Its origins are shrouded in mystery. It is believed to be one of the very first textiles humans ever created. And its invention has been attributed to the likes of a mythical Sumerian warrior hero, Catholic saints, and even Noah and his ark.
Regardless of wherever and whenever it came to be, felt is a beloved material by those who design with it, and those who wear it and live with it.
In the modern era, felt is admired largely for the same reasons it was admired in prehistoric times: It’s warm, it’s absorbent, it’s inviting, and, well, it just feels good. But today’s felt is a sophisticated material with far-reaching applications that’s also sought after for its aesthetic merit. That’s why fashion designers and furniture makers have relied on it to create stunning showpieces.
And now, the architecture and interior design industries are getting a better feel for what the surge in popularity of felt means for products and what it has to offer in the built environment. New innovations from building product manufacturers are harnessing the age-old benefits of felt while creating products that push the boundaries of its use, enabling architects and interior designers to explore uncharted creative territory with a material that’s at once structural and cosmetic. As a result, the growth of felt design is now yielding products for use in unexpected applications: ceilings and walls.
The latest felt ceiling and wall innovations include a range of products that augment the soft, familiar texture with brilliant arrays of color choices, a variety of size and shape options, incredible acoustical control capabilities, and a construction of high-recycled content. From linear, multi-layer, and large-format panels to baffles to open cell formats, designers have limitless design flexibility to transform otherwise ordinary areas into spaces that are calm and inviting, but also visually inspiring.
Familiar Material, Unconventional Design Palette
The time-tested process of making felt has been around for millennia and involves wool and/or synthetic fibers being meshed together, as opposed to woven on a loom like most fabrics. Once the fibers are broken up, they’re entangled together into a matted material as felt makers apply heat, moisture, and pressure. This allows the strands to interlock, resulting in the soft, dense fabric. The width, length, and thickness can vary, depending on its intended application.
Thanks to excellent sound absorption properties, felt offers acoustical control that bring softness to a space, both visually and aurally.
Though felt’s cozy-meets-chic style was in fashion for its versatility alongside other highly textured materials, its water-resistance, cutability, insulative quality, and high sound absorption make it a natural fit for the built environment as well.Over the past few decades, designers and architects have used it on furniture, as wall accent pieces, and on partitions. But as ceiling and wall manufacturers have leveled up the felt category over the past five years, the soft, familiar texture has been enhanced and expanded for far greater creative options in designing modern spaces with acoustical benefits.
Because it is particularly excellent at absorbing high frequencies, felt is not only soft to the touch, but soft on the ears as well. Most felt products on the market offer a range of high acoustical performance, from NRC 0.80 to up to NRC 1.10.
“When the space requires acoustical performance, but the design calls for unique colorways or eye-catching visuals, felt is an excellent option,” says Taylor Hemingway, Felt Product Manager at CertainTeed. “It’s ideal for education applications, offices, restaurants and retail spaces— anywhere you’re wanting to achieve a creative design while maintaining sound absorption properties.”
One of the most immediately visible signs of the new look of felt ceilings and walls is the brilliant array of colors manufacturers are producing in the category.
From bright vibrant hues to subdued neutral tones, the array of felt color offerings offer a world of versatility.
Vibrant, saturated hues from across the entire spectrum—everything from rich golds and deep reds to verdant greens and refreshing blues—offer designers a tool to bring energy and life to a space. But there’s also a range of timeless neutral tones available that can create a subtle sophistication underscoring the calm of felt’s textural softness.
“Color is a major appeal of felt ceilings,” explains Hemingway. “The felt market is full of options that allow designers to create everything from natural, biophilic spaces to bright, playful environments.”
Some manufacturers even offer easy customization of felt colors that can match an institution’s visual presence and help emphasize brand identity, and can even incorporate specific logos and graphics. This is ideal, for example, in spaces like high schools, universities, sports facilities, and corporate headquarters.
“When people think of custom, it can be overwhelming,” Hemingway notes. “But with the right combination of manufacturing capabilities and customer support, color matching, logo creation, and other customization is a pretty simple process.”
