Dilbert is out, says Dave Burdakin, president of HON Co. Office furniture manufacturers are moving away from traditional cubes and approaching work spaces in fresh new ways.

Noticeably absent at this year's NeoCon were opaque walls and cube-based layouts, the basis of years of jokes for office dwellers. In their place, manufacturers across the board introduced work spaces and furniture that made significant use of short walls, glass, mesh or transparent panels and asymmetrical shapes.

No more cubes

Two years of research conducted by HON indicate that American businesses are growing and hiring, but often not adding additional space because of budget constraints and economic uncertainty. As a result, companies are fitting more people into less space and searching for ways to accomplish that while still offering a comfortable work environment.

"Overall, we're seeing more use of glass in panel systems," Burdakin says. "There's clearly a move to get away from the traditional square 'Dilbert' cubicle."

HON introduced a thin-profile panel system at NeoCon called Sleek, which integrates with HON's best-selling Initiate panel system. Sleek panels come in three heights and have decorative top tiers available in clear glass, frosted glass and perforated metal. Panels are available with 120-degree connectors to create nonrectangular work spaces.

Easier communication

Steelcase Inc. launched Duo at NeoCon, which was shown as a concept in 2004. According to Jeanine Hill of Steelcase, the company developed Duo because 80 percent of an employee's work day is spent either by himself or herself or with one other person.

"We asked ourselves, Why hasn't anyone designed products to enrich that experience, to make it easier, to make it more effective and productive?' That was the thinking behind Duo," Hill says.

According to Hill, Steelcase researchers noticed that people in many office environments had conversations while standing and looking over their panel. Duo's response to this are workspace walls that are "transaction height," which allows people to communicate but still gives each person a wall high enough so that workspace items can be stacked or stored.

Another piece designed to enhance communication is Steelcase's Airtouch table. Its extended length allows for side-by-side work and moves to standing height at the touch of a lever. The table allows a user to easily stand and speak to someone as they approach, or simply accommodates the user's need to work standing or sitting.

Focus on chairs

Since the workforce spends a great deal of time sitting, it was no surprise to see several manufacturers focusing on stylish, comfortable and flexible seating options. KI's moderately priced Daylight chair won a Best of NeoCon Gold Award. "Daylight is one of the few high-density stack chairs in the contract furniture market that integrates both a mesh seat and a mesh back," says Brian Krenke, vice president, product marketing for KI. Daylight uses a translucent mesh and is extremely lightweight it can be stacked 50 high on a dolly.

Haworth Inc.'s Zodi chair won a Best of NeoCon Silver Award and boasts more features than most chairs in its price range, including adjustable asymmetrical back and lumbar support and multidirectional arms. The standard model has a mesh back, with a high-end option in leather.

HON introduced a nesting chair as part of its award-winning Perpetual line. The Perpetual line is a two-time winner of the Good Design Award from the Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design. "Customers are looking for flexibility," Burdakin says. "They want a training setup one day, and the next day they have conference table needs, so they want versatile furniture that they can push out of the way."

Perhaps the most unusual and interesting seating solution at NeoCon was Herman Miller Inc.'s Cella chair. Designed by Jerome Caruso for Herman Miller, Cella features cellular suspension that uses pliable molded polymer "cells" and loops to responsively flex in conjunction with the body's movements. The chair is available with a number of options, including breathable upholstery for the seat and back. Cella garnered a Best of NeoCon Innovation Award for Herman Miller.

Working with technology

NeoCon showed that many manufacturers are finding creative and interesting ways to integrate new technologies into the office environment.

Haworth's a_con conference table incorporates multimedia aspects as well as technology. The table has an electronic, extendable media projector and plug-in media ports that rotate according to users' needs. The table's modular design allows for several different arrangement options. "Multifunctional rooms are increasing as high-volume meetings with elaborate presentations often morph into small-team project groups," says Christine Stein, director of wood products at Haworth. "Today's organization needs a functional conference table that offers cutting-edge technology combined with modular versatility."

A_con's power and data communication modules allow users to plug in their laptops, handheld PDAs and IT connections. The table won a Best of NeoCon Gold Award.

KI showed a second-generation work table that was originally created in response to a need by Arizona State University to "lock down" laptop computers stored in student work tables. The original table created by KI featured a manual lock on each table. The second-generation table has a remote keyless lock that allows the professor to lock down an entire room's laptops at the touch of a button.

Although not a piece of furniture per se, Herman Miller's Babble unit received quite a bit of attention, including a Best of NeoCon Gold Award in Workplace Technologies. The desktop unit is designed to provide voice privacy in an open space. The unit plugs into a user's telephone and through a process of rearranging and multiplying phonemes in the user's voice, sends the conversation out through proprietary speakers and creates an indiscernible, low-volume group conversation.

Warmer woods

The use of light and mid-tone woods added to the upbeat feel of many offerings, and several industry spokespersons indicated there may be more use of warm woods ahead.

Mark Schurman of Herman Miller Inc. says that wood tones are shifting. "In general there's been a move to more neutrals champagnes and alpine whites. Designers are trying to strike a balance between a neutral that will work with a number of different elements but is still a little warmer and richer than the old slate-gray panel."

David Bright, vice president, communications for Knoll, echoes Schurman's sentiments. "All the woods are coming back. We're seeing the medium tones and the white. I think the warmth and the richness of the lighter or medium-brown tones is much more interesting."

At Steelcase, Hill says that their wood products have been and continue to be good sellers.

Teknion Corp. opted to line almost all of its NeoCon showroom product, including the walls, with pecan wood.

"Generally, customers are choosing lighter mid-tones in the woods," Burdakin says. "There's still demand for the traditional mahogany look, but I would say in total the lighter to mid-tones are the ones that are growing faster."

Robert Bockheim, president and COO of Nucraft Furniture Co., says the industry is moving through a course that will ultimately end with mid-tone woods. "We're definitely in transition right now," he says. "For the past year or 15 months, we've been transitioning away from clear maple. Maple is dead. What's replacing it is walnut. Brown walnut is the hot one this seems to be where it's going. It's a warm wood. The transition seems to be from maple to dark woods and then falling back to the medium tones."

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