NeoCon Celebrates 50 Years of Tomorrow’s Design

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Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro is a contributing editor. Little did she know that her first job, in the facilities department at Ralston Purina, while obtaining her M. Arch at Washington University, in St. Louis would foreshadow where her career would lead. She has always been a strong advocate for providing the best possible spaces for people to work – where aesthetics meet function and drive business success.

A look back at NeoCon’s past as they celebrate 50 years as the world’s leading platform and most important event of the year for the commercial design industry.

Fifty years is a significant milestone for any event, and this year The Mart’s annual show focusing on the commercial design industry is shaping up to be an exciting, multi-faceted event, no matter where you are in the spectrum – A&D, Manufacturer, CRE, Occupier. There will be something for everyone.

I recently caught up with The Mart’s Vice President of Leasing, Byron Morton to find out how he and his team are preparing for this year’s show. We started off reminiscing about NeoCon’s past, and how the show has changed from its inception as the first National Exposition of Contract Interior Furnishings. In the original letter that went out to potential exhibitors, The Mart’s General Manager promised:

“This event will be open without charge to all who are involved in the design, specification, purchase, and use of products for non-residential interiors and will feature the most extensive and representative selection of contract goods under one roof” – W.O. Ollman, Mart General Manager, from November 1968 press release

Cover of original program directory – Courtesy of The Mart

If Mr. Ollman could have peered into a crystal ball to see 50 years into the future, he would see that NeoCon 50 promises that and more. As the industry has grown and changed over the years, the show has adapted through many iterations. At its inception, Chicago’s Merchandise Mart was almost exclusively dedicated to product showroom space. Currently, it is home to several businesses ranging from advertising, design studios, financial services and tech companies, in addition to several floors of showroom space.

In the early years, while the show augmented the showroom exhibits with other events, the emphasis was on getting folks into The Mart to see products. Initially, the show drew 10,000 attendees.


Even early days, the crowds were large and navigating through the building was challenging – Image courtesy of The Mart

Increasingly, more adjunct activities have been introduced and offer not only previews of new products, but a venue to explore advances in not only workplace design, but related fields such as healthcare and hospitality as the lines between distinct practice areas are getting more blurred with each passing year. This is evidenced not only by the breadth and types of products shown that goes way beyond furniture but includes the materials and technology we now use to create spaces where people work, live and play. The cross-section of talent and energy that circulates in the building is palpable. Those that have been coming for years are energized (and exhausted) and those coming into the industry can explore, in one place, all that is out there to inspire them. If you have not been to NeoCon, or need to be reminded of why you attend, you can recapture the experience here!

The NeoCon experience is not just about the showrooms and parties, the robust roster of keynote presentations and educational seminars give the attendees the opportunity to expand their knowledge, get all valuable CEU credits, and share ideas and insights with industry thought leaders.

For those of us who have attended since early days, we found a few nostalgic reminders of how showroom design was done back in the day. Our friends at Steelcase shared some images of the showroom from the early 1970’s.







The showroom in 1970 and 1971 – Images courtesy of Steelcase

In 1979 the showroom was re-designed by noted American architect, Warren Platner.

Steelcase showroom NeoCon 1979 – Image courtesy of Steelcase

Showroom designs have become increasingly more dynamic and sophisticated through the ensuing years as demonstrated by the changes we can see through the 1980’s and 1990s to more recent years. The showroom designs have tracked with the changes in the industry, as offices and their furnishings have become less static. Technology has enabled workplaces to become more energetic as the way people work and how companies support that work have changed as we move from more singular, cellular and assigned space to more open, fluid and creative workspace.

In the mid-80’s offices were rooms and furniture was “office furniture” – Image courtesy of Steelcase

By the mid-90’s things were starting to change, and more creative elements were introduced as part of the showroom design.

Steelcase showroom 1999 – Image courtesy of Steelcase

By 2008 showroom designers had even more leeway to push the envelope, and more emphasis was placed on the overall showroom environment as a design statement informing how the company was approaching design on a higher level.

By 2008, the showroom had gone through additional architectural changes designed to create a more creative envelope to display the furniture – Image courtesy of Steelcase

Additional changes were taking place as the manufacturers moved toward showing the furniture in vignettes that informed how their research and development teams were exploring the relationship with how people were now working and the kind of spaces where work was happening. Offices and other workspaces were changing from buttoned up, “corporate” spaces where people went to the same desk or cubicle every day to places where there was a move to create workplaces where people could work together in more collaborative settings. The ‘open office’ was changing from cube farms, to more collaborative spaces, recognizing that people were connecting in different ways, from different locations and technology changes were making work more accessible and portable from place to place. By 2017, last year’s show, the showrooms were even more focused on inspiring a workspace that was being planned as companies moved to more activity based and flexible workforces. We saw more of the integration of more flexible furnishings that were influenced by residential and hospitality design.

