GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #4: And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

This article will be a long, but not inclusive look at walls. I am not the expert on booth design Bruce Baker is. I haven’t tried tons of different wall designs. But I’m happy to share my own personal experience with walls.

I have the unfortunate privilege to have created three distinct product lines that all demand different presentation. I need walls for displaying 2-D work; flat surfaces for displaying sculpture; and cases for displaying jewelry. I’ve had to do a lot of scrambling and head-scratching to come up with a good, integrated display to showcase my work, and not have it look like a jumble sale. (Sometimes it still does….!!)

Walls have been the most difficult.

I built my first booth for my in-state 9-day outdoor retail show, the Annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair. It’s not a good show to build a first booth for, because you get lulled into thinking you have to build an actual little “house” for such a long show. (It’s also under huge tents, which offers a lot of protection against the elements, but that’s another theme.)

In fact, many exhibitors show up with huge panel vans and trucks toting huge amounts of lumber and other building materials. You can actually hear power drills and saws whining during the two days of set-up (which is almost as loud as the whining of us craftspeople….), and hammmers pounding into the night.

Bruce Baker says most of us women say to our husbands, “Can you build me a booth?” and the guys swagger a bit and stick their thumbs in their toolbelts and drawl, “Sure, little lady, just leave it to me!” And then they build us these bulky, sturdy, heavy booths that demand a small crew of people to load, set-up, dismantle and cart away. I have actually seen women who divorced and showed up the next year with a completely different, streamlined booth, so I suspect it’s true.

I don’t mean they got divorced because of the booth (although, if you’ve ever eavesdropped while a couple puts a booth up, you can see how that would happen.) I mean that when they divorce, they come up with a different booth because they no longer have a guy with a truck and major power tools to help them put it up anymore.

The simplest, easiest and often cheapest wall solution is pole-and-drape. I bought mine from these people almost ten years ago: Flourish Canopies and Display Products They are nice people and took care of me and my pole-drape-needs for many years. It’s a good product and was competitively priced. I have no idea what’s out there now, but this company is a good place to start your research.

I have seen people make their own with good success, too. It depends on how much time and energy vs. money you have. I thought the drapes were well-made and the material was great. Lots of color choices, too. Much cheaper than I could have bought and sewn myself–and I sew for a living.

I went with a just-barely off-white color that was bright and light. I wish I could have figured out a way to have flat walls, but the drapes are pretty standard. Their material is inherently fire-retardant (VERY important, especially when you start to do juried shows and indoor shows). The poles broke down into shorter lengths, and a handy carrying bag kept it all together.

As I started to do wholesale shows, I could actually pin or attach my own drapes over the show pipe-and-drapes, to set my booth off from the hundreds of other gray drape booths. I could leave my pipe at home and simply ship the drapes (which were compact and lightweight.)

Drawbacks–the poles are HEAVY. This kind of tent is difficult to level on uneven ground. It is not weatherproof–you can ONLY use it under bigger tents or indoors. And it’s basically a square (or rectangle, depending on how many poles you set up). You can only work with straight lines and right angles.

The worst part for me was the walls were SOFT. If you only need a backdrop, that may not be a problem. But when I needed to have a stiff wall, I had to do things like hang reed roll-up curtains on top of the drape, or use those roll-up rice paper shades from Pier 1 Imports or stores in Chinatown. It looked kinda nice, all those layers, but also gave the booth a decidedly oriental look. Which was NOT what my work was about. Also, I now needed to pack more and more of these shades and screens. So my set-up was getting MORE complicated. Harder to level, harder to get straight lines, harder to get everything visually lined up.

I’ve seen booths using ONLY these roll-up shades (rice paper, reed), and they can be highly effective. Be sure to treat them with a fire-retardant spray, though, as they are highly flammable, too.

My next walls were fabric panels I made myself. I used heavyweight synthentic chenille panels. They hung from my poles and I pinned them together along the sides and at the bottom. They were rich but subdued colors, “tobacco colors” as one fiber artist said–gold, sage green, chestnut, brown. The panels hung straight, simulating a flat wall.

The effect was like being in a nomad’s tent, with layers of rich, textured fabric. The colors were warm and soothing, yet let my work pop. (I noticed men with color-blindness hated this booth–the colors seemed muddy to them.) Best of all, the look was very different from other trade show booths. You could catch a glimpse of the fabric walls way down an aisle and it just looked interesting and different–a good thing at a big show!

People came in my booth and stayed and stayed–and shopped and shopped. The fiber layers muffled noise and softened the lights, making a haven for weary buyers at wholesale shows and a peaceful, serene environment at retail shows.

