For three weeks each January, automakers have a chance to grab the attention of the media and car buyers at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, with cars polished to a high sheen and driven on stage to a mix of smoke, revving engines and rock 'n' roll.
But while the cars are in the spotlight, months of planning and weeks of construction have gone into designing the stage itself, finding the right mix of materials and shapes to show those cars to their best potential.
Detroit is not unique. At nearly the same time each January in Las Vegas, the makers of new toys and gadgets seek the best way to show their wares at the Consumer Electronics Show.
To put any product in the right light while also drawing potential buyers to each display, the companies specializing in trade show and exhibit designs are continually on the lookout for new materials and new ways to use existing materials.
The need to balance a high-end look with real-life business concerns sometimes leads exhibit designers and their customers to plastics.
``We're looking for shapes and curves, ways to draw people in,'' said Tom Yurkin, vice president of creative corporate accounts for Dallas-based Freeman Co. ``What we're doing at exhibits and trade shows is about using design for selling, but in this case we're not necessarily selling to the end user.''
It's a side of design most people do not consider, he said, but one that wants to push the envelope in material selection and usage, much the same way that high-end architecture does.
``We try to go a step further and go to places that aren't necessarily related to what we do,'' Roger Beecher, senior designer for exhibit design group HB Stubbs Co. of Warren, Mich., said in an Aug. 18 telephone interview. Beecher noted he had just left a meeting on acrylic usage. ``We look at architecture; we went to the World's Fair in Japan. You look for opportunities to see what the latest materials are, because they're the unknown materials to most people.''
It is not just a question of finding one material, though, Yurkin noted. A display featuring a new line of men's clothes at a retail trade show may include a touch of mahogany or velvet to focus on rich textures. He has used everything from stainless steel to cardboard.
``A lot of our clients want us to simulate things,'' Beecher said. ``We do a lot with faux finishes, with ceramic tile and slate.''
Although a customer may want a large glass wall, Beecher said, glass is expensive to turn out in the specialized shapes and sizes used in trade shows. Its weight makes it more expensive to transport, while it also is at greater risk for damage during construction.
``If we're looking at plexiglass, it's durable, it doesn't crack or fracture,'' he said. ``Even if it does get damaged, we can drop it on our own [computer numerically controlled] machine, re-cut it and send it out. [With] glass, we'd have to order a whole new panel.''
The trade show industry even is helping a new plastics company grow.
Ray Goodson's 3form Inc. uses polyester sheet - made with a resin containing 40 percent scrap material it calls Varia ecoresin - in a multilayer thermoformed process that encases natural materials in plastic.
The company offers panels with a core of natural products such as wood, grasses, rose petals and even pebbles. Additional layers can add color or geometric patterns.
Because the firm can easily alter the look of the product by changing the inner core materials, and because the product offers the durability of polyester, it is gaining attention.
``We fit into that little specialized world where a lot of other companies wouldn't,'' said Kirby Rea, vice president of marketing and sales for Salt Lake City-based 3form.
``A designer may use us in 12 different places and people never know it's the same product,'' he said. ``It doesn't matter to us if we're doing one sheet or 200.''
Japanese automaker Nissan used 3form's multilayer panels as flooring for its display at the Detroit auto show. Buick used the panels as a booth backdrop.
Airplane manufacturer Boeing Co. used 3form at its display during the Paris air show and software giant Microsoft used it as back walls for its exhibit hall booth design.
Freeman even used 3form during an exhibit on trade show design, using panels encasing rose petals in its own display booth, Yurkin said.
The molder had three employees in its manufacturing unit at the start of this year, expecting to expand to eight by December. It is now up to 18, Rea said.
3form's ability to bend and shape the panels also is helping it win business in permanent architectural features. Its curved panels provide a ceiling fixture at a University of Notre Dame building. New York's Lincoln Center plans to use precisely shaped and angled panels - with a newly developed, translucent wood core — in an auditorium to funnel sound from the stage to the seats.
``We can really define a space and we don't need a lot of product to make a splash,'' Rea said.