One L of a Show – NeoCon18

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This year marked the 50th anniversary of NeoCon and, although we’ve yet to meet anyone who’s visited all 50, we know plenty who feel as though they’ve been to every edition. The queues for the ‘elevators’ alone will do that to a person.

Certainly, by mid-week, when the majority of British visitors to the show are heading home, there are moans and groans of weariness and exhaustion. Then again, that will happen if you’re burning the candle at both ends. And lets face it, everyone’s going to be burning said candle – this is Chicago after all.
Yessiree, all the queuing in the world is forgiven once you regain your shizzle and remember that you’re in the Windy City. It’s a bit like the furniture fair equivalent of giving a child a treat for being so good at the dentist!
Don’t get us wrong, we genuinely like NeoCon. No, love NeoCon. It might be way too busy (which is clearly not a problem for the showrooms and exhibitors looking to show off their latest kit), difficult to navigate and too big to properly get through in just two or three days, but it is also a showcase for a large number of the most impressive furniture manufacturers on the planet. And we shouldn’t be complaining about too much!
We should also be aware that this is a different show from the NeoCon we first visited way back when. So much more of what is on show is relevant to the UK market (much of which is following in the wake, of course) and even the average visitor is not who we first encountered. Back then, as we recall, we were forced to squeeze into a lift (elevator) at the Merchandise Mart with half a dozen (you couldn’t fit many more in) large American chaps with equally large voices, all clad in plaid in chinos. Today, we’re nestled amongst cool girls with piercings and tattoos!
In the short(ish) time we do have at the Mart, we are also able to detect a number of emerging (and re-emerging) trends when it comes to product. Firstly, European influence is everywhere – from the most American of American firms through to, well, the Europeans. In line with this, wood is very much the favoured material at this year’s show, featuring on a huge proportion of the new tables and chairs launched.
As you might expect, there are a lot of soft seating products to admire, together with one or two impressive task chair introductions and some intriguing acoustic solutions. Furthermore, the phone booth is incredibly prominent, with Framery claiming the prize for monopolisation – although it is also great to see Mark Bailey on the 7th floor, constantly busy with clients, who clearly see his ‘beefed up’ Mikomax booth as an excellent alternative – and so they should!
While we can almost hear the groans from the Irish bars as the Cubs get hammered on Sunday afternoon, we’re using our heads for once and getting our badges for the show sorted, before heading up to see our friends from Allermuir, who are hosting pre-show drinks (and a fabulous spread of food) in their superb 3rd floor showroom. We’re not ones to work too hard on the Sabbath, but we’re more than happy to take a good look at the dramatic and immersive installation by London-based designer Benjamin Hubert. NeoCon marks a new look for the Allermuir brand, whose collaborations with the likes of PearsonLloyd, Mark Gabbertas and Wolfgang CR Mezger are bang on trend for the show. Axyl, Oran and Turo all receive plenty of attention from the early-bird visitors – and quite rightly so.
Suspending time and belief for just a minute or two, we should mention that (over the next couple of days) we also visit the Senator showroom, which featured the impressive Pailo – a softer approach to more formal bench desking systems that explores new ways to introduce fabric into the workplace.
Staying with leading UK brands, taking centre stage at the Boss showroom is the incredibly versatile and stylish ATOM, created by Simon Pengelly. The company is also unveiling Mango – a personal workspace with an acoustic privacy screen and multi-positional writing tablet for quiet and private working.
We move into Monday – and that means several thousand people join us, eager to get a first peek at the industry’s latest innovations.
The newly expanded and redesigned Steelcase Chicago WorkLife, which picks up the Best Large Showroom and Best of Competition at NeoCon 2018, is also probably the most talked-about showroom throughout the week. We’ve made no secret of our admiration for the Silq chair (which is displayed floating in mid-air) and here it is joined by a number of other impressive newbies. We really like the sit/stand Mackinac Collection, which also appears to float and is shown with beautiful timber tops, while the B-Free Cube also turns our heads.
In total, Steelcase and its family of brands scooped six Best of NeoCon Awards, an Interior Design HiP Award and a #MetropolisLikes Award – making them the Michael Phelps of Chicago.
The showroom brings together Steelcase, Coalesse and Turnstone, along with an extensive new network of partners for the first time. Two distinct areas complement one another and are smartly designed to highlight a new vision for the future of work. WorkLife demonstrates how a ‘smart + connected’ workplace can improve the employee experience and drive innovation, while the all-new Steelcase WorkCafé features a dynamic array of spaces designed to support the wellbeing of people and to foster connections.
Herman Miller is every bit as busy as Steelcase – both in terms of visitors and new products. Interestingly, we’ve already heard a couple of negative reports about the curated nature of Miller’s showroom. We disagree. We applaud anything that makes navigating such a ridiculously busy space easier. Having recently added Maars and Hay to its family of brands, Miller is demonstrating its full breadth of products and capabilities at NeoCon 2018. It’s also good to see some kit from our own Naughtone, who tell us they’re delighted to have been approached to show their own latest seating creations. Naughtone’s own showroom looks the business – with new products in cool, acid finishes turning many an American head.
