NeoCon 2016 in Review

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Chair of the Month

Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie is a Workplace Consultant at Herman Miller and the former Editor of Work Design Magazine. She’s currently based in Pittsburgh.

Flex. Now watch me work. Our roundup of the furniture design trends we saw at NeoCon 2016.

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
The South Lobby at the Mart — kitted out by Herman Miller — braces for the over 53,000 attendees (up six percent from last year) who descended upon Chicago for NeoCon 2016. Photo by Fran Parente, courtesy of Herman Miller. Click the image for more details.

The excerpt above comprises lyrics from a not entirely safe for work song, and it was stuck in my head all week last week in Chicago (where – one hopes – everything we saw was, on the contrary, quite SFW). Because if the latest in contract furnishing is any indication, that’s pretty much all we’re going to be doing for the foreseeable future: Flexing. And watching people work.

Even with what seemed to be this year’s popular concessions to privacy across increasingly open floor plates — high-backed booths that look suspiciously like, well, restaurant booths, and mobile furniture (marker boards, carts, perches) that you can move around on casters to create “space within a space” — there’s no denying that almost all of the new products we saw have been designed to support work in an open space, and what’s more: impermanently so.

So whether you’re creating space for a startup with a short term lease, or for a big corporation experimenting with a more flexible environment (inspired by coworking, perhaps?), you’ve got a variety of new items to choose from that will roll — quite literally — with you. And if there was one constant across the board, it’s this: manufacturers are responding to the fact that work today is everything but a — apologies to Rae Sremmard — no flex zone.

Couldn’t resist. Scroll for five other big takeaways about the furniture design trends we spotted (and only one more song).

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
The buzz (and the long, annual lines for the elevators). Photo by Wittefini Photography, courtesy of Novità Communications.

On the tips of everyone’s tongue: Flexibility, mobility, community, and choice

Much of this is thought to be inspired by coworking — or at least the industry’s (and their clients’) impression of it.

“The words community and coworking were all over NeoCon this year,” Cheryl Durst, the executive vice president and CEO of IIDA, the International Interior Design Assocication, told us after the show. It seems, she added, that “large organizations want to create a coworking environment in their space.”

We’ve heard it too, and not just at NeoCon. Now that it’s a “thing”, the industry seems to be responding with the flexible, mobile, and — ok I’ll say it — less sturdy furniture we’ve come to associate with coworking spaces. We saw so many sawhorse-y, easel-like dry erase boards on wheels you’d be forgiven for mistaking the showrooms in the Mart for classrooms (which is another thing about coworking: it’s sort of how you worked in college). To wit:

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016

Links to the products pictured above:

  1. IdeaPaint’s Pivot, designed with Primo Orpilla and Uhuru Design. Photo by Jasper Sanidad.
  2. West Elm Workspace’s Industrial Rolling Presentation Board
  3. IdeaPaint’s Hive, designed with Primo Orpilla and Uhuru Design. Photo by Jasper Sanidad.
  4. An easel in the new Teknion Zones collection
  5. A presentation board from Herman Miller’s Exclave collection
  6. An imaginative rendering of a marker board in Knoll’s new Rockwell Unscripted collection

In a short presentation at the IdeaPaint installation on the first floor of the Mart, Primo Orpilla — co-founder of O+A and IdeaPaint’s partner in designing their three new mobile dry erase products  said he values furniture like this for its ability to create “space within a space”. Or, in IdeaPaint’s words: “Great ideas can come from anywhere. So these pieces go everywhere.”

In any case, we’ve reached peak open office, and another benefit of the ability of a marker board or a similar apparatus to moonlight as a mobile wall is that it confers the illusion of privacy on users (which, despite what people say, may be all we need to soothe our uneasiness about working in an open space).

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
The first floor IdeaPaint installation at NeoCon 2016, where the company partnered with designer Primo Orpilla of O+A and the master crafters at Uhuru Design to introduce three mobile new dry erase products. In the foreground is Pivot, a mobile whiteboard that converts to a bar height table with the press of a button. Behind it stands Hive, a new mobile dry erase board. And in the very back you see the Mobile ThinkTank, an ultralight camper, the interior of which is completely coated in dry erase paint. These three products represent IdeaPaint’s first foray into product design since the launch of their premium dry erase paint in 2008. Photo by Jasper Sanidad, courtesy of IdeaPaint.

