Big Month Ahead For Studio Z

June 12, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Like most West Michigan companies, textile design house Studio Z fell on tough times at the turn of the century.  Both of the industries it touches — contract furniture and textiles — took a nosedive. Its primary customer base, contract furniture, entered a three-year period that would prove to be its darkest days.

“We were sort of the little fry that was pulled down into this negative vortex of space,” said Anna Zaharakos, founder and principal of the 18-year-old firm. “Business was really bad, but we took that as a personal challenge and used the extra time we had to look at how we could reinvent ourselves.”

For nearly two decades, the firm has served a valuable niche within the contract furniture industry, designing patterns for material used to upholster chair cushions and panel systems. At one time or another, the Grand Rapids company has counted nearly all of the industry’s leading OEMs as clients.

When the industry hit its well-publicized, three-year recession, Studio Z’s “playground” suddenly wasn’t a very nice place to be anymore. The eight-employee firm could not avoid layoffs.

After some internal reflection, Anna, with her husband and business manager, Michael Zaharakos, realized they could apply Studio Z’s core competency in a vast number of ways.

“We’ve done commercial product, but we’re really just fine artists who have to make a living,” she said. “Let’s take our skills as artisan designers, our knowledge of patterns and color, and apply it to other products.”

This month, Studio Z will unveil four different concepts for at least four different markets: a stained glass product for architects and interior designers; a new manufacturing process for furniture makers and other textile users; a boutique line of rugs, bags and other products made from scrap fabric; and a set of woven paintings.

The first new offering was developed in partnership with Kalamazoo-based digital printer Agio Imaging. Agio had developed a patent-pending process for applying images to floor coverings, known as FloorPix. The company, which specializes in trade show and architectural graphics, had been experimenting with applying digital printing to other mediums, such as glass. Early applications involved next-generation stained glass windows for southeast Michigan churches. Hoping to market the new process to architects and product and interior designers, the company tapped Studio Z to develop designs suitable for the built environment.

The process, GlassPix, will be on display this week at NeoCon, the annual celebration of commercial interior design in Chicago, both at the Agio Imaging booth and in Spring Lake manufacturer IzzyDesign’s permanent showroom. IzzyDesign has signed on as a strategic partner in the venture, and will be integrating the glass into its Edison workstation line.

Studio Z will also be seeking interest and potential partners in a second venture at NeoCon. Applying their expertise in Jacquard weaving, the Zaharakoses believe they have developed a more efficient method of textile manufacturing.

Named for Frenchman Joseph-Marie Jacquard, Jacquard weaving is a 200-year-old system that uses punch cards to enable looms to produce fabrics with intricate woven patterns. It is often considered a precursor to the modern computer.

Studio Z has developed a patent-pending Jacquard process that creates two interwoven pieces of fabric with seamless patterns covering both sides. When one of the woven shapes is laser-cut from the fabric, it creates a bag that can be used as a seat covering, purse or pillowcase, or stuffed for use as a pillow or toy.

“Part of the reason we’re doing this is to address some environmental concerns,” said Michael Zaharakos. “The best place to deal with waste is at its source.”

Traditionally, fabric is woven into large rolls, which are sold to manufacturers, who then cut and sew the fabric into the desired shape. Studio Z’s process eliminates the roll and most of the sewing from the process. Unlike traditional weaving, the pattern on both sides of the fabric will match perfectly every time, a valuable application for seat cushions. In the spaces between larger shapes, Anna envisions weaving smaller products made from the same material — such as a teddy bear or iPod holder.

While the process has obvious implications for lean manufacturing, Studio Z is presenting it as a solution for field-replaceable upholstery for seat cushions. It is hoping to partner with a furniture manufacturer to do so.

This process will also be presented June 25 to July 1 at Convergence, the massive Handweavers Guild of America convention held this year in Grand Rapids at DeVos Place.

On display alongside the Jacquard teddy bears, pillows, seat cushions and iPod holders will be another waste-saving product line: Trashy Goods. In the traditional weaving process, a large amount of scrap, known as fringe, is created. Usually, this is sold for use as carpet padding or other filler.

For months, Studio Z has been collecting bags of fringe from mills and using it to create rugs, bags and other products, all of which will be on sale at Convergence. In conjunction with the event, the Zaharakoses have challenged weavers nationwide to make their own fringe products, which will be on display at Studio Z’s Monroe Avenue headquarters.

“This started out as a fun thing, but I think we’ve got a product now we can sell at boutique, arty stores,” Anna said.

Also at Convergence, Studio Z will be offering for sale a set of Jacquard woven “paintings” created from black and white photographs by Grand Rapids photographer Chuck Heiney, and Joal Cronenwett, Anna Zaharakos’ father. The proprietary process uses some of the most sophisticated loom technology in the modern world, weaving strands of black and white thread into a photo-realistic image. Studio Z has been working with interior designers to determine how best to price its first edition. A likely distribution channel is museum gift stores, Michael said.

While all of Studio Z’s new concepts are well past the prototype stage, the company has little idea how each of the ventures will evolve. Most of that will depend on what partners the company can enlist.

“This is new for us,” said Michael. “We’re not a big company; we’re about generating ideas. There is only so much the studio can do. … I worked in manufacturing for 20 years and I’ve lived the horror stories. There needs to be a barrier between design development and the business end.”

The company may distribute some items through its Web site, www.studioztextiles.com. BJX

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