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  • Luke Munro

NeoCon 2022 - The Trends That Might Cross the Atlantic

Three images of skyscrapers in Chicago

Wellworking’s Managing Director, Luke Munro, reviews the big product launches and key themes from NeoCon, Chicago 2022.

It’s been great to be back in Chicago after three years. So much has happened since my last visit, but the buzz of seeing old friends and sharing ideas still remains as strong as ever.

A large office style building next to a river
A large entrance to a stone building with signs saying "Neocon"

NeoCon is unique. Yes, the scale of the exhibitions in The Mart felt smaller than in previous years, partly because some significant manufacturers such as Herman Miller, Knoll, Humanscale and Teknion have moved out to the vibrant Fulton Market district, but given the heatwave the town was experiencing, that probably wasn’t a bad thing.

A sign a cross a road saying "Fulton Market District
A red brick building next to a crossroad

Chicago is a spectacular city, with extreme and unpredictable weather to match. We had a heatwave, a thunderstorm and even a tornado during our four days there. No wonder sustainability came through strongly as a theme for the week, given the climate challenges we all face.

Two women sitting on office chairs in front of a presentation screen
Alex Muller, VP of Communications + Strategy at mindful MATERIALS and Jane Abernethy, Chief Sustainability Officer at Humanscale, both sitting on the Path chair

I was particularly struck by a talk at Humanscale on the importance of the materials we choose for our products, and the dangers of “greenwashing”, or faking your environmental credentials. Their launch of “The Path” chair demonstrated their own strong credentials in this area, which is one of many themes where UK and European manufacturers appeared to be driving the agenda.

The streets of Chicago were filled with real estate boards extolling the COVID-safe credentials of their offices, so it was perhaps surprising that post-pandemic health and safety wasn’t a particularly big theme at this year’s event, but you could certainly see its impact on a number of product areas, and again, it was the UK and European companies leading the way.

Billboard advertising a "Post Covid-19 workplace"

Outdoor furniture was one such example, acknowledging the need for ventilation and outdoor working space, and our friends at Extremis, whom we’ve worked with on a project in Newcastle recently, made an award-winning impact with their AMAi range.

Three ladies sitting at an indoor picnic bench under an awning

The importance of nature also came through in a focus on biophilia. Plants and moss were everywhere, and a strong sense of bringing the outside inside, continued with a range of wallcoverings and fabrics taking their inspiration from nature.

A small bench seat in a flower patterned fabric
Multi-height planters with green plants in them
A meeting table with bright geometric wall panels behind it

Acoustics and the need for privacy were other areas that came to the fore here this year, as offices adapt to provide workers with more spaces in which to collaborate, or simply take part in video conference calls. Again, European manufacturers were prominent in Chicago. Silentlab’s Microoffice Realm stood out and was deservedly recognised as a gold medal winner in the Best of NeoCon for Acoustics and Privacy. The exceptional acoustics of Framery’s One Booth also shone through, although that may have been caused in part by the strength of the gin they were serving at the stand!

Two booths with glass fronts and pink and yellow exteriors
Looking through a window into a booth where a man is sitting on a yellow couch

This week in mid June remains the gold standard US launch pad for any major product, which is always a highlight of any visit and this year didn’t disappoint. Herman Miller’s hugely successful launch of the Zeph chair, by design house Studio 7.5, brings quality at an exceptional price point which I know is going to be a big draw for our customers in the UK.

A series of the same multi-coloured swivel chairs on a platform in front of a coloured backdrop

HBF’s Note desk by OEO Studio is another impressive product launch with a more domestic feel that reflects the growing demand for home working products, even if this didn’t appear to be as big a topic of conversation for the NeoCon crowd as it might have been for a UK or European audience. Nevertheless, domestic colourways on all commercial furniture & fabrics were rife, reinforcing the hybrid work aesthetic for both home and office. It was clear the home office is greatly influencing the commercial space.

Three different coloured desks next to each other
Looking through a glass wall into a meeting room with shelves on the back wall
Several high backed sofas in turquoise and olive green

I was struck by one noticeable difference to Clerkenwell Design Week in London though, whose riotous celebration of colours and textures wasn’t always present in Chicago, particularly in many of the larger showrooms in The Mart. Those that did rise to the palette challenge stood out, including the UK’s Naughtone, which confidently proclaimed its right to centre stage.

Colourful dining chairs and stools stacked on a platform

There weren’t as many UK visitors here in Chicago as in previous years, but nonetheless, British manufacturing was well represented, with James Burleigh enjoying another successful show, and Boss winning a gold award for their Amelia Lounge Collection. I was also excited by the launch of Spacestor’s Arcadia in association with Gensler. It’s nice to take a trip to Chicago to fill me with confidence about the creativity in our own country.

Two men standing talking
A coral-coloured high back armchair in front of a lit up sign saying "Boss"
A light table with various models of screens and furniture on top of it.

Perhaps what struck me most on my visit was the growing divergence between the companies who for decades have underpinned this great event, but that now no longer share the same building, The Mart. It is perhaps ironic, given the origins of this great building as a retail powerhouse, that it is the companies who have since left The Mart which appear to be developing more of a focus on retail alongside their commitment to commercial projects. Global manufacturers like Herman Miller, who previously had contract based showrooms in The Mart, have now given over the ground floor of their impressive new building in Fulton Market to retail, including their Design within Reach and Hay brands. They also took the opportunity to promote their own merger with Knoll who themselves use the ground floor of their new building as a retail space for Muuto.

A shop full of home accessories on shelves
A window looking out over a cityscape

JSI also announced their move to Fulton Market in 2023, and it seems the gravity of creative power appears to be shifting towards this eclectic, buzzy area of town. Certainly, some of the most innovative and insightful content I absorbed during the week came from visiting this part of town and if NeoCon is to retain its relevance and prominence as the world’s greatest furniture show, it will need to embrace those manufacturers who are increasingly looking beyond The Mart for their own development and the growth of our industry.


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