Other influences were dictating how workplaces are changing to meet today’s workers as shown in this vignette from 2017 – Image courtesy of Steelcase

Examination of the early list of exhibitors, it is interesting to see how many are still exhibiting at NeoCon. Planning each year’s product introductions, and updating the showrooms is a big part of the marketing efforts firms make to make a splash at the show. As the showrooms have changed over the years, so have the branding and graphics. Our friends at Herman Miller shared some graphics from 1983 that were released to generate excitement for that year’s show. They captured the essence of the NeoCon experience.

The more things change, the more they stay the same! – From the Herman Miller Archives

The nature of the show has evolved, and the planning and execution of the event have grown more sophisticated as well. With an attendee count of approximately 50,000 people, The Mart management has increasingly worked to make changes to the building that not only enhance the daily life of the increasingly varied building tenants but also work to improve the attendee experience for NeoCon (and other trade shows) that are hosted in the building.

In June 2016, the Grand Staircase was unveiled, surprising NeoCon attendees and invigorating the first two floors of The Mart. During NeoCon it is a hive of activity as well as a place to perch and take respite. The 50-ft wide marble and steel staircase creates a connection between the first two floors and serves as a meeting or workplace with stadium seating, a massive projection wall, and free Wi-Fi.

The Grand Staircase is a transformative space and is multi-functional– Image courtesy of The Mart

Continuing with the transformation of public spaces, The Mart opened Marshall’s Landing in June 2017. For the curious, the name derives from the building’s original 1931 owner and developer, Marshall Field, also known for the iconic Chicago department store, Marshall Fields, (now Macy’s). Purposefully placed at the top of the Grand Staircase it is the landing spot for those seeking another option for comfortable seating and a place to meet and share ideas. Tenants and visitors alike will appreciate the addition of dining options ranging from artisanal coffee and beverages, a full-service bar, and daily food offerings – all managed by DMK Restaurants. Marshall’s Landing can also be reserved for private meetings and events.

Vornado Realty Trust and The Mart worked with A + I (Architecture + Information) to create a vibrant, flexible space to meet the needs of both tenants and visitors. A significant amount of time was spent working with the landlord and tenants to develop the perfect mix of amenity space that would provide the best use of the space and cap off the major renovations to transform the building to meet today’s needs. A brand story was incorporated into the design to reinforce and tell the story of the intended purpose of the space. It married Old Workplace Styles, New Workplace Technology, Home-base Hospitality, and the history of The Mart. Every design detail in the space, from a selection of materials to custom artwork references back to these four principles.


Visitors to this year’s NeoCon can enjoy Marshall’s landing as a place to connect or re-connect, relax, and recharge. Image courtesy of Marshall’s Landing.
Sitting atop the Grand Stair, Marshall’s Landing is inviting, relaxed atmosphere adds to The Mart’s amenity spaces – Image courtesy of Marshall’s Landing.

While The Mart has made significant changes in the most visible public areas, considerable improvements have been made to enhance the way-finding and ways to navigate during the show. Technological advances allow us to access information, find our way and connect with people via the new app which is available via the App Store or Google Play.

The Neocon App is available at the App Store and Google Play – Image courtesy of The Mart

For those returning attendees, or those planning to come to NeoCon for the first time, it is the experience that provides the value of taking the time and effort to attend. Yes, it can be crowded and chaotic but it is taking in the whole of what is offered that gives attendees the opportunity to touch base with what is happening in our industry. Just as how we work, and where we work is changing, The Mart has worked to stay relevant and present an annual event that draws people from all corners of the earth. Those showcasing their latest product introductions encompass many manufacturers that have been there from the beginning on the NeoCon showroom floors 3, 10 and 11. The NeoCon Exhibit Hall on the 7th floor will also be a rich resource for new solutions. Organized into five main categories: furniture & fabrics, interior building products, interior finishes and materials, technology and flooring, the 7th Floor showcases the latest in commercial products from nearly 300 exhibitors.

The Design [email protected] showrooms on the 6th and 14th floors present additional options for attendees to peruse. Additional events are planned for this floor as well, and include a book signing by Lori Weitzner, author of “Ode to Color: The Ten Essential Palettes for Living and Design”. Other events are planned throughout the Design center on Monday and Tuesday, check them out here.

And wait, there’s more – opportunities to meet and mingle at several celebratory and ancillary events can be reviewed here!

Trying to decide about attending this year’s show? The experience speaks for itself as expressed by attendees at last year’s show.

Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro is a contributing editor. Little did she know that her first job, in the facilities department at Ralston Purina, while obtaining her M. Arch at Washington University, in St. Louis would foreshadow where her career would lead. She has always been a strong advocate for providing the best possible spaces for people to work – where aesthetics meet function and drive business success.
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