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Grand designs

14 July 2011

by John Fogarty

John Fogarty reports from interior design show NeoCon in Chicago, where integration and co-ordination were this year’s buzz words.

Every year, Chicago plays host to NeoCon, the world’s largest commercial interior design show 
and conference, held at the Merchandise Mart.

This is not a classic exhibition in the mould of an Orgatec or a Salone Ufficio, which can dominate a venue for a fraught two-week period before closing. This ‘exhibition’ permanently occupies a massive Art Deco building comprising 18 floors and totalling 372,000 square metres (4m square feet). From an office furniture perspective, floors three, 10 and 11 house permanent showrooms, while floors seven and eight are brought into use as temporary show space for the three-day event.

Now in its 43rd year, NeoCon visitor numbers were up four per cent on 2010 figures, which some believed signalled an upswing in the economy, while others remained more sceptical, fearing the dreaded double dip. Tom Revelle, vice president of marketing for Humanscale was in the former camp. “NeoCon is always our biggest and most important show 
of the year in North America, where we gear up to present our newest innovations to tens of thousands of important customers and specifiers,” he said. “This year’s show was incredibly positive for Humanscale. Our showroom was packed throughout the event and the feedback we received on all of our newest products was tremendous.”

Trends and themes

The key messages of the show were undoubtedly ‘integration’ and ‘co-ordination’. Every major manufacturer was pushing this – both in terms of the products on offer and in the research results provided to back up the thinking behind the designs. This was obvious in the naming of the combined programmes: Canvas (HM) and Reside; Beside and Belong (Haworth); and Answers (Steelcase).

Co-ordinated design

Having previewed elements at last year’s show, Herman Miller was exhibiting its new Canvas Office Landscape programme, combining a new bench with elements of Vivo Environments and Meridian Storage (on legs and with timber tops and fronts) to produce a remarkably co-ordinated package.

The bench used a limited kit of parts – including tops with attractive reverse-bevelled front edges and no support rails to create a structure of remarkable robustness. The showroom display model used just two full leg-frames and two back-set legs to support a double bench.

Integrated units

Haworth too was mining the rich seam of product integration with its Reside, Beside and Belong packages. Reside comprised a range of work surface (desk and bench) products, while Beside was a new, layered storage product, combining horizontal wood-composite panels with L-shaped vertical 
steel elements to form stacked 
single or dual-access, closed or 
open assemblies.

Belong was the generic name for the work tools offered in combination with work surfaces, screens and storage.

Of all the majors, Haworth was also the company most assiduously pushing the alleged research behind the make-up of their products and portfolio. They had a large multi-projection screen pumping out pictures, string diagrams and buzz-words; all purporting to prove how the latest amalgamation of basic raw materials was somehow directed by a synthesis of ideas resulting from careful research.

Besides showing the full integration of programmes such as media:scape, c:scape, and frame one, Steelcase was emphasising a full package of inbuilt and freestanding worktools for these.
Additionally, they had unbundled elements from the former to create mini media:scape (desktop) and mobile media:scape (on castors).

Radical thinking
The Turnstone division of Steelcase was, as previously, used to promote new ideas in ever more radical ways. Its Bivi programme was a simple range designed for youthful start-up companies. This featured just one size of “occupation envelope”, for a plain or back-pocketed worksurface or a rumble seat (cantilevered sofa). The hoop-frame leg in a number of heights was used to support worksurfaces and seats, as a well as a host of personal items such as bikes and skateboards.

Of all the major manufacturers, Knoll concentrated more than most on the launch of a seating product – the ReGeneration chair by the same designers responsible for the original Generation and MultiGeneration series. Sharing the same ‘responsive’ back technology as the original, this variant featured simplified construction and detailing to generate a better balanced appearance and to hit, one would guess, a lower price point.


The integration of storage into the workstation is now pretty much complete. Storage is simpler, but also more complex: it is not overburdened by security, yet dual access is commonplace and provision of services through the storage spine is routine.

Until as recently as last year, most would have conceded that the US led the way in office seating development, while European designs were the forefront as far as workstation ideas were concerned.        

However, by stealing some 
of our clothes and by marrying these to their single-minded business approach, the US is fast approaching dominance in 
both areas.

John Fogarty is the design director of European steel storage manufacturer Bisley.