Knoll turned heads, too, with their own big launch of Rockwell Unscripted, a furniture collection designed in collaboration with David Rockwell of Rockwell Group. And in the same vein as IdeaPaint’s mobile dry erase offerings, Unscripted’s slew of new steps, tables, and soft seating are complemented by a host of “borders” and mobile storage elements. The borders, according to Knoll, add visual and acoustic privacy, and also “define open-ended spaces, create a sense of discovery, and provide a richness of experience in a workplace that can transform in the moment and evolve over time”. The mobile storage elements serve “as an activator in the space, putting inspiration within reach by equipping workspaces with easy-access, object-based storage”.

Here’s a visual:

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
At top, Rockwell Unscripted’s border elements, from left to right, the Creative Wall, and the Puffy and Telly screens. Like IdeaPaint’s mobile dry erase boards, these can be easily moved and arranged in open areas to create space within a space. Below, Unscripted’s storage elements, including modular storage, credenzas and consoles, lockers, hospitality carts, and mobile storage carts. Images courtesy of Knoll.

The desired result is a more flexible work environment “that enables a variety of experiences and empowers users to transform their space at a moment’s notice, evolving it with use.” And here we’d be remiss not to give a shout out to Knoll’s latest white paper, “Immersive Planning”. In there, they describe five significant factors driving workplace thinking, all of which are addressed in one way or another by the Unscripted collection. And for more on Rockwell Unscripted, check out our pre-NeoCon (PreoCon?) product profile.

Great ideas can come from anywhere. So these pieces go everywhere.

Teknion showed up with sort of a “triple threat” as NeoCon reveals go, debuting not only their Zones collection, a furtherance of their collabo with PearsonLloyd, but also re-launching their Teknion Studio brand as Studio TK, and Teknion Textiles as Luum. More on Luum later; as for Studio TK, the fact that culture has become so vital to a healthy and engaging work environment was “the catalyst to rebrand with a mission to specifically address the needs of today’s social office,” said Charlie Bell, the president of Studio TK, in a press release. “New collections will be designed to empower choice, foster connections, and build community.”

Seems right on track in terms of direction (and buzzwords), but they haven’t actually designed anything new under the Studio TK label yet, so stay tuned, and ’til then, back to Zones, which really is lovely to look at:

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
Teknion’s new Zones collection, designed with PearsonLloyd. Image courtesy of Teknion. Click through for more details.

Right? Sophisticated colors and finishes. It’s the PearsonLloyd touch, I think. Anyway, like their friends IdeaPaint and, even more so, Knoll, Teknion designed Zones as a sort of workplace kit of parts: seating, tables, screens, easels, and semi-private hubs (see below) which, according to the company, “can act either as intimate collaborative setting or as place of retreat when privacy is desired”. Also, worth noting, Teknion was one of our first stops in the Mart and our first encounter with a piece of furniture that absolutely vibrated with the energy of… a restaurant booth:

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
One of Teknion’s semi-private hubs, a piece in their new Zones collection. Image courtesy of Teknion. Click through the image for more details.

Then again, we were hungry.

Finally — for this first section, anyway — we take you to West Elm Workspace, where we saw more mobile marker boards, more mobile screen systems, and more high-backed booths (that’s not to say we’re bored!). West Elm debuted their first-ever Workspace collection last year at NeoCon, and while the products looked good — we thought it supercool that the home furnishings darling was tackling the office in earnest — we yearned to see more substance behind the stylish settings. West Elm, we wanted you to be pretty and smart!

Enter our friends at PLASTARC, a social research and design consultancy firm founded by Melissa Marsh. Supported by PLASTARC research, West Elm added 55 new products to their core collection this year, all designed to bring more — say it with us now — choice and flexibility into the work environment. The range of solutions includes modular seating options that allow users to configure them in ways to support group settings or as areas for private concentration, as well as a system of flexible screen panels that can be used to carve out that ever-desirable “space within a space”.

