By Matt Wornock and Andy Jenkins

This year’s NeoCon showcased innovative thinking and a bevy of new products and designs from some industry leaders.

Chicago’s Merchandise Mart was a bustle of activity on June 12-14, as crowds of designers, dealers, manufacturers and students previewed the latest in office furniture, interior design and facilities management systems. According to show management, attendance for NeoCon 2006 was approximately 50,493, with more than 1,200 exhibiting companies, a more than 15 percent increase in attendance from 2005.

“I think it's fair to say everyone commented that business seemed to be back on track in general and that attendance was substantially up,” said Mike Tennity, vice president of design and development for KI.

Wood & Wood Products also was at the show, battling through long lines at the elevators, talking to exhibitors and scoping out the latest trends. And while sustainability and green building continue to be office furniture’s hot-button topics, the overall health of the industry seemed to encompass a good deal of the show’s chatter.

Across the board, NeoCon 2006 looked to be the place, and time, for unveiling new products. Mark Kottman of Allsteel said the overall number of companies that brought new product lines to the show spoke loudly of the office furniture industry’s resurgence. Mark Schurman, of Herman Miller, agreed.

“What was perhaps most interesting to those observers outside of the industry was that these products have long lead times in terms of development, and given the industry’s difficult downturn in 2002 and 2003, I think it was evidence that we had continued to invest in the product development process, despite that hardship,” Schurman said.

Aside from acquainting visitors with new and existing products, the goal of NeoCon exhibitors was to effectively communicate with designers and specifiers throughout the industry.

“It’s the premiere event in terms of the gathering of the architectural and design community in North America,” said Schurman. “So, it’s a great opportunity to not only market to those folks with new products and existing products and capabilities, but to share knowledge as well.”

Richard Andersen, vice president of sales and marketing for Gunlocke, said that his company’s goals for the show all centered around engaging with clients and the architectural and design community as a whole.

A design trend that appeared to be blossoming at this year’s NeoCon was for manufacturers to mix various types of material into one piece of office furniture. Jeff Shellabarger, product business manager for The HON Company’s laminate casegoods products, says that mixed material solutions have become very prevalent throughout the industry.

“Laminate, metal, glass and veneer are all showing up on a single platform,” Shellabarger said. Andersen also noted wood veneers being paired with painted finishes, glass and even materials from 3form.

Many companies also used NeoCon to showcase some new and improved wood-based products. HON presented a laminate version of its Park Avenue collection of desks and chairs. Shellabarger predicted that laminate desks will be a growth category within the industry.

Schurman said that wood used in office systems helps designers move away from the stereotype of “lifeless” office furniture. Herman Miller’s new line, the My Studio System, was presented at NeoCon and won the Best of Show award.

“Part of the ambition of the design and the designer, Doug Ball, was to bring more elements into the workstation that spoke of a residential environment or a residential feel,” Schurman said. “So obviously, wood and wood finishes are one way to bring a degree of warmth and a less institutional feel.”

A Healthy Industry

Another of the themes at this year’s NeoCon was a focus on the healthcare market. Many companies are developing products to make the healthcare environment a more welcoming place for patients and their families.

“It has become such a talked about big business opportunity,” said Libby Ferin, director of Experience marketing and communications for Nurture by Steelcase. “I think the focus is very strong now on healthcare as a vertical market and separate function.”

Nurture, which made its debut at NeoCon, featured the Opus casegoods line. Opus combines freestanding casegoods with modular furniture.

Other lines displayed include Soltíce, a collection of healthcare furniture from KI, which features a variety of pieces, including an armless sleeper, patient chairs, bariatric seating, a recliner and a swivel glider. Globalcare, part of Global Industries, introduced the Patient Room Furniture System designed for acute care and long-term care facilities.

The healthcare industry will always have a need to fill patient rooms, doctors’ offices, nurses’ stations and other applications. Furniture manufacturers are seeking new ways to tap into this market and deliver products that improve patient care and functionality.

“Healthcare is recession proof,” said Brian Stoll, territory manager for Global USA. “The post 9/11 era has had a major negative impact on our industry. New furniture purchases in the private industry sector became nonexistent.

“Many manufacturers and distributors began to focus their efforts on a segment in areas such as healthcare and government, sectors that spend money year after year, regardless of what the economy is doing,” Stoll added.

“I think it’s a great time for healthcare and there are a lot of really great products out there,” said Ferin. “It’s really exciting for all of us to be able to, as competitors, see innovative features and products that we are all coming out with.”

A Change of Scenery

At the same time that green thinking in furniture design aims to improve the environment outside the office, some companies examined how they could change the environment within the office setting.

Haworth introduced Patterns, a collection designed to range from systems furniture to private offices to architecture. The set uses the form of a folded plane to create benches, desks, bookcases, storage and other applications in a variety of combinations.

“After listening to architecture firms, design firms and our customers, we realized that interiors are often designed to extremes: the efficient, traditional panel system landscape or a highly custom, less flexible, non-sustainable millwork application. Patterns offers the quality of sophisticated residential furniture to create an innovative office landscape,” said Franco Bianchi, president and CEO of Haworth.

Steelcase looked at the cubicle, creating 14 different configurations that addressed such issues as balancing privacy, collaboration, increasing approachability, brainstorming and inspiration.

The company set out to “create intriguing cubicle concepts that challenged the status quo in workspace design,” said Jeanine Holquist, press and public relations manager. The designs utilized different concepts and assorted components, including benches, storage, tabletops and space to alter the traditional eight by eight area for various uses.

“They (the customers) were also pleased that our cubicle concepts respected the fact that many of our customers are on limited budgets and are looking for ways to update and refresh their current products to reinvent their workplaces — our showroom opened their minds to new ideas,” added Holquist.

The Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago again hosted NeoCon in 2006. The building spans two city blocks and rises 25 stories, making it one of the largest trade centers in the world.
Nurture by Steelcase debuted at NeoCon. It focuses on the healthcare setting and displayed pieces like the Opus casegoods line, which are designed to configure to individual settings. Herman Miller’s My Studio System uses woodgrain patterns to add warmth to the office setting and take away the institutional feel.
Just Across the Street

In June of 2005, Kimball Office opened a LEED-CI certified showroom in downtown Chicago, kitty-corner to The Merchandise Mart. During NeoCon 2006, the company passed on show space at The Mart and elected to stay at home and wait for visitors to come to them.

“Our old showroom in the Mart adequately told the Kimball Office story, but it didn’t attract the traffic that we wanted,” said Russell Mitchell, director of A&D marketing for Kimball Office. “Now we have more open space, storefront windows, street-level access, and floor-to-ceiling windows that allow our name to be seen from both Wells Street and the Chicago River.”

According to Mitchell, the new location provided Kimball with one of the most successful show crowds that the company has ever seen.

“During NeoCon, our new Chicago space gives us more

flexibility in terms of the numbers and kinds of activities that we host. This year, we offered three continuing education courses, as well as presentations from two of our design partners and a variety of networking events,” Mitchell said.
Green was the theme at Haworth’s showroom, which featured Patterns, a collection that uses the form of a folded plane to create a variety of offerings.

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