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Images in Tile creates custom tile murals from digital images.

Interested in hearing Digital Imaging Digest Editor Jennifer Kruger's interview with Paul Whitehill? Click here to download the podcast. All you need is a computer with speakers.

If there's one thing at which Paul Whitehill excels, it's seeing the big picture. A few years ago, when he first saw a 4-inch sublimated tile--bearing the image of a parrot--while working for a heat press manufacturer, Whitehill knew he was looking at something with huge potential. In 2001, he started Images In Tile, Joplin, Mo., with his wife, Mary McPherson. Using digital files of photography or other artwork, the company infuses images onto ceramic and glass tiles to make custom murals of all sizes.

Most customers use their own images, but Images In Tile also provides an image library on its website, offering a wide variety of original photography and artwork. Artists and photographers whose work is featured on the site receive a commission on sales.

The process

To take on an image, a tile must have a polymer coating. Images In Tile buys raw stock of different types and sizes of tile, then bakes on the polymer coating--provided by Whitehill's other company, Bison Coating, which shares space with Images In Tile in a 20,000-square-foot facility. Once the coating is cured, the tile is ready to receive the dye.

"We take the digital image and size it. Then it's output on an inkjet printer; but instead of using inkjet inks, we use dye-sub dyes. These dyes are output onto carrier paper, which is called a transfer," Whitehill explains. "The transfer and the tiles are put together on a heat press. At about 350 degrees, under heavy pressure, the dyes turn from a solid to a gas. The molecules in the coating open, and the gas infuses the coating on the tile. When the tiles come from the press, the molecules close again; and the image is impregnated into the tile. Once the tile is finished with the heat transfer process, it's ready to be installed, framed or hung."

Most orders ship within a week or two and, typically, the customer installs the tiles. "These tiles and tile murals are installed just like any other tile. We simply send along instructions on how to put the tile mural together, as far as matching up the different tile pieces," Whitehill says. "There is a grid printout, and each tile is marked according to the printout."

Images In Tile uses two 54-inch Mimaki USA Inc. inkjet printers and ArTainium UV+ sublimation dyes. The transfer paper is TexPrintXPplus, made by Beaver Paper. For the heat transfer process, Whitehill uses two 4-by-6-foot Geo Knight & Co. Inc. Triton heat presses.

Graphic design is key

"I always tell people creating tile murals is 80 percent graphics, 15 percent mechanical, and 5 percent luck," Whitehill says. "We have on staff one of the most talented graphic designers I've ever had the pleasure of being associated with. [Graphic design] is the most important element in doing a successful heat transfer onto tile. There is a lot of resizing of images, cleaning them up, and editing them. We have been contacted by numerous companies that want to get into this on their own, and the first thing I ask is if they have a good graphic designer."

Because a good graphic designer can resize an image to any dimensions, there is no limit to how large a tile mural can be--anything is possible, from a single tile to whatever a customer can imagine.

"The largest mural we've ever done was 11,000 square feet. It was a custom floor mural of a water image for the bath and body section of a grocery store in Chicago. They wanted to make it look like you were walking on water," Whitehill says. "It was installed more than 1.5 years ago and, to date, it is still the largest sublimated tile mural in the world."

One of Whitehill's favorite projects was a mural of football great Dan Marino. "Dan Marino has a chain of restaurants around the country. A design firm asked us to do something special for one that was opening in Las Vegas. They provided us with more than 400 photos of Marino's football career from high school through college, his professional career, and Hall of Fame," Whitehill says. "We created the graphics to do an 8-foot-wide, 10-foot-tall mural that was a mosaic of these 400 photographs. Superimposed over the entire mural was an image of Dan Marino throwing the football. When you stand close to the mural, you only see a collage of these images; but when you stand back, you see the 10-foot image of Dan Marino throwing a football. It's one of the most exciting projects with which we've ever been involved. Marino loved it, and we presented him with a small version of it that hangs in his house. It was a fun project."

The market

A custom tile mural is a fairly high-end item; but because each project is different, it's tough to say just how much it costs. The price depends not only on the size of the mural, but also on the level of graphic design work involved. Most Images In Tile customers are architects, commercial or interior designers. On a wholesale basis, a typical job runs about $50 per square foot. The retail price tends to be $75 to $100 per square foot.

Interior designers and architects have found tile murals to be both very decorative and functional, Whitehill says. As coatings improve, possible applications for the tiles expand.

"Ceramic tiles and sublimation were born from the gift industry. The coating used on the tiles in the beginning was very soft, meaning they were susceptible to damage from abrasion and UV rays," Whitehill says. "Through the years, we have developed the coating to the point where they are substantially better able to withstand water abrasion and cleaning, and are therefore able to be used in commercial applications.

"The murals can be installed outdoors without any problems, using the right materials, as long as they are not in direct sun," he continues. "The coatings we use are weatherproof; when you're talking about direct sun, however, that's the biggest issue in the whole sublimation industry. Sublimation dyes are susceptible to UV damage. We've had some success with a few UV overcoats that prolong the life outdoors as much as 2 to 3 years; but eventually, [the image] will fade in the sun."

Embracing the competition

Because he also owns Bison Coating, Whitehill is in the unique position of supplying coated tiles to his competitors in the sublimation industry. But this doesn't bother him; in fact, he also teaches his competitors the business.

"We could create a fully staffed, full-time business just to help train and teach people how to do this. Some people just call with questions about tips and techniques. We have also been contacted by companies that hire us as consultants to help them get started in this business," Whitehill says.

Images In Tile has just set up a franchise in New Zealand, and is working with other companies in the Middle East and in England. Whitehill says he would also work with companies in North America.

"It is such a huge industry, there could be 20 Images In Tiles in the United States, and we would probably never run into each other. With thousands of companies doing sublimation, I have never once, in all the jobs we have done, run across somebody competing with me for the same job," he says. "Our biggest competitor is really technology. Technology may lead to other ways to image tiles, whether through a direct print process actually being created today, or something else. I always keep my eye on technology to see where potential competitors can come from."

Legends On Tile

Just in case running two businesses didn't keep him busy enough, a recent project led Whitehill to launch a third business: Legends On Tile.

Mike Sullivan, an artist known for his paintings of sports heroes, was commissioned to do a painting of Pat Tillman, who played for the Arizona State University Sun Devils, and who walked away from a $3.6 million contract as a safety with the Arizona Cardinals to join the U.S. Army Rangers. In April 2004, Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan. Sullivan was asked to do a mural of his painting of Tillman on the wall of the tunnel in Sun Devils Stadium.

"This was going to be an inspirational mural, so when the players came from the locker room, they could touch it before running onto the field," Whitehill says. "But it would have taken [Sullivan] a month to paint a mural that size."

Instead, Sullivan brought his painting to Images In Tile. Whitehill scanned it and created a 7-by-8-foot mural on glass tiles and installed it at the stadium.

"It's been a huge hit. It was on ESPN, ABC Sports, [and other sports shows], "he says. "We've recently been given permission by the Pat Tillman Foundation, the Tillman family, the University, and the artist to sell replicas of these murals, with part of the proceeds going to the Pat Tillman Foundation. So, we have started a website, Legends On Tile, where we are selling the replica. We're going to add lots of other sports legends to the site, like Walter Payton, Joe Montana, and Dr. J., as well as collegiate licensing of paintings of helmets--all the artwork of Mike Sullivan. It's fun, and it's great to be able to support these great causes. I'm happy to be involved in projects like these."
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Author:Kruger, Jennifer
Publication:Digital Imaging Digest
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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