Held every June since 1969 at theMART (previously The Merchandise Mart) in Chicago, NeoCon is billed as “the commercial design industry’s launch pad for innovation – offering ideas and introductions that shape the built environment today and into the future.”
More than 500 companies, ranging from leading manufacturers to emerging companies, showcase their products and services in categories including furniture, fabrics, flooring, interior building products, interior finishes and technology. Attendees shop manufacturer showrooms (open to the trade throughout the year) and exhibitor spaces (temporary set-ups) located on eight of the building’s 25 floors. When it was built in 1930, the Merchandise Mart was the largest building in the world with 4.2 million square feet of floor space. Like theMART and its host city, NeoCon is a big and dramatic show where exhibitors have the opportunity to make a splash if they can cut through the noise.
Although the assortment of products and solutions at NeoCon is incredibly broad, some high-level themes emerged for us as we walked the show.
Acoustic Privacy: Driven by the pitfalls of the open office designs common today, products for acoustic privacy were “everywhere.”
Modular Solutions: Products, systems and collections that could easily be reconfigured to work in different ways are improving in function and design while continuing to grow in popularity.
Space Dividers and Screens: Beyond just contributing to acoustic privacy, screens of all sizes are being used as section dividers for work and seating areas, meeting spaces, and more. The variety of colors, shapes and designs continues to rapidly expand.
Collaboration Enablers: Many furniture collections incorporated design expressly for enhancing work environments for greater collaboration.
Adjustable-Height Tables and Desks: Motorized adjustment mechanisms operate quietly and smoothly with controls subtly built into surfaces.
what we saw
First, a caveat. We did not spend much time at the show studying large, well-represented product categories such as textiles, commercial carpeting and flooring, desk chairs and seating, educational and healthcare solutions.
The commercial furnishings industry leaders all occupy large showrooms where they each reveal new introductions and featured collections. Haworth, Herman Miller, Steelcase and OFS all occupy sprawling showrooms with their newest products on display as crowds of designers, buyers, sales reps and executives buzz around excitedly.
Steelcase featured several exciting introductions. One that got a lot of attention was a collection named “Flex,” a moveable presentation room system.
Herman Miller, a perennial office furnishings powerhouse, caught many people off guard by featuring mostly residential room settings. Without explanation about the products settings and displays, the showroom and theme appeared somewhat inconsistent with NeoCon in general.
Modular solutions are not new but companies continue to enhance offerings with new looks and updates. Modular solutions often include privacy screens.
Acoustic privacy was huge this year with producers large and small introducing products and collections. The privacy seating shown here is from Jasper Group.
Space dividers and privacy screens are being incorporated into various settings where you may not have expected them to be in the past, like in this Hue Seating collection (high seating for small spaces) by NaughtOne, a Herman Miller company.
Height-adjustable tables and desks were featured in most showrooms that offered desks and workstations. Adjustable height is a part of most collections, and is now common to the office furniture offering.
We were very interested to see the BuzziSpace presentation and had some preconceived ideas of what we’d see in their showroom. We walked in expecting BuzziSpace products and solutions that were aligned with the product design direction we have always seen from them, but we were surprised to see a very, very different design approach.
Knoll, another major commercial furnishings producer, did the unheard of last year and moved out of theMART to a remote showroom location. Additionally, after 51 consecutive years in the same showroom in theMART, this NeoCon was Herman Miller’s last in the building. That’s actually big news considering Herman Miller has essentially held a monopoly on prime showroom space on the third floor for more than half a century.
the seventh floor
The seventh floor is where suppliers to the industry exhibit their materials, components, products or services in generally small display spaces or booths. Interestingly, their target customers are in their showrooms on other floors of theMART. Many of the people walking around the seventh floor are other suppliers, including competitors, and even suppliers-to-suppliers. We debated if an investment in an exhibit space and products to display on the seventh floor would be beneficial in building awareness and credibility as a supplier to the industry, or if the resources spent to have the exhibitor presence would be mostly enjoyed by competitors and potential suppliers. As a supplier to office furniture manufacturers, it’s questionable if the expensive exhibit space, energy and resources put towards a display would be effective at gaining the exhibitor any new prospective customer opportunities.
NeoCon is a product-driven show.
Most of the exhibitors do not display a full range of products to show off their complete capabilities or offerings. Instead, most of them try to create industry buzz with new collections, designs, technologies and styles. It’s a bit of a gamble but is a show strategy followed by many, if not most, of the NeoCon exhibitors. As a product-driven show, it’s a very visual show and the busiest showrooms are, in some way, a feast for the eyes. For the uninitiated, NeoCon can be overwhelming.
The open office is a failure.
Introduced years ago (think about the secretarial pools of the 1940s) and continually refined since, the open-office concept was supposed to multiply a company’s internal employee collaboration, which would, in turn, boost employee creativity and productivity. However, studies show that the open-office concept is generally a failure. Employees do not favor these loud, distracting, stressful, non-private spaces. In fact, according to Fast Company, research shows that people who work in open-office spaces take “two-thirds more sick leave and report greater unhappiness, more stress, and less productivity than those with more privacy. A 2018 study by Harvard Business School found that open offices reduce face-to-face interaction by about 70% and increase email and messaging by roughly 50%, shattering the notion that they make workers collaborative.” Many current studies draw the same conclusions.
Privacy is back.
Responding to market demand, office furnishings manufacturers have made multi-million dollar investments in producing collections that support the open-office environment. Now that the verdict in basically in that open-office environments don’t work as promised, the producers are creating ways to quickly reintroduce privacy and acoustic management into the modern open-office environment to address the most pressing needs or pain points. As it turns out, it’s still less expensive for companies to furnish open-office environments than to build interior offices with walls, lighting, electrical, HVAC and more. A big question is if the customer stakeholders (C-suite, architects, engineers, commercial interior designers, human resource professionals and workplace strategists) will go along with a slow evolution of the workplace away from the currently pervasive open-office environment, thus allowing office furniture producers to strategically evolve their offerings and investments. What could the impact be if major companies quickly divided up significant amounts of open spaces and rendered major office furniture collections essentially obsolete?
What is the next step?
Four of the five themes listed at the beginning of this opinion piece are office furniture product solutions whose success is dependent on the need created by the open-office environment (acoustic privacy, modular solutions, space dividers/screens, collaboration enablers.) It seems a little bit like addressing symptoms rather than a cause. Is it possible that Herman Miller’s display of comfortable and functional furniture in inviting, individual room settings exemplifies a strategy to (re)establish their position as an “office furniture” producer and signal a small step away from the open-office environment?
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary leaders and flexible strategies. And where there is chaos or change, there is always opportunity. You can tell a lot about a company and their leadership by observing how they navigate through tough, uncertain, out-of-the-ordinary times.
We need to be more focused and creative in leading the development of workforce solutions. The challenge is to find motivated workers and convince them of a career in construction, offering opportunities for on-the-job training.