It was our Director David Smalley’s first trip out to the incredible city of Chicago. Of course, this was no holiday – he did have a bit of work to do in the shape of reviewing the USA’s largest and most important trade fair. Here David reports back on his jaunt across to see NeoCon for the first time.
‘How was NeoCon?’ I have been asked 57 times since returning to the mother country. My response has been varied – from excellent to fascinating, terrific and maybe even a little cool (clearly not!).
My journey there and back was an adventure I’d rather forget, but it was completely overshadowed by a most excellent experience in Chicago. Here’s a summary of NeoCon for those, like me a couple of months ago, who may not have been au fait with the show.
It is an annual exhibition for architects and designers, held in the 1930’s Merchandise Mart in the middle of downtown Chicago. 50,000 visitors, mainly from the US, visit for the usual exhibition fare of what’s new in the world of products, learning from the cerebral offering of seminars and talks and generally meeting other folk from the industry.
The building has 25 floors. Some have permanent showrooms (much like Clerkenwell) on floors 3, 10 and 11 and some, such as the 7th floor, have a myriad of exhibition stands (much like Designjunction).
I was told so much about this metropolitan city and whilst I didn’t have much in the way of free time, it is obviously a terrific place to spend some time. In my view, it’s like a Canary Wharf with style, resplendent in the delightful summer sunshine of around 34 degrees, except for Wednesday’s thunderstorms, which appeared to affect most UK-bound guests.
I was only there for two days (Monday and Tuesday) but was reliably informed that the show appears to be extending somewhat, with many heading out on Sunday evening, while the once dead Wednesday is now very much alive. I spoke to one manufacturer who is already looking to stay an extra day next year so that the team can have that all-important ‘pause and assess’ moment before they get back into the heat of the battle of work.
Monday morning started with a couple of stops on the Blue Line – a mix between the old Moscow Metro and the packed London Tube – and then came my first impression of NeoCon, which was quite overwhelming.
At 9am the queue for registration was over 17 million! Camira’s Ian Burn told me, ‘I’ve never seen queues for the elevators or the registration desks as long as they were on the first day of NeoCon for a very long time’.
It is perhaps inevitable that I would compare NeoCon with the other fairs I have attended over the last 12 months. What struck me on the first day was that this wasn’t a male dominated, suited affair like Orgatec. Helen Owen from Bisley said, ‘NeoCon is always an entertaining show and I felt this year the audience and themes were more diverse than ever’.
Another observation was how focused the designers appeared to be. It was clear that they were there to learn and at almost every stand I overheard ‘So what is new’. Their aim appeared to be to find out about the benefits of the products and then move on – quite different from the party atmosphere of Clerkenwell Design Week.
Alison Kitchingman from Milliken suggested many of the designers only travel to this one big show, therefore they are here to make the most of it. Bryan Daisy from FREM put it a little more strongly when, after a very successful first day said that, ‘The audience in general is far more enthusiastic in the US than we are used to in Europe’.
Whilst we are making comparisons, the sales guys also appear to have great enthusiasm and professionalism (not being critical of our UK brethren). I was told by Boss Design’s Oliver Ronald that many of the sales guys are on commission only – therefore I guess this provides a real helpful focus, particularly when you are earning 10-15% of sales. Even when I was having a drink with the delightful Jon Crawford, Senior Designer at Senator, quite late on, one of his colleagues was chaperoning a group of four designers through the showroom with such enthusiasm, I felt a little guilty…for two sips worth of time!
I did set out to attend at least one seminar and the one I attended didn’t disappoint. It was led by a couple from HOK (Pam Light and Brad Liebman) and was titled Rise of the Human Factor. Much of what was discussed was exactly what you would expect in the UK; instead of real estate we should be talking about people; the most flexible part of the office is not the walls or furniture but its people. Also, there were insights into the characteristics of Gen Z – one I hadn’t heard was the acronym KIPPERS (Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings). We were shown a series of maps delivered as a timeline, revealing the level of obesity by state, year by year in the US. Shown in such a graphic way, it made uncomfortable reading. Pam suggested that the US market should already be thinking about making larger chairs!
