In an industry dominated by deadlines, it’s important to take a step back and look at the big picture through a few different lenses.
NeoCon has been hosted in the Merchandise Mart since 1969, attracting designers from around the globe who make a pilgrimage to Chicago each year to see the latest corporate interiors product introductions, attend the numerous seminars, and connect with their peers. I first attended NeoCon in the late 1980s with the bright enthusiasm of an emerging professional. Fast forward many years and I’ve been going frequently to speak, attend, and meet with my colleagues during the show’s run.
Complaining about the stairs never gets old. “I attended my first NeoCon with another designer from IA several years ago and to avoid waiting for the super busy elevator each day we took the stairs up and down all day,” my colleague Anna shares. “The designer is known to be a slower walker than some. I basically dragged her up the stairs yelling at her (in a nice way) to walk faster.”
When we talk about NeoCon—or Milan, Orgatec, or any of the industry trade shows—I have heard many of my colleagues bemoan that NeoCon is just a furniture show, that there isn’t all that much value in today’s super connected world, and sum it up as a waste of time. I find that NeoCon remains relevant to me in my pursuit of continuing to inform and inspire the work that I do in workplace design strategy. I make an effort to connect with key vendors and line up showroom tours to learn about the new products.
What makes this relevant? Frequently, I have observed that the tours build a theme for the show, and the industry of workplace at large. What are the new products solving for? What research was the genesis for a line of products? During a recent year many furniture manufacturers showcased seating with fabric-wrapped high backs and arms to create acoustic cocoons – I dubbed this the “Cone of Silence” year – designed in response to the lemming migration of imbalanced open office planning. What mainstream and business media have dubbed as a backlash against the open office was forecasted through the collections of furniture launched at NeoCon.
Often during individual tours, I meet product designers or researchers who can talk about how their product is responding to a need derived through surveys, research, and talking to design peers. These connections are valuable to me and I can follow up on what piques my curiosity. Our clients often have issues or areas of import that dovetail with a designer’s story or, worse, have been misinformed about a particular issue. Speaking to the designer of a particular product is a great way to separate myth from fact. And as data continues to drive how we design the workplace, gathering the right kind of information, from the right places—and where better than the horse’s mouth—is paramount to our process.
I also take tours on my own through showrooms that are off the beaten path, sometimes finding some very interesting products and ideas that the major lines aren’t showing. One such showroom was displaying an LED bench that altered color along its serpentine form. I thought that an intriguing idea: Could it respond to mood? Could LED’s message I’m busy or come sit and talk to me? Is furniture the next messaging system for inter-office communication?
There is much that can be derived from attending NeoCon—and most any event that others are inclined to push out of vogue. You have to have a strategy, an open mind, and very comfortable shoes.