Merchandise Mark

Held in Chicago’s sprawling Merchandise Mart, a 1931 Art Deco colossus of a building, NeoCon is used by most of the major American and international commercial furniture and product manufacturers to launch new designs to the market, BDP Design Director Mark Simpson informs us.

Chief among them are the big four US office furniture manufacturers, Knoll, Haworth, Steelcase and Herman Miller, who each have large permanent showrooms in the building. They are joined by a host of other major North American manufacturers such as Allsteel, Gunlocke, Teknion and The HON Company.

Europe (if it still exists by the time you read this) was this year represented by Vitra, BuzziSpace, Andreu World, Interstuhl and Poltrona Frau.

Britain was there too with representations from Naughtone, Senator/Allermuir and Boss, oh and err Osborne and Little, the wallpaper company founded by George Osborne’s daddy.

The preconception of North American office furniture is that it is still all about large footprint cubicles and executive casegoods. There is no doubt that there is still a lot of that about but there are signs that things are finally moving on and that post-recession (the last one, not the one around the corner) they are investing again and have been learning from across the pond and becoming less conservative in their approach. A lot of what I saw was more lightweight in design and less rigid in application.

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Sit/Stand is of course still a prevalent theme, becoming ever more the norm and surely represents a huge sigh of relief to an industry reduced to selling cheap benches for the last few years. We are of course all bored stiff by now of the generic goal post leg, any colour you like as long as it’s a white bench top. Perhaps as a reaction to that Senator has launched its new Orb system. As the name suggests it’s a circular format in two sizes which can be used individually or ‘toggled’ to form straight, offset or undulating rows. Available with a host of accessories and finishes – including white. It’s certainly an interesting concept.

We are also all aware of the shift from traditional desks to more informal collaborative settings – not desking rather than hot desking – and the US manufacturers now seem to be gearing up to reflect that – either by developing new collections such as the Zones range by Teknion, designed by PearsonLloyd (which won the Best of Competition award) or by acquiring ‘soft’ furniture brands to bolster their offers. k

Haworth, for example, was able to present a blended display of products from its own ranges and those of the Poltrona Frau Group, in which it has a majority stake. The showroom has been given a makeover by Patricia Urquiola, who designs product lines for both Haworth and PFG brand Cassina as its newly appointed Art Director. She has designed a new table range called Immerse and a side chair called Poppy as well as additions to the Urbanest family of booths and screens, which I thought was particularly successful. Also new this year is Fern, a task chair designed in house in collaboration with ITO Design. Haworth has recently purchased outdoor brand Janus et Cie, who has an impressive range of furniture suited to the commercial and hospitality sectors. The Fibonacci Vantana Double Chaise is very nice. I can see it being used indoors as much as out.

NeoCon Ratio Conference Table web

Vitra’s showroom was a biophilic jungle with established classics shown alongside the recently launched Hack system, which is targeted at the tech sector. Designed by Konstantin Grcic, it uses low-tech materials such as ‘oriented strand board’ and polypropylene straps and oddly enough returns to the cubicle aesthetic.

Knoll presented its biggest launch for several years. Rockwell Unscripted is billed as a comprehensive collection of 30 elements in six categories – Borders (effectively a lightweight walling concept), Steps (a low-rise bleacher seating idea), Tables, Seating, Storage and Accessories that adapt to the ‘spontaneous choreography of the work day’. It’s a comprehensive range, with some nice individual pieces and presents a deconstructed way of working. How it catches on will be interesting to see.

Humanscale presented some new ideas, notably Quickstand Lite, a Red Dot award winning desk mounted arm supporting single or dual monitors and a keyboard to provide a sit/stand facility to a static desk. It also showed OfficeIQ, an innovative intelligent device, which monitors health and wellbeing providing real-time stats on an individual’s activity, calories burned and thereby encourages movement. This was shown alongside M/Connect, a monitor arm cum docking station and a Mixology Award winner this year.

Spanish Brand Andreu World also has a permanent showroom at The Mart and showcased new designs, which won five Gold and two Silver Best of NeoCon awards. I especially liked the Duos family of chairs designed by Jasper Morrison and the Ratio conference table programme – an elegant extruded aluminium frame with integrated power and data allows it to also be used as a worktable up to 6.4m long.

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naughtone opened its new showroom in The Mart in time for NeoCon, displaying a selection of products including the Cloud Plain booth seating and Rhyme bench sofas. The company recently announced a ‘strategic partnership’ with Herman Miller. Another example of US companies buying up European upholstery brands to prop up dwindling desk sales?

Away from furniture, the big carpet firms also launched new ranges. I liked the Modern Edit collection from Shaw Industries, available in broadloom and tile, while Milliken launched Lapidus, which won the Best of NeoCon Gold award and J+J Flooring launched Stellar – a new range of modular tiles inspired by nature – and Death Valley.

It’s not quite Milan in terms of scale or variety but there’s a lot to take in at NeoCon – and a lot, like Milan, to ignore too, but what I saw, particularly in the approach by the big four furniture firms, the contributions made by our UK companies and the integration of technology, was very encouraging.