Again, I could use my drapes over/with the show pipe-and-drapes. The drapes doubled as cushioning for my artwork during shipping, so it was cheap and easy to pack and ship.

Unfortunately, these panels were fussy and difficult to put up. And though the walls were flat, they were not sturdy. I still had a hard time hanging signs, 2-D work, etc.

Last year I splurged big-time and invested in MD ProPanels, which you can see here:
MD ProPanels and you can see them in situ <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/14881284@N08/1531994565/”here.

I absolutely love them. I will not compare them to Armstrong Panels because I can’t remember why I went with the MD Propanels. You can see the Armstrong version here:

Armstrong display panels

I THINK the Armstrong versions have an interior mesh, while the MD Propanel versions have a slab of styrofoam, and are lighter. I spoke to a lot of artists and went with the MDs, but you may find the Armstrongs will work better for you.

I’ve seen homemade versions of these panels being assembled at shows, and I still shudder to think of it. If you have tons of time, absolutely no money and love doing everything yourself, this may be for you. But the thought of cutting large sections of carpeting, screwing together dozens of little pieces, getting everything aligned, looking for little washers and screws, getting the fabric on straight, etc. etc. and watching those people sweat and swear and weep….well, it’s not for me.

What do I think of my MD Propanels?

I LOVE THEM.

These panels are expensive, but everything is already done–PERFECTLY. The panels arrive in uniform shape, perfectly finished and beautiful. You can order the adjustable legs which make leveling the booth on uneven ground a breeze. It takes a little practice, but the walls go up quickly and are perfectly stable once they are all connected and your stabilizer bars are in place.

I picked a neutral color that totally drops away and lets my work take center stage. The fabric still acts as a noise barrier, creating a quiet environment. It is ridiculously easy to hand signs and 2-D work with either T-pins or Velcro hangers.

You can order units that break down into two segments for easier shipping or carrying. You can order units that will accept shelves. There are many accessories and add-ons that allow you to add features at a later date.

Best of all, you can reconfigure the panels into all kinds of booth layouts. I actually used three panels to create a “tower” in one corner for a corner booth layout. You can also use both sides of the panels, so you can create little “half walls” or partitions. And hinged panels can act as doors to access storage, or to set off a little changing room for wearables.

Are they perfect?

No. You need to know you want shelves and where you want them when you order panels with shelf capability.

I wish the stabilizer bars came in varying heights because I have shows with different height restrictions.

I wish they had more components for hanging and display, because I’m finding my homemade Velcro components melt under summer heat, or freeze during shipping to winter shows.

It can be tricky to get everything square at first on hilly sites, though this is an incredibly stable booth once everything is in place.

And though the KD (knock-down) units are easier to ship, it’s still not SIMPLE or CHEAP to ship, like my drapes were.

One last caveat–as more and more people turn to MD Propanels, it will be hard for your booth to stand out. There are only half a dozen or so color choices, and the best (black) is becoming as common as dirt at shows. (Oooh, bad simile….)

On the other hand, when it came time to decide, I realized I’m not selling my booth.

What I mean is, I’m not in the business of creating the best BOOTH I can make. I’m in the business of creating the best ART I can make. The booth is just a vehicle for displaying and selling my art.

I don’t really want people noticing my booth or my floor or my display anymore. I want everything working quietly, subtly, to encourage them to simply see the ART. And to be comfortable, and enjoy peace and quiet to do that.

I think it’s working. What I’m hearing over and over the last few shows is, “You’ve created an entire world in here!

And oddly enough, although I always get high booth scores, this is the first year I got an honorable mention for my booth design. It’s odd because the booth structure itself is not “creative”.

But it’s doing it’s job–showcasing my art–beautifully.

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3 Comments

Filed under art, booth design, booth display, booth walls, business, craft, craft shows, Good booths gone bad, marketing, ProPanel, selling, shows

3 responses to “GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #4: And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

  1. I’m another ardent fan of ProPanels. We made our own walls for awhile, from everything from plywood and grids to the back side of vinyl flooring. As you say, booth design is definitely an evolution, and for where I am right now, ProPanels are the answer. I chose the teak color (not very popular, but great for my work), which stands out among the sea of dark gray, gray and black at most shows. I too have gotten that “whole little world” comment, and at our last show, got nominated for the “Best Booth” award–I didn’t win, but it felt good just the same. I recommend ProPanels to everyone I know, and have even handed out some of the referral sheets they provided with our order.

  2. I was wondering if you could post a pic of your booth? This is not something I ever plan to get into, but I’m so curious as to how yours looks, especially since it’s won an award.

  3. Likewise…I would love to see a picture of your booth display at the time you wrote this post.

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