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.
I remain amused at how little the general public knows about NEOCon.
[I’m also a little amused at how the Merchandise Mart positions the show. They spell it NeoCon, which doesn’t make any sense. I’m wondering whether anyone who works at the place even remembers that it stands for National Exposition of Contract Furnishings, which is why I insist on styling it NEOCon.]
Those who don’t assume it’s a reference to the ex-Democrat-apostates-now-absorbed-by-the-Religious-Right may have some vague notion that it’s a big event taking place at the Merchandise Mart. Most, though, don’t recognize it as the conceptual granddaddy of all modern trade shows [although the national hardware show, the restaurant show and the consumer electronic show all claim to be older].
As such, it’s tempting to look for deeper meaning. I used to try to draw some kind of parallel between the mood at NEOCon and the state of the American economy, because I thought you could use it as a gauge for the vitality of the commercial real estate industry, which itself should act like a barometer for the business community [more office furniture = more corporate growth]. But I think it was last year that I discovered what a tiny industry [in terms of dollar volume] contract furnishings really is, and how skewed the numbers are anyway, because so much of the market is healthcare and education-related as opposed to office. So instead I’ve just tried to look at it as a big show and tell for an intriguing industry.
As I do every year, I have to remind myself that NEOCon isn’t really about design. It’s unabashedly about selling product. That said, the organizers and participants want you to think it’s more about the former — about creativity and innovation. And in so doing, they’ve helped organize any number of activities and events that almost convince you it’s so.
The “Escalator Canopy” is a pretty spectacular piece of installation art. Fabricated with fabrics, wall coverings and mirrors, the company that underwrote it — the Wolf-Gordon textile distributor, worked with Hjalti Karlsson and Jan Wilker of New York design studio karlssonwilker, along with The Guild of Brooklyn, to make it happen. And it’s pretty impressive. I hope it stays in the Mart for a while after the show is over.
Each year NEOCon provide the chance to rub shoulders with genuine Design Stars. Michael Graves, who has continued working despite his paralysis [now focusing all of his design efforts on making healthcare environments more appealing and productive], signed posters at the CF Stinson showroom to promote his new line of vinyls.
Graves has been doing work for Stinson for a couple of years — 2 years ago I cadged a couple of samples from his line and created this “installation” that hangs in my bedroom. I think it’s pretty cool.
Roger Thomas, Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas design guru — who was admiringly profiled in an issue of the New Yorker some months ago — came to hype his wallcovering line for Maya Romanoff. He is charming, affable and dapper — he was wearing a great purple/white striped shirt and I was not at all surprised when he took out his glasses to look at something and they had purple frames. [I cannot imagine he doesn’t have dozens of pairs that match everything he wears.]
I asked him about Fiori di Como, the Dale Chihuly installation on the ceiling of the Bellagio lobby, which is really one of the world’s great public art works, and he was in the middle of telling me how he and Elaine Wynn had seen a grouping of Chihuly spirals at the bottom of a pool when they came over to tell him it was time to address those assembled and toast the Romanoffs, so I didn’t get to hear the end of the story.
Yes, NEOCon is about selling. But there is salesmanship and there is salesmanship, and to be sold to by the peerless Barbara Barry is much more. It is to be cajoled, lured, caressed, serenaded, and — more or less unabashedly —seduced.
It’s not just the soothing yet energized radiance she projects. It’s her conviction: her confidence in the certitude and sincerity of what she is selling and her total immersion in every aspect of the items she designs. The whole package is so compelling that I defy you — gay/straight, male/female — to resist succumbing to her.
Oh all right, I confess to a crush. But her product is so carefully conceived and well-executed that the pitch is almost unnecessary. Her new Ski line for HBF incorporates more metal components than we’re used to seeing from her; unsurprisingly, it’s crisply elegant. I especially like the circular tables in Corian, a material of which she is particularly fond [“like a Necco wafer,” she offers]. It’s another fine collection.
Visiting certain of the showroom spaces at the Merchandise Mart each year during the show feels like cruising an art gallery district. Maharam is a perfect example, and while it hasn’t changed its display technique [unadorned lengths of fabric suspended from the ceiling] in years, it still seems bold and fresh.
Maybe it’s because the fabrics are so fantastic. I love that Paul Smith horizontal stripe.
And it’s also great to see what they’ve introduced in their Digital Projects series of supergraphics: I love this offering from Jacob Hashimoto [one of my favorite artists]
and was really pleased to discover this interesting map-related image from Joost Grootens [who I’ve never heard of.]
