Tips on Building a Design Wall

compiled by Jeanne Marklin

I asked for help on design wall materials and had many responses from SAQA members. The ideas are listed below, in no particular order. Reading through them will help with deciding on materials, the size of design wall that is needed, and whether it should be attached to the wall, or portable. There are many possibilities, and what works for one artist won't work for another.

Artists who work smaller than 4’ wide can probably use a portable design wall, but if working larger than 4’, it would need to be stabilized. The first layer, whether it is felt, batting or flannel, should hold most material. When you are designing, you will need to pin any second pieces of fabric to the design board to hold them up, so try a product by sticking pins in it, as a good way to test to see if it works for you. Although my studio walls are homosote, and some people can pin into them, my fingers are not strong enough.

The design wall in my studio is going to be 7’ x 8’, and is a blue styrofoam, which showed through one layer of flannel. I am duct taping a Queen size batting on it first, then putting a King sized flannel sheet from LLBean (very white and thick) on top. The design board will be screwed into the homosote wall, so I can unscrew it in case of needed repair or replacement. I prefer flannel as a surface.

I know that Ann Brauer uses a former office divider that is padded, and covered with a gray material. It’s on wheels, and she can use both sides. I believe she said she got it at a used office furniture store.

The emails that follow are all from SAQA members, and their names are at the beginning of the message. Some will have photo's of their design walls and studio's on their websites or blogs.

Ellen Lindner:
Remember that you'll probably be using your design wall for more than just designing. I also use mine for blocking and photographing quilts, and most of my tips deal with those tasks.

If you want to block quilts onyour design wall, then I have a very useful pre-construction tip. Before covering the insulation with fabric, draw a large grid, with a very fat sharpie. Make the markings about 5-6" apart. Then, if you choose white fabric (which I recommend) the marks will shadow through slightly. This will be immensely helpful when you need to measure and square up for blocking purposes.

Although quilts often look great when photographed against a black background, I prefer white for my design wall. In part, for the reason stated above, and in part - I guess - because I'm just used to it. However, when photographing on my design wall, I often cover it with a large piece of black felt first.

I don't know of significant pros and cons of flannel vs. felt. I have a design wall with each. The felt is wider, so it doesn't have to be seamed. However, it will "sizzle" under the direct heat of an iron. It hasn't actually melted, though.

Another tip: leave your design wall free standing, ifpossible. That way, you can more easily use it as a photography backdrop. You can take it outside, if you don't have great lights. And here's a really great trick: attach the quilt to the backdrop/design wall with hand sewing needles. Wear one of those thimbles that has a little lip on it, and push the needles in as far as they'll go. They'll be completely invisible. When you're through photographing the quilt, simply pull it off the design wall. The needles usually stay put. Later, they can be pulled through to the back and removed (because the whole thing is free standing.) But, in the midst of your photo shoot, simply push them in flush with the design wall and photograph the next quilt.

Leni Levenson Wiener

I have been using large sheets of foam core nailed to the wall with picture

hanging nails in my studio for years. It is easy to pin into, does not need

to be covered with fabric, and is easily replaced when one sheet gets

"chewed up". Foam core comes in a variety of sizes; and is available in

white or black. It is the cheapest and easiest design wall you can build.

Floris Flam:
I have a Celotex insulation board covered with gray felt. The board
 comes in 4 x 8 foot lengths and I bought it at a building supply
 store. I think it was reasonably inexpensive. I had the store cut it
 to 6 feet because the full length wouldn't fit into our car at the
 time. I pulled the felt to the back and stapled it. I'm pretty sure
 this is what they use in the workshops at QSDS, only theirs gets
 ratty because it's not covered with fabric and it leans against the
 wall and eventually sags. Mine is screwed to the drywall. It's very
 easy to pin into and any but the largest pieces of fabric will cling
 to the felt without pinning. The gray is a good color for
 photography and I think doesn't affect color perception when I design
as much as a white or black background might.

Martha Ginn
My design wall is something called R Board, an insulation material that comes in 4'x8'panels from a contractor's building yard. It is a light gray color, comes in either 1/2" or 3/4" thick, can be pinned into easily. We attached two panels to our wood paneled wall with screws and after four years it looks the same as when we put it up. I intended to cover it with flannel or felt, but the color was just what I wanted and I don't have any threads clinging. I really recommend this product--much stronger than styrofoam and no bright colors to have to cover up.

Vivika Hansen DeNegre:
I use pink insulation board too, and have tacked a thin gridded interfacing on top to help me pin "striaght" and measure my piece as I am working on it. The insulation also is interlocking, so no big seams are visible, and it only cost about $15 to cover an 8" wall in my studio.

Rayna Gilman:
I use the pink stuff and it's just fine, covered with a layer of batting.
The pink is so faint that it is not noticeable.

Teri Springer
That's funny- until I "discovered" the stuff Nancy uses I used smooth, 
4 x 2 Armstrong ceiling tiles screwed directly into the wall studs 
(the wall has no drywall). This way I can change them out whenever 
they get chewed up. So far I have only had to replace one in 3 
years. Initial cost is more than foamcore but, at least for me, I 
think it's cheaper in the longrun because they hold up so well. I 
need a smooth, firm surface because I also use the wall to project 
designs onto paper with the overhead and I am afraid foamcore wouldn't 
be firm enough. But, I do have a portable wall of foamcore sewn into 
felt that has 3 sheets and is easily folded up to go to workshops. I 
do love that foamcore. It has a myriad of uses!!

(Terri Springer recommended a material that Nancy Crow uses in her Barn Workshops. It is similar to homosote)

Sam Flax carries 1/2" white foam core up to 4 foot X 8 foot, I think. 
At the Orlando store they also have smaller sizes precut, or it's easy 
to cut it yourself with a box cutter. I don't bother to mount it on the 
wall because I like to move them around depending on what is the 
project of the moment. The 1/2' thick holds up much better and doesn't 
warp. Michael's has a small size, around 2 feet by three feet. It's 
very convenient to have a project securely pinned on one, then be able 
to whisk it out of the way as needed.

Loreen Leedy:
I have the Pink Insulation board originally installed it in this room for my daughter the artist to easily showcase her artwork. Now the room is my studio. I plan on redoing the fabric to my liking which means a light gray. I feel this would work on the blue wall because it is a neutralizing color, My other suggestion would be to get some of the thinnest cotton or polyester batting and spray adhesive this to the wall first. then cover with your flannel.

The silver stuff is not great for display board because of the chemicals in it that is why so many people use the pink.

These walls are so inexpensive to put in and even one piece on a wall can make your life so much easier.