WHAT’S HAPPENING IN CHICAGO?
Neocon came in with a bang, and went out on Wednesday with a whimper. There were the usual massive crowds on Monday and on Tuesday morning when it seemed as if the guys running office furniture companies were the most popular people in the world. Everyone wanted to talk to them. It’s not always like that.
Although the Mart reported that advance registrations were up 21% from 2013, visitor numbers seemed slightly down. That may have the weather, which was dismal; dreary, chilly, windy and very damp. Not the usual Chicago June at all. Spirits weren’t depressed though. There was just as much whooping and hollering as ever down the Mart’s corridors as old friends were reacquainted and exchanged promises to meet for drinks or meals.
This show is a marvellous anachronism in the days when so much else is bland and disciplined and regulated and organised. Other exhibitions are based on rectangular grids that can be marched up and down with ruthless, military-like, efficiency by trooping up one aisle and down the next. Never let it be said that getting around Neocon is easy! Old lags revel in their skill in conquering its quirkiness. Typical is the early Monday morning elevator charge to the 11th to then work your way down the show floors using the back stairs. Later, using the elevators to go down six floors just because you really want to go up from 7 to 8! The diagonal corridors criss-crossing each other often defeat even some of the most experienced veteran visitors who walk for hundreds of yards only to find themselves right back where they started. All that is just part of Neocon’s charm which needs to be fostered and nurtured. Who wants bland and boring!
Most exhibiting companies push the boat out, and spend small fortunes on showroom refits, fresh displays, new products and marketing. To achieve a reasonable return on their investments, the show needs to be long enough to allow visitors the time to access the people they want to see. The executives of the exhibiting companies have often been at the Mart since the Saturday, supporting and guiding the troops and in meetings. Come Tuesday afternoon, it’s understandable if they need to get back to their offices, so Tuesday afternoon is quiet and Wednesday is dead. That means the show really only lasts just over a day and a half. Nowhere near long enough.
One idea would be to recognise that lots of business goes on while the final touches are being made to showrooms and booths on the Sunday, and to advance the opening by one day. The show would then run from Sunday (starting at say 11am) until Wednesday which would give participating companies a better chance to recover their costs and visitors a fair opportunity of seeing who and what they need.
As to discernible trends, there seemed to be a number of consistent messages. Height adjustability has arrived in the US with a vengeance. Hardly a casegoods manufacturer managed to avoid including one in their displays and some, Steelcase for example, showed them in serried ranks. Competition was about how smoothly the top travelled, the extent of the range of travel, the weight the mechanism could support and even how the floppy control switch wouldn’t trap fingers (Herman Miller).
The Stir Kinetic Desk from Stir in California even had a IPhone type controller built into the top surface which personalised the mechanism to the height and weight of the user and moved the top slightly every so often to remind him to keep moving around!
This apart, there seemed little in the way of any new workstation-related developments which left manufacturers showing derivatives of past products. However, one common theme from the majors including Teknion and Steelcase was a perceived return to individual offices. Teknion’s approach had a residential flavour with warm colours and wood veneers while Steelcase showed a multi-purpose variation of a cellular office, which included a collaboration area. This doubled up as a team area when the boss was away. Surely it’s a retrograde step to think about reverting to hierarchical styled offices, where some have their private spaces, after spending the past ten years or so driving towards the great communications and collaboration fostered by offices which, apart from meeting and interview rooms, are almost totally open plan.
Breakout areas were well catered for with pods and other informal groupings of low level seating and tables surrounded by screens or other dividers. Okamura showed their attractive Muffle arrangement.
Herman Miller’s showroom was colourful and welcoming with products that were generally more evolutionary than revolutionary. Their new Eames-esque tables, with imaginative top shapes, and chairs, were attractive.
Alessandro Piretti, son of Giancarlo, showed his new Variable side chair for Teknion which developed the ideas first seen in the 1970s and 80s.
KI won Gold for Trellis, a low panel designed to carry cables to height adjustable workstations
There were the usual crop of new task chairs, many of which featured exposed mesh covered plastic backs in white or black and a wide variety of ergonomic arguments to support the functions provided by the shapes, articulation and controls of each. Okamura launched a brand new task chair, Sylphy, from the company’s in-house design team.
The 7th and 8th floors of the Mart had been reorganised to group exhibitors into some semblance of order but the logic defeated most visitors. Half the 8th floor was blocked off and unused. There were plenty of companies from Asia showing their wares but quite how they expected to achieve sales without dealers or reps was a bit of a mystery. Large handwritten signs indicating product prices taped onto products didn’t add to their attraction. Amongst various innovative offerings, electronic acoustical masking and induction charging systems for handheld devices and laptops, including Aircharge, featured widely.
One unusual product was the FreedMan chair from UK osteopath, Simon Freedman based on his own knowledge of anatomy. Made principally from die cast aluminium, this small and surprisingly comfortable, chair forces the user to adopt a correct posture.
The massive highly polished trucks from Hon, Herman Miller, Steelcase and others were missing this year, replaced by colourful banners. Not quite the same thing really.
And for next year? Unlike in the past, the question marks over Neocon appear to have disappeared and no one has serious doubts that it will continue to thrive. Unlike its European counterparts – Orgatec, Milan and others – much of Neocon’s success is undoubtedly due to the 100% commitment it receives from every major North American office furniture manufacturer, and so long as that continues, this delightful, informative, exciting and idiosyncratic show will go on.
Written by John Sacks
All Images © JSA Consultancy Services 2014