Along with this movement to a more sophisticated taste come consumer trends reflecting a turn toward the look and feel of fine craftsmanship. Together, these trends mean a resurgence in the importance of the art of the surface printing technique for wall coverings.
The first image that comes to mind with the term surface printing, for those familiar with the industry, is that of lush, rich, floral patterns that borrow a distinctive flair from the annals of decorating history. It is only through the art of surface printing that these patterns can be reproduced with the tactile look and feel of true craftsmanship so desired by today's consumer.
To produce these prints, Eisenhart Wallcoverings, Hanover, PA, uses its fleet of eight Waldron Surface Presses—some built as far back as 1871, others as recently as the 1940s. The level of artistry and craftsmanship that can be achieved on these presses is unparalleled. From these presses come wall coverings with the look of hand-painted detail, some of the most intricate and artistic papers available today.
While most of the presses accommodate the standard 20 1/2-inch sheets of wallpaper, a number of them are capable of printing the 27-inch widths most appropriate for historical design patterns with larger repeats. These surface presses print up to 12 colors in addition to the ground color.
It should be noted that surface printing is only one of the printing processes available for use today. Flexographic presses, noted for rendering crisp graphics and tonal, textural finishes, also are used as are rotary screen printing, rotogravure and even hand-screen printing to achieve desired effects.
Of course, the printing process creates a product only as good as the original design. Design teams must draw trend-setting designs from the finest decorative product resources in the world including major museums.
Through special licensing agreements, Eisenhart designers have the archives and historical portfolios of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, England, as well as the Smithsonian Institution® available to them. The Victoria & Albert Museum, also known as the V & A Museum, houses more than four million pieces of historical decorative art from all over the world and all periods of history—not just Victorian. The Smithsonian comprises 16 museums and galleries, including the Copper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, NY. The designers put the inspirations of these collections to excellent use in creating new adaptations of historical documents.
ALL IN THE DETAIL
Once it meets the satisfaction of the design team, a newly adapted wallpaper design is carefully translated into a detailed replica that is used to make the printing cylinders, or rollers, that will transfer the design onto the finished paper.
From the replica, the design is laser-cut into the printing cylinders for a precise reproduction of the design. "Communication with the cylinder cutters is critically important," says Dina Bauer, senior designer stylist. While some of the cylinders are made in England, she explains, the person involved with the cutting travels to the company's Hanover Design Center first to consult with designers.
"One-on-one conversations are necessary to tap the spirit of the intent of each design," Bauer says. "It is all in the detailing. Only after a cylinder is cut and print-tested do we have the confidence not only that a pattern is aesthetic, but that it accurately translates each design motif into the printing medium, the precision-engraved set of cylinders."
The accuracy of the cylinders is critical. Each print cylinder is one design element, representing one color in the overall pattern. With a maximum of 12 colors plus the background color, each cylinder must not only be a precise rendering of placement for that color, it must work in tandem with all the other cylinders in the design. It is like a dynamic, perfectly timed team effort.
AN EYE FOR COLOR
Once the cylinders are cut and approved, the next important player in the surface printing process is the color mixer. At Eisenhart, seven color mixers with an average service of 16 years perform the critical color-matching tasks by using a trained and experienced eye. Three years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship go into the making of an expert color mixer. While some manufacturers rely on computers to match their colors, others are committed to the hands-on craftsmanship of these highly trained artisans.
Wendy Zartman, a color mixer with 12 years experience with Eisenhart, explains the process. "The designers give us the color chips that are to be matched by the inks for printing—one chip for each color in the design, which means a chip for each cylinder. Then we pick out a similar color from our stockpile and begin to alter it to get an exact match. It's all done by eye—I guess you have to have an eye for color."
Once the mixer feels confident that the wet color is a match, a small amount is applied to paper and allowed to dry to check the match again. The designers approve the color matches for the first run of a pattern, but after that the mixers do the work on their own. "The base color we work from is different every time," Zartman explains, "so we can't work from a formula." It is the art and craft of the color mixer's eye that is responsible for the ongoing precision of the color matches.
MASSIVE MACHINERY, DELICATE PRECISION
Managing a huge piece of equipment like the Waldron Surface Press is an art and a craft in itself. Powered by endless leather belts and enormous cast flywheels, the machinery is as intricate and sensitive as it is massive. But the artisans who run these presses have the superior skills and depth of experience to master every detail, to make every precision adjustment, and to tap every capability of this machinery.
Jan Auchey, surface print production supervisor, credits the combination of machinery and tremendous expertise among the 10 printers (with an average of 22 years experience working with the Waldron presses) for the success of the effort. He also acknowledges the close working relationship that has developed with the manufacturers of the color cylinders. "Our manufacturers make test cylinders for us and we bring them in to test so we can assess them for depth of cuts, precision, that sort of thing. We bring in the printer and color mixers to help judge these tests."
After 23 years of working with the Waldron presses, printer Ray Gass has a deep appreciation of the artistry and craftsmanship that these machines make possible. While operating the machinery requires a particularly high level of expertise and attention to detail, Gass feels the final result is more than worth it. "The fit of all the free moving parts is a challenge, and there is a lot of detail work in making sure the pattern is lined up and fits right, a lot of adjustments on set." But Gass, like everyone else on the job, is committed to making the required effort to achieve the desired result: a wall covering that, in his words, "looks nice up on the wall."