Despite the soft economy, 2008 NeoCon exhibitors found plenty to be optimistic about. While attendance was slightly down, Chicago's Merchandise Mart was buzzing with activity, and several manufacturers invested in new showrooms and launched new product lines.

Flexible design and functional components that can move across a business or institution was a key theme this year. "We have become much more modular," says Chuck Mueller, brand manager, Haworth. "We'll never have the exact configuration that people want. The industry is drifting either to a high-end, customizable product or a commodity product that offers very little choice. We've tried to design components so they can be easily customized."

Creating a flexible system that can adapt to the ever-changing business landscape, Herman Miller added four auxiliary products to its Geiger International Caucus table line. The Caucus lectern incorporates a wood-topped acrylic section that lifts off its wood base for use directly on a table. Removable built-in shelves can support large laptop computers, and the pieces have built in cord management and connectivity support for power, data, voice, video and USB.

Open work spaces

Slaving away for eight-plus hours in a closed off 12 x 12 foot cube is giving way to open, team-oriented work environments.

"Offices are becoming more open and people are working together rather than working alone," says Sarah Witman, public relations for Turnstone. "I' space is giving way to we' space, which encourages open communication and easy access."

Increasing user functionality was the battle cry for Turnstone's Tour line upgrades. Its four main components can be configured into more than 40 combinations, which allow users to quickly reconfigure pieces to fit their needs. "Some of the upgrades include high and low working heights, easily movable screens and incorporating technology into component design," says Witman.

Partial height furniture panels separating workstations is one way manufacturers are creating collaborative workspaces. Knoll's Dividends Horizon collection brings employees together and focuses on capturing available light using translucent panels. "We're thinking of ways to bring transparency into the work environment," says David Bright, vice president communications for Knoll. The system also features a new approach to storage.

"Storage towers, sliding door overheads and sliding door overdesks create graphic workstation geometry while fulfilling multiple storage requirements for a modern office," says Bright.

As the United States embraces open work spaces, European offices are taking the idea a step further with benching. "Benching, a decade-old concept, is based on the idea of people working at big benches and tables to maximize light," says Bright. "It's more eco-friendly because you don't use panels or walls."

Market-focused design

Specialized industries such as healthcare and education are looking for furniture tailored to their specific needs. "We understand the need of our core markets of healthcare, education, government and business and design products and components that can adapt to their parameters," says Mike Tennity, vice president of design and development for KI. "We're willing to work with customers to create custom pieces which have turned into 20 percent of our business."

This year KI released Aristotle, a modular laminate casegoods line with solid and wood grain surfaces that can be mixed and matched to create a two-tone look. "Aristotle offers different component sizes and shapes and can be integrated with our existing lines," says Tennity.

KI also released a bariatric seating line for people who weigh up to 750 pounds called Arissa. "The old paradigm was to take an existing furniture design, make it 30 inches wider and beef up the frame to handle the extra weight," says Tennity. "This seating collection is more natural and organic and features higher back angles, raised arm heights and no pinch points. A person of any size would look natural and feel comfortable."

Sustainable products, processes

As green processes and products become more mainstream, customers are expecting sustainable options when purchasing furniture and components.

Knoll offers its Morrison line with a Techgrain work surface and trim option that uses the fast-growing Obeche tree. The manufacturer maximizes the yield from each trunk though a precise lay-up and cutting process.

That new furniture smell might become a thing of the past. Recently Haworth changed its finishing process in its Calgary and Michigan plants from formaldehyde-based chemicals to water-based finishes.

"By putting in this system, we've reduced VOCs by 280 tons per year," says Mueller. The water-based finish is instantly cured using an ultraviolet light, and any formaldehyde is literally sealed into the piece. "Now, when someone opens a new cabinet they won't smell anything or get a head rush," he says.

Going green requires changing manufacturing processes which can be difficult to implement at first, comments Thomas Reardon, executive director for the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association. "If done right in the long run, green will become more efficient and will require fewer resources, which means reducing costs," he says.

Economic influences

Even in a mixed bag economy, Julie Smith, senior public relations administrator for Haworth, commented that the company has seen a record number of requests for proposal. "Customers are waiting for some positive economic signs before pulling the trigger on an order," says Smith.

According Reardon, the office furniture industry is flat compared to last year. "The forecast says the industry was to decline 6 to 7 percent in 2008, and I think that is a bit pessimistic at this point," he says. "I think the industry will see negative growth this year but it's more around 2 to 3 percent. So far the economy is holding up fairly well, but manufacturers are cautious about the future."

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