Nestled along the iconic Chicago river stands the 4-million-square-foot, 25-story, Merchandise Mart–– a Mecca for members of the interior design and architecture community. The Mart was built in 1928 by Marshall Field & Co. in the hopes of establishing a “single wholesale center for the entire nation.” Now, it is home to the annual 3-day furniture exhibition that attracts thousands of furniture enthusiasts from all over the country, eager to see the latest and greatest products that the industry has to offer.
As a first-time attendee of NeoCon, the best way I can describe my experience is: wonderfully overwhelming. The sheer size of the building was jaw-dropping (up until 2008, the Mart was so large that it warranted its own ZIP Code). Furthermore, the building was so brimming with people that it was often more time-efficient to walk up ten flights of stairs than it was to wait for an open elevator. Despite the chaos, the hustle and bustle inside the building created a tangibly electric atmosphere–– one of awe and excitement.
As a Marketing Manager, it is my job to observe patterns, predict trends, and relay that information to consumers. While it would have been impossible to see every product in every showroom on every floor, I got to see and experience enough products from a variety of manufacturers to notice certain commonalities. Upon returning home from NeoCon, I was able to draw one overarching conclusion about the future of the workplace: people do not want to leave their home to go to the office; therefore, we need to bring home into the office.
So what exactly does it mean to bring home into the office? It means creating a relaxing and comfortable environment for employees, incorporating technology in a meaningful way, and offering a variety of flexible pieces and work settings to emulate the freedom of choice employees have at home. Let’s take a closer look at how different manufacturers tackled each of these challenges.
The most obvious way showrooms evoked a sense of ease and comfort was with their color schemes. Many vendors opted for a soft, warm palette of peaches, corals, beiges, maroons, yellows, and light blues. The result was a vibrant yet relaxing space.
Secondly, most collaborative areas had a very residential feel with plush couches and cozy accessories. In fact, the seating was so soft and welcoming that it was usually easy to sit down but hard to get back up.
Plants were another major feature at NeoCon 2022. Almost every showroom made use of planters, moss walls, and/or biophilic designs. The presence of plants in a workplace has been proven to reduce anxiety by 37% and reduce hostility by 44%, making it a compelling tool for getting employees back in the office.
Additionally, bold art and wallpapers lined the perimeter of most showrooms. Dynamic jungle patterns, geometric shapes, and eye-catching accent walls were some of the many ways manufactures made their spaces an interesting hub for creativity rather than a sterile, cold workplace.
Lastly, it appears that many furniture vendors have adopted a more casual approach to design. They recognize that employees do not want to visit a stuffy conference room when they could be lounging at home. Thus, the products should encourage authentic interactions without all the formalities. For example, Neinkamper displayed a chrome-base conference table with swanky leather chairs flanking either side. Upon closer inspection, we discovered that the conference table could be lowered to a coffee table table height and the conference chairs could be reclined. In seconds, this sleek conference room setting transformed into a welcoming communal space.
Since people have found success working from home, it is unlikely that most corporations will ever return to a fully in-office work model. Instead hybrid work and video conferencing will become permanent facets of the modern workplace. At NeoCon 2022, there were many products designed to support video conferencing such as Herman Miller OE1 Huddle table–– a tapered half-moon table that allows users to see the screen from any seat. Many manufacturers also displayed stadium seats/ tiered seating for the same purpose of enabling equal viewing opportunities.
However, with people still frequenting the office from time to time, video conferencing is not always necessary. That is why Neinkamper created credenzas with retractable TV screens that disappear with the click of a button.
Finally, manufacturers understand the importance of offering employees the opportunity to determine which work setting works for them. Therefore, showrooms consisted of collaborative areas, hoteling stations, private offices, traditional workstations, and individual phone booths. It is this variety and freedom that will attract employees back into the office.
Flexibility was also a dominant theme across showrooms. Most furniture had castors that permitted users to move pieces according to their individual needs. With people constantly rearranging furniture, easy storage and nesting capabilities of pieces became a must. Howe was one vendor that stood out for their flexible design of desks and chairs that could be arranged, locked in place, collapsed, and easily tucked away.
In conclusion, a new form of work does not mean the end of the workplace. Perhaps, it just means the end of the workplace as we know it. NeoCon 2022 was a shining example of the furniture industry’s resiliency. Despite more than two years of uncertainty within the workplace due to Covid-19, manufacturers continue to adapt and design products that accommodate the ever-changing needs of the modern office. I, for one, am excited to see how this year’s products will influence the evolution of work.