With great excitement we boarded Air NZ direct flight to Chicago from Auckland for Neocon 2023, in its 54th year, it is USA’s and one of the world’s leading shows celebrating and promoting innovations and ideas for built commercial environments at the historical Merchandise Mart.
My previous and first show in 2019 had memories of a jam-packed Chicago downtown, where daily commuters and show goers (in town for the three-day event) navigated past each other to get to their destinations in the early summer heat.
The weather conditions are another attraction of going to Neocon in June. Post show catch ups included drinks at outdoor seating venues or the various roof top bars around Chicago downtown, often requiring you to get there early to secure a spot or be on the invite list to the various pre-arranged functions.
There is always the allure of the famous architectural River Cruise, a 90minute experience allowing one to relax after an intense 2 – 3 days of meetings, showroom tours and product presentations and to get a full appreciation of the city you have inhabited for the best part of a week.
So, what was the 2023 version like?
The first observation we made was how quiet downtown Chicago has become. After our early coffee and breakfast at Mojo South Wacker Drive (yes, the same NZ Mojo there are four in Chicago), we walked 0.7miles to The Mart, where it was noticeable that the streets were quieter than expected for a Monday in a tier two US city CBD.
When we got to The Mart, we were greeted by the usual chaos of getting up the elevators to one of seven floors of showroom and expo space. Being Kiwi’s we took the stairs to the third level, avoiding a 30min wait, and started our Neocon experience on the largest permanent showroom floor occupied by big names Steelcase, Haworth and Boss Design.
A number of the big names are noticeably no longer in the Mart, moving out over the past four years and relocating to another part of Chicago (more about that later).
As expected, the showrooms were busy with companies showcasing their latest offerings and concepts for the industry. Show visitors and competitors seen with their phones out snapping products of interest as they made their way at various speeds around the recently curated spaces, at times stopping to chat to an acquaintance or representative to find out more about what was being shown.
The standout themes included:
Mobility and Flexibility Take Centre Stage
Mobility was seen in a range of solutions and was closely connected to several integrated technology solutions. It was clear to us that being able to change spaces to suit the differing needs of a workplace was a big focus for several vendors in response to the flexibility that staff have had over the past 3 years. This is a common requirement we are seeing in the NZ and Australian market.
Battery technology supported settings either completely integrated or via a grab and go device with USB C and GPO charging options, with charging stations with spare batteries located in the space. Work point set ups included all in one compact MS Teams devices as the primary technology to connect to rather than just stand-alone flat screen monitors, highlighting the fact that Teams (or similar) communication has become the norm for all workplaces to connect with people within and outside the organisation. We did question whether the open plan settings were the right place for these, but people are having teams calls in open plan anyway, so perhaps this is needed, or perhaps zones of these spaces in open plan are the answer?
Furniture on castors or rollers was seen everywhere in various formats. Foldaway sit to stand workstations, (which almost looked like mini offices on wheels), tables, leaners, project/team storage, electronic display walls, soft seating and of course whiteboards came in various shapes, sizes and colours with varying innovative elements.
Working Smarter with Occupancy Tracking and Smart Software
While occupancy tracking and smart software solutions were not as prominently featured as we’d seen in Europe, they were still present. Locker management, desk booking, and passive occupancy tracking were showcased. After a few conversations with various people throughout the industry, it seems data and inter workplace connection will be key to getting people back into the office more regularly (Chicago is reporting 50% occupancy currently).
Vibrant Colours on Trend
Colour was a highlight of the event with new solutions displaying vibrant and on trend finishes, which was nice to see in all elements of furniture and fittings including a variety of powder coats and acoustic materials complementing the new range of fabric and joinery colours.
A standout showroom was Arcadia Contract, who had a “Pink Bubbles” theme, which immediately drew us into have a look. It was fun and vibrant with every element complementing the theme. Gareth and I both love pink, so we enjoyed our time in there.
There were some awesome acoustic displays - our favourite was Turf Design with their immersive experience that took you through different spaces including the cocktail and northern lights zone, each had its own music and sounds, and being an acoustic experience space, the noise stayed isolated and barely heard as you transitioned from room to room. Like we see in our market, it is how you work with the acoustic materials (usually made of recycled PET) that adds the best value, and these guys were presenting some great looking and effective solutions.
Sustainability On Show
A sustainable materials area displayed and promoted a number of concepts including the “Peel Chair” a hemp based, biodegradable and compostable chair, Autex acoustic panels (recycled PET), and concept seating filled with old plastic bags. While I’m sure there was a number of products with green certifications and stewardship programs this didn’t appear to be obviously promoted by many. With the increasing “green wash” we often see I wonder if this was intentional, with organisations choosing to promote form and function and able to answer any sustainability questions and back them up with evidence should they come their way?
An evening presentation at Industrious Workspace on the 44th floor of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) brought up a sustainable topic that resonated with us, “What responsibility do producers of products have to enable extended life?” This was sparked by a presentation by Canoa founder Federico Negro, who has developed a platform for organisations/designers to use to plan and source furniture solutions for their fit outs by bringing together design, commercial and CAD data into a single workflow. One of the key sustainable elements of this is that Canoa includes both new and used furniture. The challenge identified was that it worked on scale, which was linked to “who pays” a challenge we see throughout the market.
Moving on from the Mart
The third day of Neocon, where the sun was shining after a day of torrential rain, took us not to the Mart but rather Fulton St Market. This is a former meat packing and industrial area converted to a hip design centric space where newly constructed buildings are designed to fit in with the historic landscape and existing buildings have been refurbished to accommodate new amenities including Time Out Market. We enjoyed lunch in their boutique food court where smashed burgers, Japanese, Thai and donuts were all consumed.
As well as being home to Google Chicago, it is also the new home to permanent showrooms for Herman Miller (Miller Knoll), Knoll, Mutto, Fellowes, All Steel, B+N, Kvadrat, Teknion and others. Strategically they were running their own event “Design Days in parallel to Neocon with open showrooms throughout. This gave us an opportunity to see the latest from suppliers who have recently moved out of the Mart or have not had a presence there before. Being fulltime working showrooms, they showcased a greater range of offerings rather than just the latest releases, giving better context to the overall solutions and trends for the current market.
The show spaces were amazing and on a scale beyond what we are used to in NZ and creatively curated with the latest finishes and styles.
Fulton St Market Highlights
We experienced an immersive real scale virtual design studio called Portray. We watched how two designers using a standard kit of parts, built up work settings, created a layout, rendered up and modified standard variations within five minutes giving the intended audience a very quick space concept to develop with them.
We were introduced to a new system name Gira developed to support the completely physically flexible office. All furniture was on castors and could be brought together to develop neighbourhoods with dual and individual work settings, all powered by interchangeable Lithium batteries enabling technology to be utilised and sit to stand adjustment, effectively eliminating the need for fixed cabled power throughout a fitout.
Neocon 2023 Wrap Up
As always, it was a valuable trip for us. Like many markets there seems to be some hesitation with grand developments in an uncertain world that is emerging from a huge global work change, however there was an overwhelming desire to create and provide better environments and experiences for people who have returned to physical workspaces.
Reflecting on our 3 days in Chicago, we pondered the future of Neocon in the traditional form and Expo’s in general. They have and are an important part of many industries, as vendors take the opportunity to launch new innovations to a captive audience. Specifiers and dealers get to learn about them for future application and those of us that travel from the other side of the world get to see and experience spaces and products we don’t see in our market, as well as catch up with friends and partners we only get to see during these times.
So perhaps like the companies producing new products to inspire their market, organisations like Neocon need to think about how they can do the same with their events. I’m sure regardless we will be back there next year.