There are so many layers to the Merchandise Mart’s signature event, NEOCON [the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings] - as a design event, as a barometer for the business economy, as an archetype of the American trade show - that it readily lends itself to rich interpretation. Yet with all the intellectual, social and financial shadings, it’s more fun just to look at it as a series of images and experiences.
Knoll - long the platinum standard for contract furnishings - seems as likely a place to start as any.
The big deal at Knoll this year is “Tools for Living,” its new line designed by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA. Like so many items introduced at Neocon, the TFL line is still in prototype, so samples of all the pieces aren’t available yet. But that said, a Knoll told me rep told me that of the 11 pieces in the line, Knoll will only show three of them at its Merchandise Mart showroom. [It will make the complete line available only in New York and San Francisco.] I could go into a whole Second City riff now but I’ll hold off.
“Counter” - a 3-part, pivot-hinged construct - is the flashiest piece in the line.
Visitors were encouraged to play with and re-configure it.
In its latest ad, the company shows the designer himself demonstrating one use for it - as seating
and shows it in a wood-grained laminate, but I like it better in the fire-engine red.
The other pieces they’re showing in Chicago are a lounge chair and a plexiglas table, also composed as a set of pivoted, cantilevered tiers.
While many of the vendors at Neocon show their wares on two vast floors of traditional trade show booths, the most significant action takes place in the showrooms of the Mart’s permanent tenants. Each year, a lot of them re-work their spaces in design-centric ways, so that you sometimes get the feeling you’re looking at an installation in an art gallery rather than a display space for commercial products. Nobody does this quite like the Maharam textile space, which always looks like a white cube of a gallery
Maharam’s fabrics are pretty much unparalleled - the company has a stable of brand-name designers living [Paul Smith, Hella Jongerius] and dead [Alexander Girard]. And it continues to do great things with its supergraphics “Digital Projects” program. This year, rather than showing a variety of the imagery, the company is showing just two examples: “Creatures” by filmmaker Andrew Zuckerman
and photographer John Sternbach’s hypnotic “Wavelength”
The Haworth showroom incorporated a series of interesting screens as its defining elements. Like a lot of things you see at NEOCon, they’re not available as product.
Patricia Urquiola, who designed the screens, also has a new line of pieces for the company. Here, a couple of cleverly-designed pieces that convert from stools to chairs [the chair backs flip over and become part of the base], shown with an occasional table that looks as if it’s sculpted out of marble but it’s really some lightweight composite material.
I’d love to say more about Urquiola’s designs, but my inability to discover much more about them is emblematic of an annoying part of trying to cover NEOCon. The products are so new - often still in prototype phase - that none of the salespeople know anything about them. This would be ok if they didn’t promise to have somebody send you information, so they scan the bar code on your badge [you can’t attend a trade show like NEOCon without a badge with a bar code]. Invariably, then, you never receive the promised information but you are placed on an email distribution list that sends you something every day.
Luna Textiles does pretty much the same thing every year for the show: it makes some item out of its fabrics and hang them on the wall sort of like artwork. illuminated by the space’s great Murano light fixtures. [Later the company gives some of them away as prizes] Last year I think the item was a backpack; this year it’s bike panniers:
which the company also showed on actual bikes in the room
I have to give credit to the Coalesse company for the moody super-graphics it has installed. Once again, although I asked, no one could tell me who did the photography.
Also, I have no idea how the atmospheric images relate to the product.
Also, why is the spelling of the company name so obviously wrong?
Teknion hasn’t changed much of the spectacular Michael Vanderbyl designed interior it unveiled last year, but it added space to house its new venture with B&B Italia
Elsewhere in the space, I couldn’t help being drawn to the textile display, because I am such a sucker for anything that’s ROYGBIV
So of course I also zeroed in on the Eames Time-Life chairs at Herman Miller [which I’ve become accustomed to seeing on Mad Men this season - in white leather. But the white frames and rainbow upholstery make this array really special.
Designtex showed its wares in similarly dramatic fashion
but Designtex has more interesting stuff, which I’ll get to later.
As part of its ploy to convince you that NEOCon is really about design and not merely about crass commercialism, the organizers typically apportion one part of the show floor to a group show of emerging designer’s products. This year they gave it over to Shared Practice, a group that defines itself as “an innovative resource, network, and event calendar for the design community” but really seems to me more like a present-day version of a medieval guild. Based in Chicago, it’s assembled “Relationship by Design,” a fine exhibition of its members’ products.
Below, Felicia Ferrone — a spectacularly talented architect and object designer [I was blown away by her show at Volume Gallery in 2010] who, with David Krell, organized the show — stands next to one of my favorite pieces, a coat rack designed by Kari Merkl of Merkled Studio.
Another piece I really liked was “Cubby,” by Bruce Tharp of Materious, which is [unintentionally, I think] an ideal companion piece to the coat rack — an injection molded plastic object that, mounted to the wall, is the perfect repository for your keys, wallet, sunglasses and other items you tend to put down somewhere but too often don’t remember where that somewhere is. [A friend recently wrote to me that he is so busy, his weekend has been shrunken down to 2 hours, 20 minutes of which he spends looking for his keys.]
While it’s a hugely expensive undertaking, some vendors completely remodel their showroom spaces for NEOCon every two or three years. Among them, Teknion often yields the most spectacular results, courtesy of designer Michael Vanderbyl, who I don’t think is actually trained as an architect [although he’s one of the world’s most lionized communications designers]. He’s revamped the Teknion showroom into a super shiny, bright white space age stage set with brilliant flashes of orange gloss — definitely the highest architectural impact of the event for me.
Which is not to say other places didn’t stand out. I’ve always looked forward to seeing what Luna Textiles does with its space [athough it’s kind of hard to look at anything but those spectacular glass light fixtures when you go in the place] and what clever object they make as samples for their fabrics. This year, knapsacks.
I gather that there’s some kind of trend toward semi-private spaces in the cube farm offices that have become the norm. The Buzzi company doesn’t have a space in the Mart, but it put together a big vignette on the first floor to show how well its soundproofed materials work.
But the Buzzi product I liked was the curved screen made from end pieces of their felt bolts. I had always coveted an Eames folding model, but henceforth I may focus my material yearnings here.
And of course there’s no end of new product. Magnuson Group showed Berta, a great perforated metal bench designed by Franc Fernandez [who is not the same person famed for designing Lady Gaga’s meat dress]
and a stylish graphic sign system designed by Victor Martinez.
Knoll is highlighting several archival fabrics, including this tweed-y number that it made into slipcovers for various Bertoia items.
Finally, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know Charles Pollock was still alive. Although he has been quiet for some time, he emerged to design this fine new chair featured at Bernhardt Design.