How Arria creates its works of art is a closely guarded secret

How Arria creates its works of art is a closely guarded secret
Idealog goes inside an Auckland-based company that's making postcards, bookmarks and art cards that look like stained glass windows.

Arria’s postcards, bookmarks and art cards are basically stained glass windows. The translucent, flexible polycarbonate holds a kaleidoscope of colours that are textured to the touch – you can feel the edges of the up to 14 layers of multi-coloured inks that craft the picture.

How the Auckland-based design and screen-printing company creates these works of art is a jealously-guarded secret. It involves both custom-designed printing presses and custom-designed inks, all under the strictest conditions in a completely dustless pressurised room in Albany.

There, the eight to 10-strong team are intimately acquainted with print jargon such as opaque printing barrier techniques, depth effects, colour contour layering, transparent and translucent inks, pearlesence, writable and ‘chameleon’ inks and hi-builds. Even the way they get their polycarbonate delivered is customised, they say. Nothing is left un-customised.

“Eventually someone else may be able to do this,” says chief executive officer Chris Hardy (left). “But we’ve been slugging away for six or seven years – they looked awful when we started.” These “awful” starts nevertheless led to Arria being crowned supreme award winner (and winning seven gold awards) at the New Zealand 2013 National Pride in Print Awards for a tui postcard – with the judges’ comment, “Fantastic concept, very well thought-through, produced with excellence”.

Produced with excellence, yes, but with a lot of love, too. “It is really labour intensive,” says Hardy. “One of them was about 100 hours of retouching work before we even got it to the print stage. Every colour is printed in a separate layer. When we get it to prepress end, before we even get it to the printing plant, we do a whole bunch of different things to the screens, which I can’t tell you about, and for each colour there’s a whole lot of things applied to each one. And in the factory we have different exposures. There are up to 14 layers of ink, dried individually. We’re looking at ways to speed it up, as it’s pretty much hand-done.”

But while the process is refined, the team is launching itself with packs and pricings at markets around the globe, with an agent in London to target places such as the Tait Modern, National Art Gallery and Kew Gardens.

Meanwhile, they personally are making approaches in the US. Their bookmarks, art cards and postcards so far include their own designs but also icons such as the Sydney Opera House (an agreement for art cards is already signed there) and the Eiffel Tower, works of art such as Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss or Monet’s Water Lilies, as well as the award-winning iridescent tui and the New Zealand Alps to be sold at their 30 or so outlets secured back home. This wooing of the tourist spots is key to capturing the global market, says Hardy.

“The Eiffel Tower is a case in point. Consider the millions of tourists who visit that one attraction each year. No-one else can do what we do – so the potential for custom ranges is enormous.” The world is their oyster, really – potential applications of this printing technology range wide: clear signage, lanyards, snap tags. “Every time you show this to someone, they come up with five ways that you could use it,” says Hardy.

Just where did this company materialise from?

Originally the business had only the agency Creative Juice, which did international retail and brand work for 20 years involving the likes of Seaworld, Nike, Vodafone, Westpac and the Foster’s beverage empire. Then, from a marketing company that was going into receivership it bought “a few screen-printing samples and some patents around some new technology”. From there, Foster Screenprinting was formed, the trading name of Arria’s Print Division.

Patents in hand, the team could now make business cards using polycarbonate, with a stained glass window or clear-cut effect. With this, they “had a plan to take over the world … it was all quite exciting and interesting”. But, says Hardy, with a long design and print time there were only small gains to be had – the business model was doomed. It was a contact of Hardy’s in the Bahamas that gave them the idea to crank the business cards up to producing postcards.

“He said, there’s three to five million people coming through here on the cruise ships, they’d love to buy postcards like these,” he says. R&D to produce the right kind of result started, and the rest was history.