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
West Elm Workspace’s new mid-century inspired Arc Screen System comes in varying heights and widths to suit all sorts of different tasks. Photo by Wittefini Photography, courtesy of Novità Communications. Click through the image for more details.

Not to keep talking about food, but when I was little, I used to love to dig my mom’s dining room table pads out of storage and build forts in the living room. Is that not what you think of when you see that image, above, of their Arc Screen System?

It’s like this very primal, childlike thing — to build forts in open spaces. Welcome to the workplace of the future!

If it was launched last week at NeoCon, we’re pretty sure you can get it in oak

All of the images we’ve already shown you have one thing in common. Can you spot it? Every last one of them features a product hewn of oak or beech or something similar. And that wasn’t even our section on the topic! This is! Brace yourselves for some lumber.

It’s part of the greater trend toward introducing residential touches to the workplace. Primo Orpilla, speaking for IdeaPaint, and Melissa Marsh, speaking for West Elm Workspace, both said it’s being used for its “warmth” (not in the color temperature sense, but as in the “warmth of home”). For Teknion, Luke Pearson, of PearsonLloyd said in a press release that they’ve used beech as a material because it confers a sense of “precision, form, craft, and tactility [on] the office landscape.”

Nobody picks out a white laminate table for their home. So why until now have we expected them to want it for the office?

“Authenticity of build becomes increasingly important in a world of hyper mass production,” he added. “Warmth, humanity and simplicity within Zones provides a platform for focus and relaxation, for activity and contemplation.”

“Nobody picks out a white laminate table for their home,” said Paulo Kos, West Elm Workspace’s VP of design, referring to the ubiquitousness of white laminate tables and benching systems. “So why until now have we expected them to want it for the office?”

Here’s but a sampling of what we saw:

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016

Links to the products pictured above:

  1. A step from Knoll’s Rockwell Unscripted collection
  2. Herman Miller’s new Spot Stool, designed by Michael Anastassiades for the Herman Miller Collection
  3. BuzziSpace’s BuzziBalance Board by 13&9 Design
  4. A vignette from the Teknion Zones collection
  5. A round Coalesse Potrero415 Table with a wood veneer top
  6. West Elm Workspace’s Beam adjustable height benching system

Just swivel while you work

Here’s “flexibility” and “mobility” from a really close angle: swivel seats were a thing this year. Reps described it across the board as valuable because hey, look, you can be sitting here focusing on your work or an informal meeting, turn to the side for a chat with a person who walks behind you, then twist and turn right back to the task at hand.

I don’t totally buy it, but I’ll play along because it’s fun when your chair moves:

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016

Links to the products pictured above:

  1. Herman Miller’s new swiveling Plex chair, designed by Sam Hecht and Kim Colin of Industrial Facility
  2. Swivel stools from Knoll’s Rockwell Unscripted collection
  3. A swiveling chair from the Teknion Zones collection

Textile manufacturers emphasized a handmade touch

The swivel may have smacked as too cute (I hope no one’s offended? I am the one embedding the Snow White soundtrack here), but Teknion Textiles’ rebranding as Luum, and an inspired story behind one of KnollTextiles latest offerings has me sold.

Luum, under the creative direction of Suzanne Tick, made a splash with a loom in the showroom (above) and a cool inspiration wall that showed off the process behind their debut collection, aptly called Starting Point:

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
A peek at Suzanne Tick’s process wall for Luum’s inaugural collection, Starting Point. Photo by Wittefini Photography, courtesy of Novità Communications. Click the image for more details.

To drive home the point, the front window of the new Luum showroom was emblazoned with the words “It all starts with our hands”.

KnollTextiles debuted the Odyssey Collection, designed by their own creative director, Dorothy Cosonas, and inspired by her Greek heritage. According to a press release, “Cosonas drew inspiration from the home by extracting and modernizing design motifs found in an heirloom rug hand woven by Greek nuns on the island of Lesbos in 1913 for her grandmother’s dowry.”

The actual rug is shown in this photo below:

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
Upholstery patterns from the Odyssey Collection with the heirloom rug that inspired it in the background. Image courtesy of KnollTextiles; click through for more details.

