Visit NeoCon, but Chicago has become a tale of two venues

NeoCon may not be the only show in town now, but both it and Design Days are must attend events in the office design calendarChicago is a city which never fails to amaze whether you are visiting for NeoCon or for any other reason. It’s the epitome of extroversion, with its magnificent architecture, larger than life people, almost constant, ear-splitting commotion and frantic comings and goings. Annual visits to the city invariably present a profusion of elegant new skyscrapers of different shapes, styles and colours, which seem to be trying to outdo each other. It’s as if Chicago is constantly trying to outperform all other cities, as well as its own past.

The weather this year veered haphazardly from very chilly, to baking hot, and rain appeared every so often, as if trying to spoil the outdoor activities. Prices have risen steeply in the past year, just as they have in many other parts of the world, and for the visitor from overseas, Chicago now feels like an expensive place to visit with taxis, meals, drinks and pretty much everything else appearing very pricey.

Although there are bicycles and scooters in evidence, their numbers haven’t yet reached London’s epidemic proportions, and despite the absence of police on the streets, there seems to be a tendency for their riders to obey the rules of the road.

Maybe it’s just in the Summer, but Chicago takes its entertainment very seriously with an abundance of festivals and music in the parks, including the annual four-day free Blues Festival, the largest of its type in the world.


The Shows

Although the Neocon show at the Merchandise Mart is thriving, with a record number of exhibitors and visitors, the character of the event has changed somewhat, with the formation of a breakaway show, Design Days. This has involved a relatively small number of some of the larger companies, including Humanscale, Teknion, Kimball, Teknion and Miller Knoll, having moved out of the Mart and set up showrooms about a mile away in the West Fulton Market district.  The only two of the very largest companies still remaining in the Mart are Steelcase and Haworth. Steelcase are rumoured to be planning to move in the Spring of 2025.

West Fulton Market area

Although the companies that have moved have gained by taking more of the type of space they prefer, they may have missed out by not being able to share the infrastructure the Mart brings in terms of talks, discussions, events, awards and entertainment, as well as the sense of real excitement created by so many thousands of visitors.  It should also be said that having to travel between two venues makes life for the visitor more difficult.

This year, the Mart was as busy and exciting as any in pre-Covid times, with the corridors, and many of the showrooms being packed, and with long lines for elevators, especially on Monday and Tuesday. The talks and presentations were well-attended, and the many dozens of parties were very jolly. You can see news of the Award winners here.


Themes and Trends

The pandemic led to more working from home and hybrid working. This encouraged many employers fighting against that trend to adopt a more homely look and feel for their offices, the idea being that if furnishings at home and in the office were similar to each other, it could increase the attractiveness of office working. The effect of this on office furniture and furnishings was clearly apparent with most companies showing much more lounge furniture than workstations, task chairs or office storage products.

Mobility and flexibility were seen by many companies as being a requisite for today’s offices. The ability to arrange and rearrange furniture was applied to tables, screens, pouffes and pods – pretty much everything.

Sustainability was emphasised and promoted as an integral part of corporate culture, for example by Haworth, with this display.

And by Senator, with this sustainability presentation of the various materials they use in manufacturing their products.

Okamura’s robot man was demonstrating a new polymer-based material said to be a 97% recyclable replacement for traditional upholstery foam.


Shapes were generally more rounded, and lines softer. Colours were homely and earthy. Tactility was  important, with surfaces that felt attractive. Desks have increasingly given way to enclosures, designed for individual working, or for small collaborative groups, or those involved in presentations. Judging by the products in showrooms, there have been important improvements in the way pods have developed, with improved ventilation and lighting, and the incorporation of more advanced technology, especially to help with video meetings and presentations.

Different companies’ approaches to managing acoustic issues could be seen around the show, and not just from the specialists. Egan Visual’s Hoody sound solution was just one example.



The companies and their products

KI’s large showroom was helpfully divided into sections, either to highlight the sector, such as education, or here the flexibility and sustainability of using mobile Meeting Pods 2 made from patterned, textured PET, for small meetings, or to allow for individual concentration.

3H, from Liskeard in Ontario, specialise in panel-based furniture including executive workstations such as this, which they were showing in their 3rd floor showroom.

Another executive workstation setting was this, from Enwork, headquartered in Kent County, Michigan

Dauphin, from Offenhausen in Germany, are best known for their task and executive seating, but in line with current market trends, showed these 4+ Relax chairs.

Designer Nathalie Van Reeth was commissioned by the long-established Belgian manufacturer, Bulo – back at the Mart after a break of many years – to help with the Senses range of workstations they were showing. Some of the older industry lags were reminded of President Office Furniture’s Kyo range, which won a Neocon Gold award in 1992.

Extremis are another Belgian company, this time from Poperinge. They showed their patented A Frame table system, AMAi, suitable for indoor or outdoor use, including possible commercial applications.

Steelcase presented the Fuuga armchair range and these, acoustically protected, personal workspaces

Kettal, based in Barcelona, Spain, worked with the Japanese designer, Naota Fukasawa to create this Range table system.

Boss Design, from Dudley in the UK are one of the long-established companies in the Mart. Noted for their high quality design, and well regarded by the A&D community, they showed their Bodie sofa collection.

The fast-growing Lithuanian manufacturer, Narbutas, picked up on the show’s theme of homely furniture for corporate interiors with this attractive setting.

One notable departure from trend was Haworth’s emphasis on task chairs, including the Breck range from Haworth Design Studio, shown here.

One colourful company showing on floor seven was Behr, a paint company from Santa Ana, California. Using a variation on the original Painting By Numbers idea, filling in the blanks on the bear proved to be very popular.

The large, attractive Andreu World showroom had very effectively upgraded their showroom lighting.  Their policy of working with some of the world’s leading designers allowed them to feature a programme of well-attended talks and presentations, including from Patricia Urquiola who designed their Brezal Collection, shown here.

BuzziSpace is now part of the Haworth group of companies and their showroom displayed good examples of how control of acoustics could be intelligently incorporated into many aspects of corporate furnishings.

The combined Allermuir and Senator showroom had a strong emphasis on their sustainability credentials, as well as showing new products from leading designers, including this, their new Contour range, from Pearson Lloyd.

The Swedish company, Mizetto, worked with designer Addi to create this casual seating, range, Lumber.

Last year, Davis moved to a new corporate HQ in High Point, North Carolina, designed by Bob Bazemore and the Davis Design Team, and located alongside their manufacturing facility. They were showing a new shelving system, Vida, from designer Hanne Willmann.

Paul Crofts and Nick Walsh, founders of the Cheshire, UK business Isomi, picked up a Neocon Gold Award for their Layer reception desk.

Designers Basaglia and Rota Nodari created this beautiful bench system, Sierra015, for ViaSeating, based in Sparks, Nevada.

Ghent from Lebanon, Ohio, manufacturers of whiteboards, glass boards and bulletin boards, presented some interesting and imaginative products, including this space divider system.

SixInch, the foam furniture manufacturer from Antwerp in Belgium, went rather wild with the design for their showroom which attracted plenty of attention.


Design Days

Part of the MillerKnoll combined showroom in West Fulton Market.

Teknion’s move to Fulton Market provided an opportunity to establish a very spacious and sunny showroom space divided into a number of large room settings. One of the areas was used to present their Expansion Cityline workstations.