Doing Business Here: Discreet Distinction

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You aren’t likely to see its name on any of its products, but a small company in Guntersville, Ala., is a world leader in creating decorative, faux-finish matting.

story and photos by OLIVIA GRIDER

Chances are you’ve never heard of Specialty Matboard, but you’ve seen its products. They line the walls of furniture stores and hotels and are sold with framed pictures and as stand-alone items at arts and crafts retail giant Hobby Lobby. Specialty Matboard’s operations are located in an unassuming metal building surrounded by fields in Guntersville, Ala. Despite its low-key appearance and small size, the 14-employee company has a significant reach and reputation, selling products in all 50 states, Australia, the Caribbean and some Central American countries and known in the framing world as the leader in its niche.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The company’s products embody a similar contradiction. Specialty Matboard has taken what some would consider a mundane, relatively unnoticed detail – the matting around framed artwork – and raised it to the level of an artform itself.

While the company sells mat board in solid colors, its “specialty” is faux finishes, and it is the leading producer of this type of mat board in the Unit-ed States, says Danny Head, president of Specialty Matboard. “You see that maroon mat board over there?” Head asks, pointing behind me as we talk in his office. “That’s actually a real suede fabric. That’s not something we do here. But we have a faux finish of that, and under glass it’s very, very hard to determine whether the screen-printed version is real fabric. And it can be purchased at 25 percent of the price of the fabric mat.”

Founded in 1992, Specialty Matboard has become an expert in creating rich, varied designs that look convincingly textured, but are screen printed on smooth paper. To tell the difference, most people would need to touch them, and, as Head points out, that’s typically not possible because the mat board is behind glass.

Here’s more of what we learned about Specialty Matboard:

LA: Tell us about your faux-finish mat board.

DH: Matting you’re typically going to see is just a solid color – in other words, you’re getting a red or a black or an ivory. But what we do is take those mats and enhance them with a faux finish in a screen-printing process.

We’re one of the few companies that do this. We start with original art,which could be something we find in nature. One of our better-selling pat-terns came from me using a sheet of copper I etched with acid to create kind of a dappled surface. From there, we have a graphic artist take the original art or piece, scan it and duplicate it to fit our format – say a 32-inch by 40-inch piece – that we’ll have on a disc. From there, we put it into what we call a film positive. Then we do a screen – basically the same type thing you would see in a T-shirt shop except it’s much larger equipment, quite a bit more detail in it, so it’s a finer print.

LA: Do you always start with a physical piece of artwork?

DH: It can be a combination of things. I’ve used leaves, I’ve used birch bark. Sometimes it might be something like a fabric. If we had a linen fabric and we wanted a faux linen, we would start with the actual piece of fabric.

LA: Tell us the history of Specialty Matboard.

DH: The company was started by a group of investors and was located in Birmingham, in the Irondale area. We shared a facility there with a co-owned art print publisher. It quickly outgrew the space they were both in, and it was moved to Boaz in 1997.

In 2008, we moved into the 61,000-square-foot facility in Guntersville after outgrowing our space in Boaz. At that time, the only thing we did was screen print onto mat board. Then one of our suppliers that supplied us with mat board to screen print on ended up locating a production line inside our facility. Within a couple years we ended up buying that out.

So now we are producing a mat board that is typically what you would think of when you think of mat board: just a solid color mat board without any enhancement to it. We use that in two ways. We sell the mat board outright to distributors, to picture-framing companies. Then we also use it in-house to screen print on.

LA: Who are your primary customers?

DH: Our primary customers are, for the most part, manufacturing facilities that build wall art for the furniture industry. A typical customer of ours would be a manufacturing facility that creates a line of art and they would sell that decorative art through different channels that may end up being in furniture stores or the hospitality industry. We also sell through distributors, and those distributors are selling to the small, mom-and-pop-type stores that do custom framing.

We’re a major supplier to Hobby Lobby. We do a private label for Hob-by Lobby’s custom-framing departments called New Trends, and we work closely with their design and framing departments to do designs they feel like will work for whatever markets they’re trying to target.

We sell to Hobby Lobby on two levels. They also have finished, framed art for sell and spec our product for that. They have a secondary source that builds that for them, but they tell that secondary source, “You’ve got to use this particular Specialty Matboard product for that picture.”

LA: How many designs do you have?

DH: We have approximately 180 screen-printed, faux finish patterns. We have 93 solid colors. Most of those items are avail-able in four grades of the center, which I call the core. It’s the part that shows when you bevel cut it.

LA: How often do you change or introduce new designs?

DH: We do that twice a year. People who are building wall art and designing up their product line – they’re always wanting something new. So we’re constantly adding to and also taking away. It may be anywhere from six to 12 new items every six months.

We study color here. We study patterns. We study trends. We stay in touch with a lot of art publishers to know what colors are trending right now, what is going to be trending and if designs are getting to be more bold or if they’re more subtle. Right now things are trending more toward subtle.

LA: What is the company’s guiding philosophy?

DH: Quality product with quality customer service. I think somebody said it correctly one time: You’ve got good price, good service and good product. Choose two. You can’t have all three. You can’t be cheap if you’ve got good service and a good product.

LA: What are the company’s plans for the future?

DH: Our new thing right now is exploring the art-material market. You may have people in school for architecture, and they have what’s called presentation board, which basically is mat board. And then there’s the person who goes to buy their canvas or their paper or their pens at a smaller art-supply store, so you may have mat board in there as well. The other thing we’re looking to do is add more distributors in the custom-framing market.[/s2If]