My biggest surprise — and greatest pleasure — at the show was the tribute to Alexander Girard that Herman Miller has assembled, to help hype five of his textile designs the company is re-introducing [although I think there are others they’ve produced continuously]. “An Uncommon Vision,” as they call it, is a museum-quality exhibition of his textiles, graphics, tabletop items, furniture and a selection of the folk art he collected.
Some fantastic graphic panels
Girard established Herman Miller’s textile division in 1952, was Creative Director until 1973 and died in 1993. Even though he did most of his most important work in the 1950s and 60s, he’s still relevant. I met his grandson Alexander, a painter who goes by the name Kori; [apparently everyone called the grandfather “Sandro”]
The ties are a trip.
As is the line of tableware for Fonda del Sol restaurant
I haven’t sprung for the 600-plus page, $200 [list price on publisher’s website] Todd Oldham monograph, but after seeing the show, I may do it. I didn’t realize how much he’d produced or what an influence he’d had on the Eameses, and how much his aesthetic shaped a particularly New York-centric, midcentury style that made its way from the Herman Miller showrooms to retailers like Design Research, Paraphernalia and Charivari, and thence at least somewhat into the mainstream
I think you can see his influence best in the vignette of the only furniture grouping he designed, in the mid-1960s, for Braniff Airlines [who I actually associate with Emilio Pucci] The aesthetic was eagerly co-opted by Hollywood art directors, particularly as color production became standard. If I were a real design historian, I would do an in-depth analysis of how Girard’s ideas permeated the look of contemporary movie and tv shows, but I’m not. If you think of the Doris Day/ Rock Hudson pictures or shows like Love American Style, you should see what I mean.
I wish I could make a definitive connection between the health of the contract furnishings industry and the economy at large, because the mood at NEOCon is up. Way up. Of course, as the grandaddy of all modern trade shows [now in its 43rd year], it’s unabashedly about sales, so there’s a pervasive atmosphere of positivist hucksterism.
But the good vibes are hardly without foundation. The Business Industry Furnishings Manufacturers Association recently released figures that suggest an industry wide rebound, following several years of declining numbers. BIFMA projects worldwide sales of about $11.4 billion for 2011 and $12.6 billion for 2012.
Irrespective of the industry’s trajectory, NEOCon remains a major spectacle; manufacturers exploit the opportunity to show off in a big way.
I’m always impressed when a showroom space is really transformed for the show. And while I’m not exactly sure how the Antron carpet line is expressed by its installation [which showroom personnel told me was designed by architects Perkins & Will],
I think part of the point of NEOCon is making a big statement, and the ice-cave effect at the Antron space certainly makes a statement. People will remember it, although it’s unclear whether they’ll actually associate it with the brand.
Few in the industry make a statement as well as the Maharam textile concern, which has made itself distinct by visually merchandizing its Merchandise Mart space like an art gallery. It’s a technique that advances Maharam’s brand identity as purveyors of cerebral high-design, so displaying the goods in ceiling-to-floor swaths reinforces the notion that each textile is a unique work of art.
although an important part of his work’s impact is its dimensionality, so you really sense the flatness of the image in the wall panel. The picture on the company website [below] makes it look a lot better.
Luna Textile’s NEOCon gesture has typically involved making a non-furnishings object out of its upholstery fabrics, — trenchcoats were last year, umbrellas I think the year before. This year: briefcases.
Interface Flor mounted a giant chalkboard outside its space — a bricks and mortar version of a Facebook “wall” — and encouraged attendees to “make their mark” thereupon; many attendees gleefully complied.
More than anything, NEOCon is about new product introductions. Some items come to the show already in full production mode; others are still at the prototype stage, and they’re often the most fun. I really liked this “Concierge Desk,” from Loewenstein. Made of molded Corian and LED lighting with remote-controlled color effects, it’s intended to look “futuristic.”
It’s in a vignette that includes Loewenstein’s groovy Orb chair. What’s hard to see in the photo is that a multi-function touch-screen device is inset in the top. You really expect a girl wearing a Mondrian mini-dress and go-go boots to arrive and help you make a dinner reservation.
I like the fact that Herman Miller is aware of its place in design history. This year it assembled an exhibit that spotlights its role in the past half century of seating design,
with materials suggesting the Eameses and their plywood splint inspiration through Mad Men era office items and various Aeron iterations, culminating — for now — with the Sayl designs of Yves Behar, who was live and in person to happily shill some of his product.