Colorful banners: a new design tool

''The chief role of the banner is to animate space,'' says Karyn Rolstad, principal designer and founder of Bannerworks Inc. in Seattle, Wash. A banner, she says, can provide color, lively design, and a flow of fabric to evoke a happy response in people. It is today most often related to architecture and decoration.

Earlier, banners were used for centuries by feudal lords, knights, and monarchs to pronounce and proclaim, or for pomp and pageantry at feasts and festivals.

Contemporary banners enliven hotel lobbies, convention halls, offices, banks, clubs, shopping malls, and other public spaces. They are tools of design that keep people from being overwhelmed by vastness or dreariness. They can make cold spaces appear warm, enhance acoustics, or delineate one area from another.

Karyn Rolstad began her banner business more than seven years ago, while she was majoring in architecture and industrial design, but also studying sculpture and painting, at the University of Washington.

''By the time I was 21, I knew I didn't want to be an architect, so how was I to make my living?'' she says. ''I decided banners could be an answer, and would utilize my design and organizational talents.

''So I bought a sewing machine and some fabrics and began, alone, to produce banners in a basement studio near the campus. I started by doing one-of-a-kind smaller pieces for architects and interior designers. Later, I employed others, and we started to do production work. For the first five years, I went door-to-door to sell my work, lugging my portfolio, briefcase, and a little slide show. Then I got on planes and moved out around the country. In New York, textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen endorsed my work, and that opened many doors for me.''

Today, with eight permanent employees and several other as-needed workers, Bannerworks is a designing, contracting, and manufacturing studio, occupying 7, 000 square feet on the top floor of an old Seattle bakery.

A combination of methods is used in the making of the banners - sewing, hand dyeing, painting, sometimes even wire sculpture. ''I do most of the designing and all the working drawings, and handle the engineering,'' she explains.

Most of the time, she says, her firm is hired by architects at the conception stage of a major building, becoming part of the design process.

Part of this entrepreneur's success comes from the fact that she literally loves doing business. ''Business,'' she says,''is an art form in itself.'' She has made herself so proficient that she is now teaching business courses for artists at the University of Washington and other schools; even her bank sends her people to train in her efficient business methods. She has already introduced profit sharing with her staff, and computer technology keeps her constantly redeveloping her own systems.

A current project is for Seattle's Sheraton Hotel, where she has used over 1, 000 yards of fine silk for a colorful ceiling system in the lobby areas. Other commissions include the Granville Island Hotel in Vancouver, Canada; a Hyatt Regency in California, and the Amway Hotel in Grand Rapids, Mich. She has put banners into county courthouses and into grocery chains, where they are not only used as signs, but to create different environments within the stores. At a time when some companies can't boast of doing great business, Karen Rolstad insists that the banner business is booming.

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