Mart or Market?

We’re in Chicago to visit the 51st edition of NeoCon – the leading US platform for the commercial design industry. The event’s incredible longevity can be attributed to a number of things, not least its venue – the Merchandise Mart, which is located at the junction of the Chicago River’s branches in the heart of downtown.

The Mart, which was the world’s largest building when it opened back in 1930, boasting some 4,000,000 sq ft of floor space, has been a permanent home to the largest and most influential commercial furniture brands for decades now.

Things change though. Where the Mart was undoubtedly one of NeoCon’s great strengths, it is now being viewed (by some at least) as tired and ‘old hat’. And when the ‘some’ in question includes at least a couple of the world’s leading furniture brands, questions about how the future NeoCon will look and feel are bound to be asked.

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Above: Buzzispace showroom

When we booked our accommodation in Fulton Market, an up-and-coming district, which is now home to hip hotels such as the Ace and the Hoxton (we were not staying at either!), as well as Google, WeWork and an array of cool bars and restaurants, we had no idea that this was the name on everybody’s lips throughout the show.

Fulton Market is now also home to the Knoll showroom, who have moved away from the Mart, while Herman Miller have also now announced that they are Fulton Market bound, with plans confirmed for a new purpose-built space. So, no Knoll and no Miller at the Mart. Will this be the start of the end?

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Above: Steelcase

Anyway, the Mart is very much the centre of our attention for now. And there are some interesting trends on show this year. One, being patriotic for a moment, is the maturity of the UK brands that have residency here. As you’ll see in a couple of pages, we headed to the Mart a day before the show started for a round table event at the new Allermuir/Senator space – and what a great facility it is. New products Kin and Array attracted plenty of attention from visitors – with the latter deservedly picking up a NeoCon award along the way.

Boss Design showed off the impressive ACDC and DNA, among others, in its elegant 3rd  floor showspace, while naughtone’s bright and brilliant products were shown both in its own space and throughout Herman Miller’s megaspace.

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Above: Boss Design

Which is where we headed next. Taking a deep breath and readying ourselves for the scrum, we took on the ‘big three on three’ – Miller, Haworth and Steelcase.

A couple of trends quickly caught our attention here. Firstly, there was an awful lot of bright, primary colours used throughout all three of the showrooms – which, along with the artificial lighting, actually burred our vision after too long. Secondly, there appeared to be far more emphasis placed on work, breakout, meeting and multipurpose settings than on the products themselves. This worked well in the brilliantly curated Haworth showroom, while the retro settings in the Miller space left us slightly confused (and you know how much we like and respect Miller).

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Above: Humanscale

There was no doubt that this was a paired down NeoCon in terms of headline-grabbing new product launches. We liked Steelcase’s Flex and Haworth’s Cabana Lounge and Lyda Sofa but couldn’t help but notice that there was just as much emphasis on ‘the big three’ showing their muscles, with each continuing to ‘collect’ (largely European) brands and collaborations. In saying that, it was great to see Orangebox products used throughout both the Steelcase showroom and its impressive adjacent WorkLife Cafe.

We were particularly impressed with the Teknion showroom – and really liked new products Emote, Bene Box and the latest Studio TK lines – while the great Don Chadwick’s new stool for Humanscale was one of our standout products of the show.

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Above: Steelcase

It was away from North America that we really found some elegant products and displays, however. Leading the way (aside from the aforementioned Brits, of course) were OkamuraAndreu World and BuzziSpace – the latter producing maybe the most interesting showroom, most impressive new acoustic products and undoubtedly one of the most talked about elements of the show in the shape of their funky tote bags. No word of a lie, we heard three people ask for the ‘sold out’ bags in less than 10 minutes!

Of course, there was as much to discover and learn away from the show – and we must thank Humanscale, Allermuir/Senator and Camira for their hospitality. We met and reconnected with so many great people, from leading US mega-dealers, through to massive end users (including WeWork and GoPro) and, of course, friends from the UK.

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Above: Haworth

As for the immediate future of NeoCon? Well judging by the crowds and queues for the elevators (one of the reasons many want a move away from the Mart), Chicago will continue to attract the industry every June. It may, however, be Fulton Market that they start to head towards.

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Above: Buzzispace

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Above: Boss Design

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Above: Herman Miller

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Above: Senator

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Above: Haworth

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Above: Allermuir