If you were anywhere near NeoCon 50 and the Chicago Merchandise Mart (the Mart) last week, you would have been hard-pressed to miss the International Interior Design Association’s (IIDA) mobile truck taking the show’s golden anniversary to the streets. As the global commercial interior design profession’s premier association, IIDA’s powerful message on wheels, “Design Is Everywhere,” exemplified the profound impact the design industry has on the interconnected aspects of our lives—home, work and community. With the roving design van as a symbol of the industry’s growth, it appears that NeoCon, at age fifty, has matured. More than showcasing innovative physical environments and on-trend products and services, organizations and corporations are broadening their reach with an inclusive message: It’s about discovering how design theory and practice can implement advocacy and empowerment of marginalized citizens, the potential of youth, social equality, creative opportunities, and collaborative learning within intergenerational and multicultural communities. IIDA’s truck was a welcoming prelude to the celebration of one of the oldest and most significant expositions at the forefront of the contract interior industry.
At its inception in 1969, NeoCon, the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings, was developed to connect the commercial interior design profession and the contract furnishings market with the burgeoning design needs of corporate America. With its celebrated architectural legacy, modern infrastructure improvements, and welcoming attitude, Chicago provided a centralized location for mega-firms to carve out identities in the heartland. The majestic and expansive Merchandise Mart, with over four-million-gross square feet of space, was poised to take on a plethora of furniture manufacturer tenants, exhibitors and trade shows and became the trailblazer promoting innovation in manufactured products and services. (For years, the Mart boasted its own zip code.) NeoCon evolved with the design community by incorporating special events, developing educational programs, and becoming a collective forum for critical design thinking.
Meanwhile, true to form, this year The Mart staged an impressive menu of events, educational seminars, product launches and keynote presentations. Synchronous with the usual commercial extravaganza emerged concurrent trends in environmental well-being and social equality.
Here’s a closer look at the highlights of this year’s showcase.
With quiet fanfare, the community-centered Inspiration Awards program packed a mighty punch. Presented by Contract Magazine in partnership with Tarkett manufacturing, the awards focused on socially responsible environments. Open School East Campus (OSE) by Holst Architecture was a standout. This college prep school in the Rockwell neighborhood of East Portland, Oregon, provides a safe and inspiring, alternative learning environment to struggling middle and high school students from six districts. Recognizing that overly punitive measures in a traditional school setting can channel certain youth into a cycle of negative outcomes, the program’s focus is to proactively identify youth that are at risk for dropping out and to provide students with a positive learning environment through both the physical space and the teaching methodology. Open School’s model hinges on “advocacy, equity and vigorous academics” and recognizes student diversity, youth empowerment, academic potential in a supportive nurturing environment. The architecture encourages collaboration with its vast bleacher-stair in the center of the building providing a place for impromptu activities and building community relationships. Terry Johnson, the nonprofit education organization’s executive director, expressed the most compelling benefit of the school’s design, “There’s a direct relationship to the designed environment and the students’ understanding that they can be somebody.” Johnson says, “ Every classroom has a photo of a social justice hero. We teach the kids that we are advocating for them and also teach them to advocate for themselves to foster future community leaders.” In 2014, Open School East began with a class of forty-seven students; now this innovative school anticipates serving 270 students by 2019.
As defined by Oxford Dictionary, a makerspace is a collaborative work space inside a school, library or public-private facility or business for making, learning, exploring and sharing. In their NeoCon presentation, “Makerspaces: From Elementary Schools to Workplace Environments,” Stantec’s building group practice articulately discussed the evolution of makerspaces and their unique characteristics. They identified several distinct makerspace types: Discovery Lab, Fabrication Lab (Fab Lab), Industrial Manufacturing and Co-working-Incubator. The Fab Lab appeared to best integrate business stakeholders with secondary or higher education programs, incorporating opportunities for independent building work and collaborative experiences with mentorship. Stantec’s team described their research findings: “A fabrication lab often serves as academic support at a secondary or higher education facility, although it may be open to all students outside of class times, or in a public access setting. As such, it often supports specific course work or may be integrated as a part of a career and technology or vocational building. These makerspaces can have dedicated staff and may have partnered with a local business for additional support and community connection.”
Creativity and team-working was spilling out of a makeshift studio on the Mart’s bustling sixth floor as nearly sixty students from over fifty college and university design programs were on the home stretch to finish an IIDA-lead Student Design Charette. Co-sponsored by industry manufacturing leaders Herman Miller, Wallcovering Association and DIRTT, the student workshop provided a platform for collaboration, research, creative problem-solving and presentation within the context of NeoCon. IIDA student engagement manager Ryan Ben says, “This is a tangible opportunity for students to create and express design. Many of these students have never been to NeoCon, and they are formed into teams on-site with the design problem.” The Design Charette serves as a small capsule to introduce students to all the resources and mentoring opportunities that a program like NeoCon can offer, and the excitement of the show and the possibilities within the industry can inspire careers.
NeoCon showcased more than 500 companies covering innovative commercial interior design products and services. Superb engineering, exquisite craftsmanship, and human-centric, well-being attributes led the trends. Among the successful product launches, ergonomics pioneer Humanscale introduced a new monitor arm support with modular adjustable links and quick-release features. It was inviting to fidget with the components and try out the Smart Stops to effortlessly fix monitor positions. The arm is seamlessly compatible with the new M/Connect split-dock technology creating a functionally elegant, integrated monitor arm and docking station.
Another trend throughout the show was enclosed, standalone privacy spaces across a wide range of industry markets with a need for focused tasks and acoustic privacy. Framery’s O and Q Pods are exceptionally detailed for high acoustic performance and comfort; options include a single user pod with a stool and cantilever table, a two-person pod, and this year’s four-to-six person launch, available furnished or unfurnished. These sound-isolated environments can be easily delivered, assembled and relocated. The air distribution, acoustic and lighting engineering have been designed for optimal efficiency.
The popularity in setting up shop in repurposed buildings isn’t waning for hospitality and workplace environments. Often adverse noise and lighting conditions are key factors affecting comfort. Luceplan, a leader in direct and ambient lighting technology created an integrated lighting and acoustic range of products. For enhancements to these product solutions, they introduced Trypta by Stephen Burks. Three high-performance acoustic panels are positioned along a two-inch suspended cylindrical aluminum body that houses LED direct and indirect light. The resulting integrated lighting and acoustic technology offers a vertical geometric configuration suitable for environments with lofty height in private and public settings.
The social impact platform was alive and well with NeoCon’s key speakers, as Carol Ross Barney described in her presentation “Future Cities: Creating Livable Environments.” Stepping outside the Mart, one of Ross Barney Architects’ transformative projects is visible on the south bank of the Chicago River—a continuous, pedestrian-friendly path of spaces and activities engages both residents and visitors at the water’s edge. The vista of the modern riverfront from a lookout perch between the sculptures of Chicago entrepreneurs from another era, aka the “Pez Heads,” brought the IIDA truck’s message home: “Design (really) Is Everywhere.”