The showrooms (and the Mart’s South Lobby) were veritable “garden havens”

Vegetation overtook the Mart this year, something we fully support for the way it promotes positive biophilic responses and just because it looks so, I don’t know, agreeable? (That impression is probably a biophilic response in itself.) If you don’t spec one product you saw at NeoCon this year but you’ve been inspired to put a plant on your previously barren desk, we’d deem your trip a success.

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
A vignette in the Herman Miller showroom at NeoCon 2016. Photo by Fran Parente, courtesy of Herman Miller.

Nobody does flora (and, actually, fauna) better than Herman Miller. This year they fully embraced, in their words, a “garden haven” vibe. Their installation in the Mart’s expansive South Lobby made the biggest impression, a place for tired NeoConners to recharge — electronically, physically, and emotionally — with an array of lounge seating, Ode lamps, and spots to plug in.

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
Attendees recharge in the South Lobby. Photo by Wittefini Photography, courtesy of Novità Communications.

Props to Herman Miller, too, for getting really creative with the greenery: I didn’t spot one fiddle-leaf fig in their showroom or the lobby. For the uninitiated, the fiddle-leaf is, according to the New York Times, “the ‘it’ plant of the design world.” Also for the uninitiated, if the Times is covering a trend, it’s considered by many to mean that the trend has long since reached its saturation point.

In other words: let’s mix things up, people! Because elsewhere, there were fiddles. Lots of fiddles. The only one who gets a pass is Knoll, because apparently the now ubiquitous ficus was, at least back in the day, Florence Knoll‘s favorite.

Florence Knoll: OG fiddle-leaf. The ultimate trendsetter!

Furniture design trends

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
At top, a contact sheet for a vintage Knoll advertisement, edited by Florence Knoll (if anyone knows the exact year, do tell!). The “plant here” note and sketch in the upper left look suspiciously like suggestions for a fiddle-leaf fig. Image from the Knoll Archive, via At bottom, a snap of Knoll’s showroom at NeoCon 2016, with a forest of their new HiLo perches in the foreground and the real thing off the the right. Image via Click each image for more details.

Anyway. For those of you thinking that our waxing on about entirely ancillary potted plants at a furniture expo is a terrible way to conclude this recap, sit tight… in this very comfortable, stylish, and ergonomically-sound new desk chair. It’s called Fern, it’s inspired by ferns, and it’s brought to you by Haworth:

Furniture design trends at NeoCon 2016
The new Fern desk chair, created by Haworth Design Studio and ITO Design. Image via Click on it for more details.

Also cool: The paper fern installation in the Haworth showroom that Patricia Urquiola created to celebrate the launch of Fern.

@haworthinc @neocon_shows #neocon2016 #fern #chair

A photo posted by Patricia Urquiola (@patricia_urquiola) on

And, finally, we’ll leave you with this: BuzziSpace’s BuzziJungle, the absolute talk of the Mart’s first floor. As far as we know, nobody got hurt. BuzziSpace, if you’re reading, please email us when a company installs this in its space:

Thank you to everyone who helped to make NeoCon 2016 a fun one, especially the team at Novità Communications and each and every showroom host for the gracious receptions and excellent tours. See you next year!

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  1. This could also been called the Hipster NeoCon. A lot of these products seemed aimed at start-up companies, or perhaps more accurately, companies that want to look like their idea of cool start-ups. The civil war surgeons in their vintage bowling shirts were in attendance. One such vendor had a very nicely detailed benching product, but when I asked if it was height adjustable the answer was, “no, we’re doing analog”. Uh huh. Sedentary work be damned or other kinds of physical risk for that matter. In the course of 1 minute I saw no less than 2 people bang their heads in the McDonald’s inspired jungle gym. As noted, many other vendors want to challenge the idea that the office workplace is safer than the assembly line. It’s all well and good in a playground where the bodies are small, light and resilient, but it’s hard to see a multi-generational workforce embracing this the way some major vendors seem to be hoping. Still, I have a bunch of photos now to scare my environment, health and safety people with.


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