Geometries of Scale
Color is one part of felt’s design story. The combination of shapes, sizes, and profiles is another. The days of flat rectangular panels being the only felt products available are long gone. Felt ceiling and wall products have come a long way in their ability to create everything from linear and large-format applications to unique design gestures that rely on variation in configuration.
Rectangular panels are often the go-to format for felt because they’re familiar and offer installation speed and ease. The standard T-grid of traditional suspended ceilings are often the very same suspension systems used for felt panels, which are offered in lay-in or swing-down installation methods to suit different plenum access needs.
Large-format panels are a great way to enhance the look of traditional rectangular panels. Some products are available in massive sizes (as large as 4' x 8') that offer a clean, warm, monolithic look and faster installation.
Linear systems are another popular choice in felt ceilings and walls, thanks to the combination of their crisp linear looks and unexpected softness. These types of modular systems typically feature square-edge designs, with the ability to choose from a range of panel spacings for more aesthetic control. Linear panels – which are compatible with industry standard HVAC, speaker, and fire systems – also can easily clip into a modular carrier system for installation ease due to their lightweight design.
Linear felt systems are popular with interior designers for their versatile combination of crisp linear looks and unexpected softness.
Newer linear products have also introduced leveling to add more dimension to these systems. Carrier modules vary to create step, scatter, wave, and choppy effects.
For even more unconventional looks, baffles, clouds, and open cell products merge the soft visuals of felt with an eye-catching sculptural aesthetic. Baffles come in a broad range of formats – straight or undulating profiles in any shape or configuration. Clouds can be stacked or angled and suspended by hanger wire for an even more unconventional look that contrast the softness of the material. And open cell products come in linked profiles that can be configured to create chambered honeycomb linearity or wave-like dimensional depth.
Both Baffles and Open Cell offer high acoustical performance (up to NRC 1.10) and are available in various heights from 6" to 24" and lengths from 1' to 8'. When using adjustable, budget friendly suspension options, like hanger wire, installation is fast and efficient.
In addition to color options, shapes and sizes are entirely customizable as well. Because felt is flexible and easily cutable without the risk of fraying, ceiling and wall products can be easily manipulated and cut onsite to create billowing curves, sharp angles, and more.
It’s also important to remember that felt doesn’t necessarily need to encompass the entirety of a ceiling or wall. Select sections of felt and even smaller felt accents can offer points of visual interest, especially when design demands are high, but budgets are tight.
“Very rarely do designers reach out to specify a felt ceiling across an entire project or building,” says Hemingway. “They have targeted needs and want panels that can be installed using the same grid or installation method as other ceiling products. The same goes for linear panels, wall panels, baffles, clouds, and open cell installations. This ease and convenience is a major factor as felt becomes more popular.”
From the Environment, For the Environment
When people think of felt, wool is often the one ingredient that comes to mind. Wool felt is a natural product and features a manufacturing process that has very low environmental impact. This makes it an extremely environmentally responsible alternative that can be recycled infinitely in the future.
But wool is only one option in the felt category. Leading manufacturers have also started using eco-felt that is made from post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. These products are functionally identical to non-recycled felt and provide the same array of benefits to interior spaces.
Natural or recycled, felt has recently made the transition from fashion and furniture to ceiling and wall design. This is due to its distinctive appearance, the creative freedom it allows with so many options and colors, and the excellent sound absorption properties it possesses.
The Future of Felt
Similar to trends in the furniture and fashion industries, felt ceilings have grown and evolved in the past few years as manufacturers create new products and designers find new uses for the material. As new products are developed, felt’s creative potential in the design world is truly limitless.
What started with traditional applications has given way to linear systems, large-format panels, baffles, clouds, and open cell ceiling and wall designs. The wide variety of products can solve aesthetic and acoustical challenges with equal ease, and turn any space into a warm, inviting, and visually stunning architectural feature.
By Steven Udolph, National Sales Manager, CertainTeed.