We’re particularly intrigued by Overlay – a system of sub-architectural, movable walls that can create freestanding rooms – while recent Mixology award winner Cosm is difficult to find, so dense is the crowd of visitors around it.
Humanscale weren’t shy on the new product front either. New executive seating range, Summa, exudes luxurious simplicity. With auto-recline and tension automatically established by the user’s weight, Summa offers seamless support and comfort for the boardroom. Smart Ocean, meanwhile, is the embodiment of Humanscale’s commitment to sustainable manufacturing. Incorporating almost two pounds of recycled NetPlus material, Smart Ocean is hailed as the first ergonomic chair built with this recycled material. Further introductions include impressive task lighting, monitor arm and intelligent technology tools.
The ever-popular Knoll showroom’s focus was Hospitality at Work, illustrating the power of bringing together the Knoll constellation of design-driven brands within an immersive workspace planning solution for commercial, healthcare and education spaces. The showroom featured five themed spaces that illustrated Hospitality at Work – Welcoming Environments, User-Directed Experiences, Flexible Solutions, Material Variety and Residential Aesthetic. At the 2018 Best of NeoCon Awards, Knoll benching solutions sweep the category – and we can see why. Rockwell Unscripted Sawhorse Workbench, an enhanced iteration of the Rockwell Unscripted Sawhorse Table, won a Best of NeoCon Gold, while over at the HiP Awards, Marc Newson‘s Aluminum Side Chair scoops the award for the Workplace: Guest Seating category. It also might just be our favourite new product at the entire show.
Finnish brand Muuto has taken over one side of the Knoll space – with the cool new Outline collection quite rightly receiving plenty of attention.
Moving on, Canadian giant Teknion features Banqs, a PearsonLloyd designed collection of sofas with screens, tables and accessories. It smartly creates banquettes and linear booths for public and corporate applications, satisfying the need for hospitality and casual work in freestanding spaces or along perimeter walls. We also like the Borough lounge pieces, by Studio TK. This modular seating collection comprises elements that bring the home into the workplace.
We hope no one at KI takes offence, but the last thing we expect upon entering the showroom is to see large-scale tattoo branding everywhere. We quickly learn that the reason behind this cool change of tack is that the company is launching the Tattoo Collection, which provides a platform of solutions that allows users to move, manipulate and modify their personal and collective spaces. This innovative approach to a systems-like solution encourages higher levels of personal privacy, interaction, ideation and reflection. It’s very good.
Haworth is another to tap into European talent and influence. The new Soji task chair is designed by Haworth’s own Arne Dassen, who was born and raised in Germany, while the stylish Maari seating collection comes from Oviedo’s Patricia Urquiola.
The Euro-collaborations don’t stop with furniture either. Shaw Contract is showing the brilliant Inside Shapes collection. Developed by über-cool Scandinavian design firm, Form Us With Love, the inventive floor tile collection features four shapes, a myriad of colours and 17 premixes. This is real ‘go play’ stuff the interior designer.
While we really like the nature-inspired Textured Sky collection, new products are not the only things making the good folk at Milliken happy this NeoCon. They are (quite rightly) proud to announce that their space is the first showroom in the Merchandise Mart to receive WELL Certification, along with being the first WELL Certified Platinum space in Chicago. Impressive stuff.
Sticking with global flooring companies, it’s good to see the guys from Interface (who, like us, will be Howling at the Moon later tonight) – who have brought a few design friends out with them. Back at the show, Interface introduces Visual Code, a carpet tile collection, and Drawn Lines, a luxury vinyl tile collection, which both pull inspiration from technology and nature. Whether displayed on their own or paired together, the products offer a colourful, engaging environment for a range of spaces such as corporate offices, healthcare and education.

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Elsewhere, we’re impressed by the BuzziSpace showroom, which features some fantastic seating, acoustic and lighting products, while we spot Tom and Luke, aka PearsonLloyd, in the elegant Andreu World showroom – but can’t get anywhere near them due to the number of clients surrounding them. Shame not to catch up, but great to see such enthusiasm for their latest creations. The British design duo is presenting Ruta, a debut collection for the acclaimed Spanish furniture brand, featuring a range of upholstered sofas, armchairs, ottomans and tables.
LUCTRA are dipping their toes in American waters, showing their luminaires in the Inscape showroom. The space is an immersive biophilic habitat with products and technologies that go beyond the usual green walls and large windows – with the biodynamic LUCTRA luminaires adding plenty to the environment (no pun intended). For the record, we love the RockIt Bench!
So, Chicago doesn’t disappoint. Then again, Chicago never disappoints. We meet up with the guys from Hunters, The Furniture Practice, Senator, PwC’s Carl Gearing, Jones & Partners, BDP’s Mark Simpson, Knoll’s David Cunningham, the aforementioned Mark Bailey…European influence everywhere!