SOMETIMES THERE'S MORE TO a project than a stage, a lighting rig, a sound system, and a video display. DaVinci Fusion, a Northern California event production company, created a unique digital fabric set piece for The Tech Museum Awards: Technology Benefiting Humanity at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. The company incorporated bold and colorful patterns from Asian, African, and Latin American fabrics in the large-scale set piece, which served as a backdrop for the international awards ceremony and black-tie gala at Parkside Hall in San Jose.

The awards were given to educators and social entrepreneurs who use technology to benefit mankind. Twenty-five laureates, representing 11 countries, were honored in the categories of environment, economic development, education, equality, and health. More than 1,300 global technology leaders, philanthropists, and guests were present at the ceremonies.

“We wanted the set to have an international flair that mirrored the guests and the stature of the event,” says DaVinci Fusion president Solomon Rosenzweig. “We chose to use fabric as icons of different cultures. In the design phase, these ‘icons’ worked really well when they were seen from close up. In the reality of a room with over 1,300 people watching, all the nuances of real fabric and its patterns were lost, however. At that point, we decided to enlarge the pattern, but lost the texture. The answer was to scan in the fabrics, thereby preserving the visual context of thread and texture, while still maintaining the appropriate metaphors. That still left us with the decision to paint or print. We chose to print. Since we have been developing the use of digitally printed canvas for some time, we were well prepared to succeed with this. It's quite a cutting-edge technique, and this was one of our more intricate applications for it.”

DaVinci Fusion crafted three large panels, hung side by side, depicting fabric from three continents. These panels were each overlaid with three smaller, narrow vertical panels showing a contrasting fabric. The center panel showcased a bold, yellow-and-black patterned African mudcloth layered with separate panels of classic Chinese medallion fabric in hues of red and orange. To the left, a tightly patterned Indonesian batik in yellow and black was layered with Asian fabric in shades of blue. To the right, a coarsely woven green and brown Latin American fabric was layered with a delicate, leafy Japanese print in shades of green.

Rosenzweig's team scanned fabrics purchased at various ethnic shops in San Francisco then digitally manipulated the scans to create images on a much larger scale. “The fabric patterns were printed on impregnated low-sheen canvas with our printer's 16' flatbed printer, taking care to maintain a hand-crafted look,” Rosenzweig reports. “We didn't want to lose the humanity in the fabric. Digital fabrication on the right material allows you to get the rich color saturation you want without the high-gloss sheen of vinyl. That meant the panels could be illuminated without looking like a shiny piece of paper, which would have destroyed the illusion.”

Typography announcing The Tech Museum Awards 2004 appeared to float in the same plane as the central digital fabric panel but was actually a separate element layered over the panel and hung from the supporting superstructure.

“We received nothing but rave reviews for the set,” Rosenzweig notes. “The audience didn't know what the panels were made of; people thought they were what they looked like — fabric.”

“The set design was the most striking we've ever had — a great collaboration between The Tech's vision and DaVinci Fusion's translation and execution of that vision into a beautiful, multicultural tapestry that represented the global nature of The Tech Museum Awards,” says Gwen Sobolewski, events manager at The Tech Museum.

DaVinci Fusion plans to make further refinements to the process of digitally fabricated sets. “We think there's an enormous future in working with these materials,” says Rosenzweig. “There are still some technical difficulties to overcome, but we need to recognize the potential of the medium and learn more about how to design for it.”

In addition to its innovative digital fabric set piece, DaVinci Fusion also provided the complete lighting, sound, and AV packages for The Tech Museum Awards, which included Christie projectors, Martin MAC moving lights and a full complement of ETC fixtures. Each award category was introduced by video created by Mediatrope that DaVinci Fusion displayed on two large screens. DaVinci Fusion also built a six-tiered, V-shaped thrust stage for the ceremonies, enabling the assembled laureates to be seen by the entire audience of over 1,300.

To learn more about the technical aspects of creating digital fabric set pieces, see the March issue of Entertainment Design.