NeoCon in Review

Despite the dreary weather, spirits were high last week at the Mart as height adjustable desks, a perceived returned to individual offices, and enclave-like breakout areas took center stage. Our trusty correspondent John Sacks reports.
Haworth Openest
Haworth’s Openest enclave won Best of Competition. Photo by John Sacks.

NeoCon came in with a bang and went out on Wednesday with a whimper. There were the usual massive crowds on Monday and Tuesday morning when it seemed as if the guys running office furniture companies were the most popular people in the world. Everyone wanted to talk to them. It’s not always like that.

Although the Mart reported that advance registrations were up 21 percent from 2013, visitor numbers seemed slightly down. That may have been the weather, which was dismal: dreary, chilly, windy, and very damp. Not the usual Chicago June at all. Spirits weren’t depressed though. There was just as much whooping and hollering as ever down the Mart’s corridors as old friends were reacquainted and exchanged promises to meet for drinks or meals.

Hosu by Coalesse
The Hosu by Coalesse. Photo by John Sacks.

This show is a marvelous anachronism in the days when so much else is bland and disciplined and regulated and organized. Other exhibitions are based on rectangular grids that can be marched up and down with ruthless, military-like efficiency by trooping up one aisle and down the next. Never let it be said that getting around NeoCon is easy! Old lags revel in their skill in conquering its quirkiness. Typical is the early Monday morning elevator charge to the 11th to then work your way down the show floors using the back stairs. Later, using the elevators to go down six floors just because you really want to go up from 7 to 8! The diagonal corridors criss-crossing each other often defeat even some of the most experienced veteran visitors who walk for hundreds of yards only to find themselves right back where they started. All that is just part of NeoCon’s charm which needs to be fostered and nurtured. Who wants bland and boring!

Most exhibiting companies push the boat out and spend small fortunes on showroom refits, fresh displays, new products and marketing. To achieve a reasonable return on their investments, the show needs to be long enough to allow visitors the time to access the people they want to see. The executives of the exhibiting companies have often been at the Mart since the Saturday, supporting and guiding the troops and in meetings. Come Tuesday afternoon, it’s understandable if they need to get back to their offices, so Tuesday afternoon is quiet and Wednesday is dead. That means the show really only lasts just over a day and a half. Nowhere near long enough.

One idea would be to recognize that lots of business goes on while the final touches are being made to showrooms and booths on the Sunday, and to advance the opening by one day. The show would then run from Sunday (starting at, say, 11:00 am) until Wednesday which would give participating companies a better chance to recover their costs and visitors a fair opportunity of seeing who and what they need.

Connection's Hive. Photo by John Sacks.
Connection’s Hive. Photo by John Sacks.

Trends and directions

As to discernible trends, there seemed to be a number of consistent messages. Height adjustability has arrived in the US with a vengeance. Hardly a casegoods manufacturer managed to avoid including one in their displays and some —Steelcase for example — showed them in serried ranks. Competition was about how smoothly the top travelled, the extent of the range of travel, the weight the mechanism could support, and even how the floppy control switch wouldn’t trap fingers (Herman Miller).

The Stir Kinetic Desk from Stir in California even had a iPhone-type controller built into the top surface which personalized the mechanism to the height and weight of the user and moved the top slightly every so often to remind him to keep moving around!

Herman Miller’s Eames-esque table and chairs. Photo by John Sacks.
Herman Miller’s Eames-esque table and chairs. Photo by John Sacks.

This apart, there seemed little in the way of any new workstation-related developments which left manufacturers showing derivatives of past products. However, one common theme from the majors including Teknion and Steelcase was a perceived return to individual offices. Teknion’s approach had a residential flavour with warm colours and wood veneers while Steelcase showed a multi-purpose variation of a cellular office, which included a collaboration area. This doubled up as a team area when the boss was away. Surely it’s a retrograde step to think about reverting to hierarchical styled offices, where some have their private spaces, after spending the past ten years or so driving towards the great communications and collaboration fostered by offices which, apart from meeting and interview rooms, are almost totally open plan.

Breakout areas were well catered for with pods and other informal groupings of low level seating and tables surrounded by screens or other dividers. Haworth’s offering in this category, Openest, designed by Studio Urquiola won Best of Competition while Okamura showed their attractive Muffle arrangement.

