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lightweight materials
Shipping and drayage costs are sucking the life out of my program, so we want to switch out several components for less-heavy materials. What are some lightweight, exhibit-friendly materials we can use to lighten up?

Lightweight, easy-to-handle materials that install quickly are the Holy Grail of exhibiting. That's because shipping, handling, and installing heavy exhibitry eats time and money like monthly bills devour your paycheck. As a designer, then, I'm always asked to create structures that are feather light and easy to install. If I could design an exhibit that popped out of a carry-on bag and unfolded itself into an attention-getting booth, I'd be a millionaire 10 times over.

Since I'm still in business as opposed to sailing the Caribbean, this magical booth concept obviously doesn't exist. However, here are seven lightweight materials that can be used to decrease the heft of your exhibit. Surely, not every one is a perfect match for your brand or booth objectives. But by trading traditional heavyweights for these featherweight options, you can lighten your load ?" and plump up your budget.

1. Tensioned Fabric
Given the popularity of fabric exhibit structures, they border on "traditional" exhibitry these days. But the versatility and capabilities of fabric make it an ideal solution. In addition to being lightweight and easy to pack, ship, and install, tensioned-fabric structures (such as those from Moss Inc., Fabric Images Inc., Transformit Inc., TenFab Design LLC, and many others) provide the perfect canvas for bold graphics and lighting. The flexibility in design options also means you can create sculptural, attention-getting exhibits that stand out on the show floor at a reasonable cost.

If a more traditional look is desired, you can use a frame and fabric system that gives the appearance of a hard wall. The resulting designs often have the look and feel of traditional exhibit systems but weigh far less and have the added benefit of being adaptable to many configurations.

2. Interlocking Cardboard
Mention the term "cardboard architecture," and many people conjure images of Skid Row. But architects and designers have been developing cardboard- and paper-based architectural structures for years. In fact, Charles and Ray Eames created a paper-based construction system with their interlocking cards.

The exhibit industry has its own Eames-esque systems comprising interlocking cardboard or substrate structures that can be customized with your graphics and organized into everything from back walls to inventive artwork. The Nomad Screen System from Mio Co. LLC is a prime example. Comprising recycled, double-wall cardboard, this modular system can form freestanding partitions, or even table bases and other structural components. Shipped flat, the customizable sheets require no tools for assembly.

Along these same lines, design firm Kuhlmann Leavitt Inc. offers a product called Stax Modular. Using the same interlocking, card-stacking concept, the lightweight system features panels made of a variety of sustainable substrates, so you can pick and choose what works best for your application.

3. Traditional Cardboard
You can implement "raw" cardboard into your exhibit without purchasing one of the aforementioned interlocking systems. Granted, you'll need to get creative, but building an entire booth or even a few components out of cardboard is definitely doable.

A prime example took home EXHIBITOR's top design honor in 2009. Crafted by Projektpilot GmbH, the exhibit was a 10-by-53-foot, wave-like wall comprising roughly 8,100 cardboard tubes. In fact, if you just Google "corrugated cardboard structure images," you'll find everything from chairs and partitions to reception desks and conference tables made entirely out of cardboard.

Again, your designers will need a bit of engineering knowledge to turn a piece of cardboard into an exhibit element. But cardboard can often be covered with plastic laminates, printed vinyl, or even painted.

4. Honeycomb and Corrugated Core
One step up from traditional cardboard are honeycomb panels and products employing a corrugated core. Honeycomb panels (picture a piece of cardboard with honeycomb-shaped cutouts that's sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard) are widespread in the packing industry. But since these panels are easy to cut to form on a computer numerical control (CNC) machine, and they're light compared to wood or aluminum-frame structures, they're a viable substitute for traditional exhibit materials. They, too, can be covered with various materials to give them a more finished feel. Myriad honeycomb products are available, but two options to get your wheels turning are Sing Core from Sing Square Log Homes and Tripanel from Tricel Corp.

PlyCorr, which is sold through PlyVeneer Products, uses the same sandwiching technique as honeycomb products, but it has a corrugated core that can be drilled or cut with conventional woodworking tools.

5. Paper Elements
Although paper offers less structural support than cardboard, it provides artistic capabilities that make it an awesome accoutrement for almost any exhibit. Airy and lightweight, paper elements also have a wonderful organic quality that lends a sense of softness to structures.

Procedes Chenel International offers various exhibit-ready paper products, such as suspended light fixtures, decorative ceilings, and more. Meanwhile, Molo Design Ltd. sells several types of expandable-paper products such as light fixtures and partitions, as well as benches, chairs, and even a pod-like lounge.

6. High-Density Foam
Various suppliers offer foam-based materials that can be used to create exhibit components, but one example is PlyVeneer Products, which sells PlyFoam. This strong, lightweight panel comprises expanded Polystyrene foam sandwiched between two paper or cardboard sheets.

However, at least one exhibit-industry company is testing foam's capabilities as well: Freeman. It's using high-density 2-pound foam as the core for wall panels, which are sandwiched between plastic laminate or other surfacing materials.

7. Inflatable Structures
Inflatables are another lightweight option for structures and furniture. And with the designs available today, your exhibit doesn't have to look like a bounce house gone bad.

Cort Event Furnishings offers the Blofield Air Design line of inflatable chairs and couches. Meanwhile, Ibebi Design offers a wide range of inflatables, ranging from conference-room structures and reception desks to dramatic freestanding arches.

Keep in mind each of the aforementioned materials needs to meet city, state, and venue standards for fire safety, which means you may need to add fire-retardant or flame-proof treatments to make them trade show ready. Nevertheless, each option can help you decrease your overall exhibit weight, and thus your exhibiting costs. What's more, these atypical materials can often set your exhibit apart from the competition, turning a cost-cutting ploy into an attention-getting lure.

– Tony Castrigno, owner and designer, Design Contact, New York
Help Wanted
Send your tough questions about exhibiting to Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com.
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