Future Furnishings: The Best and Worst of NeoCon 2011

by Matt Bushey, June 23, 2011

Last week a couple of us from the office travelled to the fantastic city of Chicago for NeoCon, the largest contract furnishings trade show in North America.
Unlike most other architecture and design trade shows, NeoCon does not take place in a large convention center, with vendors setting up temporary booths to display their wares.  It is held every year at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, up until recently the largest commercial building in the world with 4.2 million square feet spread across 25 stories, 50% of which is occupied by the wholesale showrooms that open their doors for this trade show that attracts 50,000 people.
This is the event that most contract furnishings manufacturers use to roll out their new products for the year.  You can also find lighting, flooring, fixtures, and finishes throughout the Mart, but furnishings are really the main attraction for this 3-day show.  Here is our short list of the best and worst of NeoCon 2011:
Aloft Lounge by Arcadia
design by Qdesign
First up: the Aloft Lounge chair by Arcadia.  I love that this is totally different, very unique, but still comfortably sensible.  The lightweight steel base delicately holds up a folded wood frame with a comfortable upholstered seat.  The three elements come together – and complement each other – rather nicely.  The series also includes a love seat, occasional tables and benches.  I think the elongated length of the love seat is a bit too much for the scale of the frame, but I do really like the tables: substituting a glass top for the upholstered seat as the third element in the composition.
OMHU desk for Linak U.S.
design by Rie Norregaard
This table is one that I could easily imagine at home in one of our Vermont projects.  Rie Norregaard is the creative director of Omhu, a product design firm guided by Scandinavian influences.  For NeoCon, she designed this table for Linak, a company that makes electric linear actuators.  (Those are the devices that make the table move up and down at the push of a button)  But this table is all about the natural wood top.  Norregaard took a 200-year old slab of ash wood and had it sandblasted, resulting in an extreme texture of woodgrain that pops right off the surface.  The simplicity of the design allows the natural materials to be fully appreciated, but the treatment of the wood is also very unique.
Sketch chair by Davis
design by Burkhard Vogtherr & Jonathan Prestwich
 
I was really impressed with the Davis showroom.  Bent plywood frames, duo-tones and textures, and supple upholstery.  The Sketch Chair series is one of eight new collections that Davis introduced at this year’s NeoCon.  The Sketch is a conference or side chair that looks and feels just right.  It has a small footprint, with slender base designs and an upholstered seat that wraps around you just enough.  The horizontal stitch across the back gives it just the right amount of definition and interest.  It’s not a large chair, but in its form and detailing it projects a refined elegance.
Breathe Living Wall by DIRTT
One of the best showroom experiences we had was the hour we spent at the DIRTT showroom, at their “Green Learning Center” across the street from the Mart.  DIRTT is a company that was formed about 7 years ago to address the shortcomings in the marketplace at that time for modular, demountable wall systems.  They make factory-built walls that offer many benefits over conventional drywall construction, literally spelled out with one of my favorite acronyms: Doing It Right This Time.
 
DIRTT introduced a number of new products at NeoCon this year, including this one we liked best: the Breathe Living Wall.  Breathe is not a modular wall system but is actually an accessory item that can be mounted to any DIRTT wall, or to any standard wall surface: be it gypsum, stone, or concrete.  I was a bit surprised to realize that DIRTT had more to offer than just modular walls, and Breathe seems to reinforce this fact that they are now expanding beyond their core product.
The Breathe system is composed of a series of modular pots that fit into a slat-wall system to create a living wall.  There is a built-in gravity-fed water irrigation line that runs along the entire installation, separate from the individual pots, providing water to each plant through special devices in the bottom of each pot.  It is low-mess and low-mantenance, and is an opportunity to bring a living wall indoors where before it just wasn’t practical.
Proximus casegoods workwall by Halcon 
design by David Grout and Donna Corbat for Gary Lee Studios
 
This is a product that was actually released at last year’s show, winning a Best of NeoCon Gold award, but still held a prominent spot at NeoCon 2011.  The Proximus casegoods collection by Halcon is a private office workwall that really works.  Each component of the system is built up to maximize function, with storage, filing, and stacking relocated at eye level, not hidden beneath the worksurface.  Huge panels slide across the entire wall, concealing what you might not want to see or revealing what you do.  The panels are finished with stunning wood veneers that coordinate beautifully with the primary desk and all parts of the Proximus family.
 
 
Occhio chair by Martin Brattrud
design by Jeffrey Hollander, Guy Painchaud, Lee Pasteris, Banning Rowles
Martin Brattrud is known for upholstered seating, but this is one piece that stands out from their regular collection of standards.  The Occhio lounge chair has a distinctive wood back, kind of a weave pattern of wood veneers, with an angular wood base and arms.  The chair looks lower than it feels, thanks to a comfortably thick seat cushion.  So often, the backs of chairs are not something we want to look at, but this chair would be perfect for locations where you see it from all sides: the back is its best side.
I did say this was my Best and Worst list of NeoCon 2011, so let me wrap up with what I thought was the biggest bomb at the show:
The Chakra Chair by Karim Rashid 
for Raynor Contract
The 7th floor of the Merchandise Mart is full of booths by smaller companies, so you can usually find a few surprises.  I did a double-take when I came across this chair by Karim Rashid.  Rashid is, of course, a popular industrial and interior designer who you are probably familiar with through his work with Umbra and Target.  I’ve got to say, I’ve never been a big fan of Karim Rashid.  Let’s just say there are a few too many gratuitous curves in his palette for my tastes.
This is his latest chair, the Chakra, which he designed for Raynor Contract.  Chakra is the Hindi term for the body’s power centers, and the design of this chair is based on these pressure points.  It is a comfortable chair, but I wouldn’t say it’s relaxing.  It definitely has a very unique form, but it’s not one that I find inviting.  More alien than anthropometric, this chair is something that subjects you to its grip, ready to receive each muscle independently for what could be a traumatic experience.  As one online reader put it: “Finally, a chair that supports my kidneys!”
This is not a chair for sitting.  It is more of a device for holding humans. 
There’s something for everyone at NeoCon.
 

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