Herman Miller’s showroom was colorful and welcoming with products that were generally more evolutionary than revolutionary. Their new Eames-esque tables, with imaginative top shapes, and chairs, were attractive.

The products

Alessandro Piretti, son of Giancarlo, showed his new Variable side chair for Teknion which developed the ideas first seen in the 1970s and 80s.

Alessandro Piretti
Alessandro Piretti with his Variable side chair in Teknion’s showroom. Photo by John Sacks.

KI won Gold for Trellis, a low panel designed to carry cables to height adjustable workstations.

Izzy Design’s showroom, which in recent years has been a highlight of the show setting high standards of fresh thinking and innovation, was a disappointment with much of the area being taken up again with different versions their Architectural Elements structure.

VS from Germany showed a delightfully simple range of educational furniture, the Puzzle, designed by David Stubbs.

There were the usual crop of new task chairs, many of which featured exposed mesh covered plastic backs in white or black and a wide variety of ergonomic arguments to support the functions provided by the shapes, articulation and controls of each. Okamura launched a brand new task chair, Sylphy, from the company’s in-house design team.

Other attractive chairs in the same theme were a re-worked Gesture from Steelcase and Mimeo from Allsteel, designed by Bruce Fifield and intended for use in a number of different environments.

Teknion launched a Gold Award-winning, delightfully simple, lightweight, dividing screen, Litewall, which joins to its neighbour without tools, by way of its integrated magnets. The screens have aluminum feet which swivel out when needed and are hidden at the bottom of screen, tucked away, when not required.

The Steelcase company, Coalesse, displayed beautiful new products and for those interested in innovative design, were, as in previous years, in many ways the stars of the show. Hosu Convertible is a lounger chair which can be used both as an almost conventional living room type chair and which converts into a low level sloucher by placing the seat cushion on the floor. Their new Carbon Fiber stacking chair with a starting list price of $1750, was beautifully light and highly tactile.

Another innovative company, Molo, won Best of Neocon for architectural products with their Softwall and Softblock modular system which is a part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Michael Young, the designer of Coalesse's new Carbon Fiber chair, which weighs less than five pounds. Photo by Natalie Grasso.
Michael Young, the designer of Coalesse’s new Carbon Fiber chair, which weighs less than five pounds. Photo by Natalie Grasso.

This is a flexible freestanding partition system that expands and contracts to freely shape more intimate spaces within larger open areas. The cellular

structure of softwall + softblock serves to dampen sound while translucent or opaque versions sculpt the light of a space. Made from a non-woven polyethylene material, it is recyclable and is made from partly recycled content. Its lightweight paper look and feel is tear, UV, and water-resistant.

The 7th and 8th floors of the Mart had been reorganised to group exhibitors into some semblance of order but the logic defeated most visitors. Half the 8th floor was blocked off and unused. There were plenty of companies from Asia showing their wares but quite how they expected to achieve sales without dealers or reps was a bit of a mystery. Large handwritten signs indicating product prices taped onto products didn’t add to their attraction. Amongst various innovative offerings, electronic acoustical masking and induction charging systems for handheld devices and laptops, including Aircharge, featured widely.

One unusual product was the FreedMan chair from UK osteopath Simon Freedman based on his own knowledge of anatomy. Made principally from die cast aluminium, this small and surprisingly comfortable chair forces the user to adopt a correct posture.

More good-looking Herman Miller in the lobby at the Mart. Photo by Natalie Grasso.
A Herman Miller display in the lobby at the Mart. Photo by Natalie Grasso.

Another British presence was Connection, represented in the US by PalmerHamilton, who won a Silver award with their Hive enclosure.

The massive, highly-polished trucks from Hon, Herman Miller, Steelcase, and others were missing this year, replaced by colourful banners. Not quite the same thing, really.

And for next year? Unlike in the past, the question marks over NeoCon appear to have disappeared and no one has serious doubts that it will continue to thrive. Unlike its European counterparts — Orgatec, Milan, and others — much of NeoCon’s success is undoubtedly due to the 100 percent commitment it receives from every major North American office furniture manufacturer, and so long as that continues, this delightful, informative, exciting, and idiosyncratic show will go on.

 

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