Surface Decoration for Sheet Metal Planters

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Surface Decoration for Sheet Metal Planters

A discussion of why, and how, the surfaces of sheet metal planters can be decorated, in support of different design objectives.



In most landscape schemes, the plants and trees are the stars of the show, and the planters’ role is to:

  • serve the needs of the plants and trees, in horticultural terms
  • provide a neutral colour foil to showcase the planting to best effect
  • create structure, form and focal points within the landscape space

As the planters are most often supporting cast, or setting the stage, 80% of what IOTA makes is Steel or Aluminium with a neutral Polyester Powder Coat [PPC] finish >>. And it is amazing quite how many shades of grey are available in PPC…!

Sometimes, however, the planters are brought into focus, centre-stage, and are decorated specifically to support other design objectives within the landscape brief. There may be various reasons for this, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive – and they include:

A.1. Perceived Value-Added

Surface decoration can definitely increase ‘the wow factor’. This can be something as simple as selecting an unusual PPC colour; but can also include patterning the surface, or using expensive sheet metals with distinctive and characteristic patination [such as Lead, Zinc, Copper and Brass / Bronze]. Exemplar project: VERDE SW1, London >>


A.2. Design Referencing

Sometimes surface decoration is used to give the planters a specific design reference. The most common example is where the planters are given an ‘aged’ and / or historical reference, such as by adding relief moulding to the planters’ rims, faces and bases. Exemplar project: Derry City and Strabane District Council >>


A.3. Artwork

The planters’ design may be embellished purely for aesthetic reasons. Sometimes this might be just ‘art for art’s sake’; or the artwork might have a wider cultural significance or message – such as IOTA’s poppy design planters for the Bennetthorpe Cenotaph in Doncaster >>

A.4. Branding

In other cases, artwork on the planters might link to the specific location; and when that link is both transparent and overt, then it becomes ‘branding’. This branding might be an emblematic design, a logo, or a brand name; and these different designs may require different techniques to achieve on the planters. Exemplar project: Berkeley Homes – Kidbrooke Village, London >>

A.5. Signage, Wayfaring, Traffic Control

As already stated, the planters may be used to create structure, form and focal points within the landscape space. Given that the planters are 'already in the right places', the landscape architect may wish to use them also to achieve a range of visual communication objectives – such as signage, wayfaring, traffic control etc. Exemplar project: Royal Mills, Manchester >>

A.6. Non-Planting Functionality

Surface decoration may be the tool by which planters are co-opted to perform an additional design function, wholly unrelated to the planting.  An example is shown here Old Quebec Street, London W1 >> where the planters by day become street lights at night.



When manufactured from metal, listed below are some of the surface decoration techniques available – in approximate order, from cheapest to most expensive:

B.1. Polyester Powder Coat [PPC]

To increase the ‘wow factor’, the simplest option, with zero additional cost, is to select an unusual PPC colour. In addition to the standard RAL, BS, or Pantone colour series, there are myriad proprietary ranges available from specialist, high-quality paint manufacturers; and PPC offers enormous aesthetic choice, and creative licence, to a specifier.
Exemplar Projects:
Clackmannanshire Council, FK10 >>
Hamilton Quay, Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne >>
Hampton by Hilton, Bournemouth BH2 >>
John Gray Centre, Haddington >>
University of Manchester >>


B.2. Vinyl Decal

Applying a vinyl decal to the planters is generally the cheapest technique to communicate relatively complex messages, such as branding. However the decals may be subject to damage / degradation, and may need to be replaced periodically.  
Exemplar Projects:
Berkeley Homes – Kidbrooke Village, London >>
Berkeley Homes – South Quay Plaza, London >>
Royal Mills, Manchester >>
Wardian London, Design Cube at Ballymore >>


B.3. Bead Blasting

Stainless Steels generally comes with the standard finishes raw, brushed / grained and mirrored. The raw materials can also be bead blasted to create a variety of effects. In its lightest form, bead blasting will give a muted, ‘satin’ aesthetic. In its most aggressive form – shot peening – the look is much more textural. Shot peening also increases the hardness and fatigue strength of the Stainless Steel surface [although that is not of relevance to planters, which is really all about the aesthetic].


B.4. Punching

If the surface design is relatively simple, then punching a hole through the metal sheet is an economical technique [although, to minimise cost, the design needs to be the same – as every change in design or dims. requires an additional die to be made]. To keep the soil contained, the punched planter face will typically be backed with an internal plate; but this exemplar project demonstrates a particularly creative application for punching: London Festival of Architecture 2019 >>


B.5. Laser-cutting

Laser-cutting the message can be done in different ways – typically, and again in order of increasing cost:

  • Laser-cutting out the message in metal, and then applying that to the planters.
  • Laser-cutting the message out of the side of the planters, and then applying a backing plate inside [typically in a different colour].
  • Laser-cutting the message out of the side of the planters; and then infilling that space with identical laser cuts from a separate material, such as also metal, or acrylic [if acrylic, then this can be backlit to great effect].

Exemplar Projects:
Bedford Hotel, London >>
Colchester Town Centre >>
Old Quebec Street, London W1 >>
Doncaster – Bennetthorpe Cenotaph >>


B.6. Screen printing and wet painting

Screen printing can communicate the most complex of messages [incl. written copy, images, multiple colours etc.] However, this is an expensive option, and it can only be printed to flat sheet – so it is most often applied as a separate / additional cladding element. Wet painting, of course, is as long as a piece of string, and can be anything the artist can realise – whether signwriting, art etc.
Exemplar Project:
Hilton Hotel, Canary Wharf >>


B.7. Embossing or Debossing

Embossing or debossing a decoration onto the side of the planters is a totally permanent, zero maintenance option. However, it is also typically an expensive option, and it doesn't work unless the message is very simple [like a very graphically bold and clear logo].
Exemplar Projects:
Adare Manor Hotel, Co. Limerick, EIRE >>
Cheltenham Borough Council >>
City of London Corporation, Bartholomew Close, London EC1 >>
Derry City and Strabane District Council >>
Rosewood London >>


B.8. Lead, Zinc, Copper and Brass / Bronze

To create a decorated surface, with high perceived value, the second most expensive option is to use expensive sheet metals with distinctive and characteristic patination [such as Lead, Zinc, Copper and Brass / Bronze].
Exemplar projects:
Adare Manor Hotel, Co. Limerick, EIRE >>
City of London Corporation, Bartholomew Close, London EC1 >>
Derry City and Strabane District Council >>
Rosewood London >>
The Glebe, Chelsea, London SW3 >>
V&A Museum, London >>
VERDE SW1, London >>


B.9. Specialist Decorative Metals

Most expensively, a wide range of specialist stainless steel colours, patterns and finishes are available - for example:

  • Specialist steels from RIMEX Metals Group, with patterned, etched or coloured/grained finishes.
  • Other specialist decorative metals, such as the TECU range of copper alloys from KME.

Use of these specialist metals tends to be constrained by cost. These metals also typically cannot be welded, so are limited to use as either cladding, or for an ‘open-seamed’ planter construction.

Related Projects

Contact IOTA T. 01934 522617