Notes From NeoCon

July 22, 2007
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The massive annual trade show of the commercial furnishings industry, the NeoCon World’s Trade Fair in Chicago, has come and gone, with its major players already looking forward to the year ahead.

To gauge some of the trends coming out of the industry this year, Commercial Quarterly tapped some of the region’s more prominent third-party delegates.

Sustainability

Thomas Newhouse, principal of Thomas J. Newhouse Design in Standale, one of West Michigan’s most accomplished design studios: “There is a green movement of architecture and designers in the U.S. trying to catch up with Europe, which is ahead of us, and we see that especially in the office environment. We’re trying to green buildings.”

Tod Babick, principal of industrial design house PLOW in Grand Rapids and one of two local jurors in the Best of NeoCon competition: “Everyone is having some dialogue about it, and it gets more and more meaningful as the years go by. It’s continuing to gain broader acceptance and is moving beyond just green to talk of other aspects of sustainability — social equity issues: Who is making this stuff and where?”

Bruce Sienkowski, principal of Ada-based 2B Studio and one of two local jurors in the Best of NeoCon competition: “The big question we asked when we were looking for innovation was what in your product supports sustainability.

“There were two wall-covering products. One would reclaim vinyl wall covering and remanufacture it into new wall covering. Normally, vinyl wall covering has only one place to go and that’s to the landfill. The other was a composite of materials that allowed the product to actually be compost-able. You take it off the wall and put it into the ground and it will dissolve into nothing.

“The other one was the Brazo light from Haworth that took Best of Competition. A couple of things incorporated into that product were features that pertained to sustainability, one of which was using a low-voltage, high-efficiency light source, LED. Not only does it take less energy to run, but it lasts for 20 years if you use them every day for eight hours a day. And it was easily disassembled, and the materials could be put into the recycling stream and had value to them. There is quite a bit built into that rather simple-looking product — that was an example of where innovation today is going to come from.”

Lighting

Newhouse: “An LED task light won Best of Show, which is really without precedent. Ergonomic lighting is becoming more important. We’re an aging populace — me being 57, I’m right in that (baby) boomer middle — and we’re needing more light and better quality light.”

Residential Influences

Michael Dunlap, principal of Michael A. Dunlap & Associates in West Olive, a consultant to the office furniture industry: “I saw a continuation of a trend that I call crossover furniture. Four years ago, I began to see a softening of the design, colors, shapes and things that are really more in tune with what we might typically associate with residential furniture.

“The industry has taken several steps further since then, and it’s gone through office, hospitality, education, and into the health care market, as well.

“What we used to see was much more defined lines for the different market applications. It was very easy to say, ‘Oh that’s health care furniture or that looks like it would belong in an office.’ Now you see freestanding product that could very easily be, not just in an office environment, but in learning, residential, health care or pretty much anywhere.”

Babick: “I’ve always believed that there may be a performance distinction, but there are no meaningful design distinctions between good residential furniture and good office furniture. The way I design everything I’m working on is if I can’t put it in my house, then I don’t consider it very successful — and that’s something many companies are embracing.

“It’s kind of like the Eames legacy stuff for Herman Miller: Everybody wants it in their house. Some of that was designed with residences in mind, but it’s neither residential or contract — it’s just beautiful stuff.”

Health Care

Babick: “There is a real emphasis on health care solutions. Everyone wants to get into that market because, A, that is a market sorely needing good design, and B, it’s a market that isn’t going away.”

Newhouse: “The force of talent applying themselves to the health care environment is going to improve it.”

Flexibility

Newhouse: “Continuing awareness that everyone has an adjustable height, and not just in chairs. Without an adjustable height top, the ergonomic chair, no matter how well designed, will always be maladjusted. You need to adjust both in concert. Once you have that, you can get rid of these clunky keyboard arms, and you can lean forward and rest your forearms on the table. Now your upper body is supported and you’ve got a much more comfortable world.”

Brian Bascom, principal of Velocity Partners, a Holland market research firm specializing in furniture, health care and technology: “We’re seeing more and more freestanding flexible furniture. That’s being driven twofold: by the architecture and design community, and by facilities managers who are making the move away from traditional systems furniture due to the high cost of reconfiguring it.”

Overall Impression

Sienkowski: “This is my 25th NeoCon, and no time in the past have so many people asked for my impressions. Maybe because they can’t figure it out.

“You have this unique perspective being on the jury; you get to see a cross section of what each manufacturer thinks is their best work. I think there are times when some of those ideas are not as revolutionary to the world as they are to the manufacturer.

“It’s not necessarily an emperor’s new clothing type of scenario, but the advancement in the product typically comes from new discoveries in the use of materials and technologies. You’re not going to create some revolutionary new panel system no one has ever seen before, and seating is the same way: There have been so many ergonomics and materials studies done that it’s tough to find a new twist.

“My general impression was: not that exciting. Last year, Herman Miller introduced My Studio (Environments), and that made some sense; it advanced the office systems business some. When you start talking about lamps and wall coverings, people’s eyes kind of glaze over.” CQ

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