriately named Lansinger, and it ended up being the top selling pattern in the line.
Keelen said her design inspiration also comes from a variety of other sources – museums, trade shows, shelter magazines, and other designers she follows on Instagram. She also takes lots of photos on her camera phone, but prefers old-fashioned tear sheets to sketch out design ideas.
When her design team is ready to start work on a new collection, she will buy dozens of magazines, review hundreds of photos she has taken, gather catalog clippings, and assemble dozens of fabric and yarn swatches. The group then analyzes all the material to look for trends and develops a series of “trend boards” that are hung in the design studio alongside several color and pattern inspiration boards.
From there, she makes hand-drawn sketches of new ideas – the best ones are then moved to Photoshop – and begins to look for artwork to translate into new fabrics.
Shady Grove – Pewter.
Auden – Guava.
Breaking Plaid – Ocean.
Kepler – Onyx.
Lansinger – Fiesta.
Selwyn – Poseidon.
“I don’t think the design ‘switch’ is ever really turned off,” she said. “I absorb ideas like a sponge just going about my daily life.”
Keelen said every fabric she designs for Bella-Dura can be used indoors or outdoors; she noted there is little distinction today between the two categories. That’s because consumers increasingly are seeking performance fabrics for indoor upholstery pieces, leading to a blending of the two.
“Outdoor fabric used to be much more saturated in color, had bolder patterns, less weave interest, and textural yarns,” she said. “But now the goal is to create performance indoor/outdoor fabrics that look and feel like the most desirable indoor fabrics since both categories follow the same trends.”
The biggest challenge with outdoor fabrics, she said, is finding a fiber that’s suitable for outdoor use. While almost any synthetic or natural fiber can be woven for an indoor fabric, that’s not the case with outdoor.
“It has been very exciting to work with yarn suppliers in recent years to create some beautiful new novelty yarns that give outdoor fabric a look and feel unique to the performance industry,” said Keelen. “Interesting textures continue to be the most important design category and I’m always looking for new ways to create them, either with a dynamic novelty yarn, unique weave structure, or new color combinations.”
She said Bella-Dura’s 2021 line features a number of “linen-inspired” textures, stripes and plaids that are soft and natural looking, and deliver a look that is “casual and chic at the same time.” In addition, the lineup includes several fabrics with geometric patterns with a lot of texture and some sophisticated botanicals.
“The palette overall is very residential and livable,” she added. “There is a wide range of cool and warm neutrals, denim, navy, and soft blues and greens. We also are showing some pops of deep teal and bringing in some warm soft red and coral.”
U.S. Sales Manager, Tempotest USA
This year has been a trying time for everyone in the outdoor furniture business, but the coronavirus pandemic has been especially tough on Tempotest, a key outdoor fabric supplier.
The company, part of the Parà Group, is based in Northern Italy, one of the hardest-hit regions in the world for coronavirus infections. Its factories, design studios, and administrative functions were shut down for more than two months as the entire country was placed on extreme lockdown.
Despite those setbacks, not to mention the cratering of the U.S. economy, the company’s U.S. distribution center in Carrollton, Texas, is gearing up for the 2021 selling season – albeit in uncharted waters.
Jeff Jimison, Tempotest’s U.S. Sales manager, says the company is forging ahead with emphasis on fabric constructions such as velvets, and a new yarn called Long Staple that delivers the look and feel of linen.
“Velvet is one trend that is emerging, but it’s not the red velvet of the Gilded Age,” he said. “Our new velvets have wider color possibilities with hues of teal, blue, mauve, and turquoise, and it’s a perfect blend of luxury and comfort.”
As a result, Jimison said weaves also will be quite thick and have more texture than has been seen in recent years.
Those thicker weaves also are prevalent in fabrics utilizing the new Long Staple yarn, which not only produces the feel of linen, but also gives the fabric a three-dimensional look, he explained.
“The soft, relaxed look that is so popular inside the home is now moving outside,” said Jimison. “The new yarn is designed to mimic the look and feel of natural linen.”
Ottomano Onyx Sand.
Finestra Pumpkin Spice.
On the design front, he believes small-scale geometrics and their contrasting color combinations “will emerge stronger than ever this year,” as will floral designs. However, he noted that this season’s florals are not conservative motifs such as romantic flowers with pastel tones, but are large motifs integrated with abstract design.
Although he believes the popularity of velvets means more interest in vibrant colors, Jimison said neutral colors remain stronger than ever. As a result, Tempotest has a strong showing of grays and blues in its new lineup, as well as more traditional neutrals such as oatmeal and wheat. In addition, the line includes several so-called “warm neutrals” with names such as sunset pink and biscuit beige.
“All types of coloring are very close to nature – to the tones of the roots of the interlaced fabrics,” Jimison said. “We anticipate that solids for body cloth will be our best sellers, as usual, while jacquards will primarily find their way onto pillows and accents.”
He said he has been pleased that, since the Texas distribution center was opened in 2014, Tempotest’s brand recognition has grown significantly within the outdoor furniture industry.
“Our name recognition is at the point where manufacturers are calling us to ask if they can take a look at what we have to offer,” he said. “We are able to give the specialty retailer a fabric that truly is special because of our Italian heritage and performance. Whether they realize it or not, specialty retailers desperately need to differentiate themselves from their competition, and we are here to help them.”