Mention wallpaper, and people probably won’t think much of it. Isn’t it just a sheet of wall covering with patterns?
But innovation, design and fine craftsmanship have elevated the utilitarian product to new heights. The works of premium European brands such as ARTE and Elitis attest to the wide range of possibilities of wallpapers.
Some of their products have such features as noise absorption, resistance to stains and bacteria, and could even be washable and water-proof. Others offer special visual effects and colors that change when viewed from different angles.
They also come in various materials. Paper and plastic are more common, but to achieve special effects, fabrics and natural materials like tree bark and bamboo are also used.
Most wallpapers are flat sheets, but 3D wallpaper is becoming fashionable too.
If nothing ready-made appeals to you, hand-painted, bespoke wallpaper can also be ordered.
Opening our eyes to the bountiful abundance of wallpaper designs is Paul Li, marketing director of Tat Ming Wallpaper.
“Different wallpapers suit different venues and purposes,” Li explains.
If it’s a casino, something dramatic may be needed to make a bold statement. If it’s a hospital, hygiene and easiness to clean would be crucial.
As one of the major players in Hong Kong, Tat Ming is the sole agent for numerous overseas brands.
Tucked inside a commercial building, Tat Ming’s Wan Chai showroom is open to individuals, although most of the company’s businesses come from institutional clients—design partners, architecture firms, hotels, etc.
If we pay closer attention, wallpapers are actually all around us. They can be found in homes and hotels, they are also used in shopping malls, clubhouses, airports and even airplanes.
Retail customers usually pick wallpapers based on colors, patterns and costs, but for institutional clients, an increasingly important criterion is whether they are environmentally friendly.
Stringent green requirements apply not only to the end product, which should of course contain no harmful chemicals or release toxic elements into the air, but such standards also cover the production process, with the aim of keeping pollutants to a minimum and promoting conservation of energy and resources.
“The US and Europe have established and observed these stringent rules for many years,” Li notes.
Adoption of facilities for water treatment and recycling, the use of natural dyes and procurement from sustainable sources (e.g. replanting of trees) are some of the basics of earth-friendly wallpaper making.
How green standards differentiate genuine products and knockoffs
High green standards lead to better products; it also helps players like Tat Ming fight mainland knockoffs.
From textile to tech gadgets, it’s hard to find an industry in China where knockoffs are not posing immense challenges to authentic makers. Counterfeit products are a serious issue for Tat Ming, which derives 70-80 percent of its business there.
The easy part for copycats is to steal someone’s design and come up with something that look similar.
“These counterfeit stuff often sell at just two-thirds the price of the original,” Li says.
But looks are not everything. As many projects now want the buildings to comply with the highest green standards and minimize exposure to airborne toxins and pollutants, décor materials are subject to close scrutiny.
Knockoffs can look genuine, but knockoff makers simply cannot produce those green standard certifications to prove their products and production processes are compliant.
If they have to spend heavily to make sure the production process is not polluting the environment or their final products are toxic-free, they will not be able to undercut the originals. Many simply won’t bother.
How economic woes are changing European makers
Since Tat Ming sources its wallpaper overseas and sells to clients in the region, Li visits US and European partners regularly to learn about the latest wallpaper techniques and features and then makes presentations to the region’s design firms and architecture houses.
At the same time, he also tips European manufacturers on market trends and customer preferences in this part of the world.
Li therefore experiences firsthand how the weak European economy is changing the way European companies do business.
European makers used to wait for clients to knock on their doors, but now they are taking the initiative to come to Asia to pitch their designs. They are also increasingly responding to Asian tastes by incorporating some of the Asian motifs into their products.
The contrast is particularly vivid compared with the old days.
Decades ago when the founder of Tat Ming took his first few overseas trips to major trade shows, he could barely communicate with representatives of wallpaper makers as they were all busy with much bigger clients.
Tat Ming’s first “big break” was some leftover—patterns that other buyers were not interested in.
China market slows but outlook still promising
As China is its main market, Tat Ming has felt the impact of economic slowdown on its turnover. The mainland’s anti-graft campaign is also a negative factor. Because officials are not allowed to patronize five-star hotels, some luxury hotel projects were pulled or postponed.
But Li remains positive. Wallpaper is not yet popular in some parts of China — in northern China, for instance. There is plenty of room for expansion for companies like Tat Ming that have the right product and deep product knowledge.
“We would educate our clients on how to pick the right wallpaper and how to install them properly. The market is far from mature, and there are still plenty of business opportunities,” says Li.
When asked about memorable events in his wallpaper career, Li cites his experience with casinos.
About 80 percent of the wallpaper used in Macau casinos comes from Tat Ming, so recurring orders from gaming operators are usual. But in one case, a casino hotel wants a room refurbished only four months after the last contract.
Li thought that’s odd. He later found out a customer was very upset after having lost a fortune and took out his frustrations on the wall.
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