I bumped into the UK-based Carl Gearing (PwC) a couple of times and his take on the show was that, whilst much of the design has softened, it is ‘still very corporate and conservative’, suggesting that straight lines and aluminium were the order of the day. Whilst after a couple of days I wouldn’t necessarily agree 100%, I did walk past a couple of showrooms that reminded me of how to respond when shown a photograph of someone’s baby. If the baby is beautiful you can say ‘gee, she’s pretty’ but if the baby is not the most attractive, then the code is ‘ooh doesn’t he look like his dad’. I felt a little like that in a couple of the showrooms. One had a monstrous (code for not my cup of tea) marble boardroom table with matching pointy shiny chairs. I thought I’d misheard when I overhead someone suggest it was incredible.
Senator had all the big guns in attendance on the stand, quietly confident about the future, following the announcements of plans to significantly increase manufacturing capacity to 100,000 sq ft. After winning two awards the night before, and boasting a completely packed stand, who would bet against them?
I met Boss Design’s new US Director of Global Accounts, Sandy Yokeley, in Clerkenwell in May and again had the good fortune to bump into this force of nature at their new large permanent showroom. As most will know, Boss are on a role, with some terrific new products including Trinetic, which is a real hit with designers, not least of all because it is devoid of the meddlesome manual user adjustments. Myriad, meanwhile, is a soft seating combination that has a myriad of combinations.
Tarkett (Desso) had a very large showroom – apparently nearly three times bigger than last year. I was certainly struck by the wonderful array of flooring, only spoiled somewhat by the people in the way.
I met Rob Terpstra (Head of Facilities and Real Estate) at Haworth, who was a real star and gave me a great tour of their wonderful stand. New products included Poppy, which was launched last year but is now bigger and more of a lounge chair (yes, he did mention America’s obesity issues, but added the bigger chair was not necessarily because of that). A trend that we understand only too well in the UK is making the most of valuable real estate, and Rob showed me Haworth’s Suite. Designed by Steffen Lipsky, it’s as simple as turning a private office into a meeting room by having a lockable sliding wall.
A further interesting point was Rob’s regular mention of Patricia Urquiola, the Spanish born designer who it seems is having a softening effect not just on Haworth but also on other major US manufacturers.
Herman Miller’s stand was a frenzy of activity. I arrived as Richard Holbrook was describing the value of his new creation – Prospect. It is not quite a pod, more of a semi-circular freestanding piece that can fit 4/6 people who are looking to collaborate. Richard explained his aim was to create a place that helped improve collaboration, the result being ‘co-creation’. However, he did go on to say that team members should do their own focused work before arriving to the meeting. ‘As a designer, I’m interested in creating experiences that enhance life and wellbeing. With the Prospect portfolio, our goal was to create places that support a more creative life at work – that give people a place where they can find privacy and focus in independent work and the courage to contribute in collaboration with team mates,’ he explained.
One showroom that caught my eye was Davis. It looked more like something you would find at the European furniture expo, Orgatec. I spoke to Ashley Davis Williams, who explained that the boss (her dad) spent a lot of time in Europe looking for ideas for the US market. The result is a series of licensing agreements with leading European manufacturers. Their mission is to be the leader in contract furniture industry and be known for superior design and function with an international contemporary influence (you get the trend!).
Another of the great big showrooms on the third floor was HON (part of the HNI group). A company created in 1944 as Home-O-Nize, with the idea of providing work for returning troops. I was shown around by Jackie Celske, formally of Surrey, now very much American. I got the sense that these guys are big on their functional creations and proud of their manufacturing investment. Jackie told me that they have brought back a lot of the manufacturing and now most of the ‘lifetime warranty’ products are born the USA.
Also part of the HNI group are Allsteel, Gunlocke and HBF. Allsteel had a distinctly European look to it. I was photographing some mini chairs when I heard someone behind say ‘He’s touching your chairs!’ – not the first time I have heard that. It turned out it was Simon Legald, who is the Danish designer responsible for the Form chair in question. He wanted to create something that ‘looked good from every angle’ and had hundreds of permutations’ Their lovely PR person, Carol Vanderkloot of WD&A, told me that Allsteel were specifically after a ‘Danish designed’ string to their bow.
Buzzispace were creating a buss as usual. Els Kerckhof took some time out to show just why they are so well respected for doing the simple things well, with acoustics being a key part of the showing. A perfect example of this is BuzziPleat, a flower shaped ceiling suspended affair. I also completely loved the method of providing technical information for the designers. Think simple lined drawings with technical specifications in a similar system to IKEA. You simply tore off the A6 sheet from the note pads on the wall.
