It is a ritual common to architects and interior designers. Armed with a stack of yellow Post-It Notes and an idea brewing about a new project, you march confidently into the firm's materials library, ready to conquer the finish schedule. An hour later, your desk is cluttered with an explosion of heavy binders and product samples. Your head spins with options and demands: the wall covering needs to be affordable, not cheap; the client wants eco-friendly choices with no off-gassing; and a call to the rep says your carpet pick is back-ordered for six months. Some days a designer just can't catch a break. Mercifully, several companies offer tools to streamline the process—employing emerging sustainable technologies, online access, and critical insight to sort through and reduce the growing piles of product samples in every office corner.

Virtual Showrooms

“Materials libraries keep getting fuller and fuller,” says Randi Anderson, marketing director of Wolf-Gordon, a wallcovering source known for innovative offerings from designers such as Petra Blaisse and Karim Rashid. “From a sustainability standpoint and from a cost standpoint, sample books are very expensive and wasteful. It is a slow process to pull binders off the shelves. It may take 10 years, but I would love to do it in five.” To reach this optimistic goal, the manufacturer is retooling its already-extensive website,, and will re-launch in the fall. The makeover is part of a larger rebranding effort conceived by cutting-edge graphics studio 2x4. This May will reveal the company's new identity design.

Anderson cites a recent research study that suggested that 35 percent of Wolf-Gordon customers use the website to request samples—a five percent rise from the previous year. The current online interface is a bit clunky, but even so it is one of the few sites where users can search the catalog by color, texture, designer, and green features. Click on a selection and a large image of a jute, vinyl, or linen swatch comes up along with product specifications that list performance, installation, and lead time/availability. Another click and the wallcoverings are added to a virtual “design board.” Or they can be ordered as physical samples, deliverable the next day.

Anderson says that the new site will optimize the current features and add new interactive technology, such as linking the online catalog directly to Wolf-Gordon's inventory. Customers and sales representatives can immediately know if a product is in stock. For the reps, the site expedites office visits and doubles as a networking tool, since there is a plan to store client contacts in an online database. “We are pioneers, but if we don't move fast, we risk falling behind the rest of the world in terms of technology,” cautions Anderson. “You must be forward-thinking about the web in this industry.”

Reducing Waste

Moving a company's full product portfolio out of the product library and online can be nerve-wracking for those who are afraid their materials won't translate to a two-dimensional format. For certain industries, help is on the way. Established in 2002, Tricycle, Inc. broke new technological ground with digitally modeled, 100-percent recycled carpet samples. The company works with manufacturers, such as Mohawk and Designweave, to produce extremely accurate paper simulations (SIM). When placed on top of traditional carpet, the 2-D samples' colors and simulated textures are a near-perfect match. They are cheaper to produce, lighter to ship, and have less of an impact on ever-growing landfills. Designers can use SIMs to make decisions, plus go online to see what patterns and colorways complement their interiors in virtual settings.

Tricycle's founders Jonathan Bragdon, president and COO, and Michael Hendrix, creative director and CBO, set up their first office in a tiny room above an interior design firm. The cluttered space proved inspiring. “Half of the floor space was taken up with samples,” says Bragdon. “We looked around and started to realize the waste side of the equation. Interior designers just tolerated what was happening.” Four years later in its annual Environmental Report Card, the company stated that architects and designers requested more than 100,000 SIM samples. If those same samples were translated to carpet, they would make up 150,000 pounds of refuse. Tricycle calculates that 25,000 gallons of oil—the amount needed to produce traditional carpet samples—were conserved by SIM technology last year.