Given the current state of the economy, a visit to the  NeoCon World's Trade Fair was affirming. The show is held at Chicago's Merchandise Mart and features the newest designs in contract furniture for office, hospitality, health care, government and institutional environments.

This was my first visit to NeoCon in a few years. This has been considered one of the best trade show/meeting assignments among our editors, so others have drawn this duty and enjoyed it.

Overall, there were few signs of the recession. Larger companies, the flagships of the office and contract fleet, were able to turn up the wattage and create a buzzing hives of activity.

In the workstation area, white and lighter colors were popular. More different materials were combined, and less wood was visible in many products. High tech-looking translucents and plastics seemed too space age to store a lowly file folder. And don't worry, green isn't going away. The companies may not be banging the green drum, but they can tell you the materials that are used, where they came from, and where they're going when the product ends its life.

A TV screen asked: "Where is work going?" Well, it's going home. One collection that caught my eye was  Coalesse's Denizen casegoods collection, which had attractive multipurpose features that would work in a home office or an apartment living room. Desks, tables and storage units can be used for several different jobs.

How about powered furniture? Powermat showed its new wireless-energy products. Users can charge iPods, iPhones, Blackberry, mobile phones and laptop computers by placing them on a tray. A joint venture with Teknion Corp. is embedding the energy transfer process into furniture. It can also be used in cabinets, walls or other surfaces.

One of the components of universal design is bariatric furniture (where else can you use the word "morbidly obese"?) One of the market leaders in this area is KI, and we had an interesting discussion of the health care market and the Arissa Collection, designed for individuals up to 750 pounds. This line is made in High Point and features plywood and solid wood construction.

Pull up a task chair  

Seating is always an important part of the contract mix, and we sat down on the job a few times. Knoll was featuring a battalion of new Generation chairs in its large showroom.

Recognized at the show was the SP chair from Itoki Design which I tested. It uses elastomers and an interactive lumbar support that pushes forward as you sit down.

Also recognized was Sedia Systems' Turner is a multi-pivot fixed seat that swivels and tilts, allowing more room in a classroom. And I tried out Tayco's attractive Kruze chair, which was awarded for its design and green features.

Lightweight panels may not be as sexy as a new task chair, but the new Avian board is a thicker panel designed to reduce weight in large displays and trade show booths. The panels were light enough to be used in a television entertainment center that hung from the ceiling in Avian's booth.

Anyone for some cardboard furniture? It doesn't get more green than this. Vancouver-based  Molo Design displayed giant expandable cardboard "softblocks," disks to sit on, snake-like "softwall" partitions. It's not going to replace a comfy chair, but it looks cool.

Overall, there was no shortage of designs and interesting ideas, and that is a good sign for this industry.

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