Another European we all know from Albemarle Way in Clerkenwell is Germany’s Dauphin. They were showing off their stunning 4+Relax chair by Roland Zünd.
Jonathan Hindle from KI gave out two awards at Mixology on 22nd June. At NeoCon, KI were themselves the recipients of three awards. Clearly proud, he said, ‘The new Ruckus collection, which we will introduce to the UK in September, was created after substantial research and product development, resulting in a design that is unlike any other chair on the market. Designed specifically for educational environments, it also has applications in healthcare and workplace environments. Its versatility is borne of an unusual design, which intrigues at first, and delights when demonstrated’.
The 7th floor is home to the smaller exhibition stands. One of the most colourful and busy was Caimi Brevetti and their product Snowsound. Featuring funky Acoustic material, export supremo Federico Biffi told me, ‘There’s a rising sensibility in the USA concerning acoustics. This is the fourth year in a row we have participated and it’s always a great success because it gives us the opportunity to display the results of several years of research and development both form a technical and a design point of view’.
One of my first stops was to speak to Dean Kuch from Thinking Works. On the back of an approach at Orgatec last year, Dean now has an agreement with Darran Furniture to assemble and distribute in the US – a smart and relatively minimal risk strategy to see if some of their new products such as the Jones & Partners designed ThinkingQuietly will take off. No doubt they will.
Another product that struck me on the 7th floor was Sensitile Systems, created by Abhinand Lath after no one would back his product. Think unbelievable surface materials that combine amazing colours, lighting and structure. I discovered that it is available in our very own Material Lab – well worth checking out.
Abhinand told me, ‘We were very pleased with both the volume and quality of the A&D community turnout at NeoCon 2017. It was wonderfully gratifying to witness the pleasure of discovery on the faces of designers as they experienced and interacted with our newest materials’.
Yet another ‘something a bit different’ was Zahner, who produce metal products that have historically been used externally by architects but are now being taken on board by interior designers. ImageWall is a system for creating functional but attractive metal architectural elements for inside and out. Sean Kelley told me that this was the first time exhibiting here and he hoped the products would be specified in much the same way as fabrics. I loved that he said, ‘We say yes to everything!’
Jabbrrbox caused a bit of stir. ‘You must see this’ I was told in the press lounge. A great piece of kit, as they say. But nothing you won’t see in most of the case studies in Mix Interiors. In other words, this is a product for someone looking for a private space (48 x 48 x 90 booth), instead of having to go into the stairwell. Also creating interest was Cubii, which is billed at the ‘the world’s first smart under-desk elliptical machine’. Think the bottom part of a gym cycle. It can be connected to a Fitbit, and will no doubt appeal to some.
Turkish giants Koleksiyon were constantly busy showing off Boccaporto, the pod system that was so successful at Orgatec, and Calder, a flexible modular seating system that gained lots of attention. Koray Malhan, Brand and Design Director, was clearly in a good place. ‘In our third year at NeoCon, we were honoured to receive the HiP award with our Boccaporto…and the Metropolis Likes award with our Calder seating solution.’
One person I always manage to bump into is Ken Kelly from The Furniture Practice, who was holding court at a Monday evening congregation.
There were also three significant US dealers present: Michael Gerla from The Atlantic Group, Tina Conway of Systems Source and Tracy Fillmore from Total Plan. Asked how the show had gone so far, Tracy said, ‘Having worked in this industry for quite some time, the ‘stand out’ for me was how much the office culture has evolved; far less individualised workstations – more interactive and collaborative. Also, I love that manufacturers have been able to bring a more residential feel to office furniture.’
Moe’s Canteen was the place to be on Monday evening for the Humanscale party, where I had the pleasure of meeting Tim Hutchings, Mesve Varda and Lynda Dehn. This was definitely the place to meet a nice cross- section of people, relaxing after a fierce day’s worth of looking around.
I saw for myself what many of the great European brands have seen for some time. Massive chunks of the US market, a year behind in workplace design and agile furniture provision – but they are on the march and opportunity is certainly favouring the brave. The good news for those companies only just spotting the trend is that America is big – really big!
NeoCon is 50 years old in 2018. I’m already looking forward to next year.