NeoCon 2016 Design Themes: Form and Function

For forty-nine years, contract office furniture manufacturers, dealers, and buyers have come together to meet under one roof at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago’s River North for the annual NeoCon conference — the largest office furniture trade event in North America.


The Mart, Chicago
The Mart in Chicago


Chicago’s famous Merchandise Mart is an imposing structure. Built by department store retail giant Marshall Fields & Co. during the tail end of the Roaring Twenties, the 4 million square foot facility is sited on two full city blocks with a commanding view that overlooks the fork of Chicago’s river system. 

The sheer scale of the “Mart” structure fulfilled a long-held dream of Marshall Field’s President James Simpson to create a national wholesale center with everything under one roof. It was said to replace over twelve individual warehouses.

Indeed, this Art Deco masterpiece was the world’s largest building from the day it opened in 1930 until the Pentagon opened in Virginia after World War II. The facility has been updated and modernized over the years, and most impressively achieved Silver level LEED Certification in 2007 for energy conservation and sustainability.


NeoCon Will Celebrate its 50th Anniversary in 2017

For many of us in the contract furniture business, the industry calendar is dominated by the trek to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart for the annual National Exposition of Contract Furnishings, commonly known as NeoCon.

NeoCon’s big anniversary — 50 years — is coming up in June 2017. As it approaches this major milestone, we can attest the event is as popular as ever.

More than 50,000 attendees from all corners of the globe passed through the gates at this year’s NeoCon – representing the full spectrum of contract furniture manufacturers, dealers, buyers, architects, designers, and the interested public.

The sheer rush of people on the first day of the event was something to be seen. Everyone appeared to be anxious to experience it all – as quickly as possible — and to get up to speed on the latest NeoCon design trends.

Indeed there was much to see — over a million square feet of trade show exhibition space with four full floors filled to the brim with showrooms and temporary exhibits. The show’s management hinted there were more than 1,000 different exhibitors on site at the Mart. Together, they displayed their very latest product designs in categories ranging from contract office furniture and lighting, wall and floor coverings (including innovative surface treatments in textiles, tile, and stone) and ancillary contract furniture accessories.

It remains to be seen if a single buyer at this year’s NeoCon surpassed the speed shopping record set back in 1983 by the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, who reportedly chartered a 747 to fly back home with $1.6 million of furniture lighting and fabrics purchased at the Mart during a harried weeklong shopping haul.

Aside from shopping for the latest product innovations, furniture professionals also come to the annual NeoCon event to meet face-to-face with their business contacts and colleagues – as well as to take advantage of on-site continuing education programs.


Are Cubicle Furniture Systems Getting Pushed Out of the Picture?

privacy panels for office desk
Privacy Panels

If you’re a long time reader of the Formaspace website, you’ll recall we’ve been writing for several years on how office space allocation is changing — cubicle furniture systems designed for individual employees are increasingly being supplemented by furniture solutions that promote moving around throughout the day.

If the new product introductions on display at the 2016 NeoCon show are any indication, we may have reached a tipping point. According to Formaspace CEO and Founder Jeff Turk, there were very few traditional cubicle units on display at the Merchandise Mart.

Does this mean the death knell for new sales of cubicle furniture systems? The answer: certainly not yet and mostly likely cubicles will never go away in entirety. However, it’s striking how far the office furniture industry trend has swung in favor of innovative new hybrid office furniture solutions.


What are Some Examples of Hybrid Furniture Solutions That are Replacing Cubicles?

At NeoCon we saw a wide variety of clever furniture combination that provides many of the features of cubicles — yet were decidedly NOT cubicles.

For example, many new furniture solutions — ranging from desks to chairs to small sofas — either incorporated built-in privacy panels or were accompanied by free-standing ancillary privacy screens. Oftentimes, these panels and screens served multiple functions. Some had built-in dry erase panels, while others incorporated noise absorption materials.


Trend Watch: Storage Transformed into Mobile Seating

Traditional storage units haven’t escaped the attention of furniture designers either. Many exhibitors at this year’s NeoCon exhibition introduced low-slung, mobile storage units that featured built-in seating — making them perfect to slide up next to a desk for a quick, important collaborative meeting with a colleague.


Sit-to-Stand Desks for Office Use are Going Mainstream

sit to stand desk
Sit to Stand Desks at Neocon

Here at Formaspace, we have been promoting healthy, ergonomic ‘Sit-to-Stand’ workstations for many years. If you are not familiar with this type of desk, they allow you to change positions from sitting to standing at the touch of a button. At this year’s NeoCon exhibition, we saw the wide-spread adoption of desk and table solutions that incorporate built-in vertical height adjustment; it’s safe to say that this type of furniture can be considered standard fare for contract office furniture from here on out.


Emerging Trend: Furniture Designed for Makerspaces

One trend we’ve been following recently is the proliferation of Makerspaces (also known variously as Hackerspace or Fab Labs). Makerspaces function as shared community workspaces where people with similar interests can share information and equipment (like 3D printers) as they explore their interests in new technological developments. At NeoCon, we saw a few suppliers starting to offer furniture tailored to this new and exciting market segment.

Makerspace at Neocon
Makerspace at Neocon

Things We Didn’t See in Great Abundance at NeoCon

While other furniture manufacturers have adopted features that Formaspace has offered for years, there happen to be quite a few features found in Formaspace furniture that we didn’t see many other manufacturers offering.


Industrial Strength Furniture Designed to Stand the Test of Time

One thing we didn’t see a lot of at NeoCon was furniture as strong as the desks and workstations we build here at our Austin, Texas headquarters.

By now you probably know Formaspace builds exceptionally tough, industrial-class furniture that can take on heavy-duty tasks. Our tables and workstations are designed to support a minimum of 1,000 pounds each.

That makes them much stronger than the typical contract office furniture we saw on display at NeoCon, most of which are limited to at most 300 pounds load capacity.

What does this mean in practice? Formaspace furniture is tough enough to add a convenient bookcase or storage unit on top without sagging or bending. It also means our heavy-duty furniture will wear much longer — we guarantee all our furniture for a full 12 years.


sit to stand parsons desk
Height Adjustable Office Desk



Custom Industrial Furniture with Your Choice of Materials, Including Maple Hardwood and More

At NeoCon this year, we observed that plastic laminate tops with an artificial wood finish were very popular.

But we have to ask: Given the choice between solid wood and plastic laminate that looks like wood, wouldn’t you prefer real wood?

Fortunately, that’s a popular option we offer at Formaspace.

It’s true. You can order Formaspace furniture made with real solid wood, including our very popular maple hardwood. We also offer work surfaces in stainless steel as well as other surface options used in manufacturing facilities (such as ESD, HDPE, and Phenolic Resin).


What About Fully Custom Designs with ‘Live-edge’ Designs Using Rare or Reclaimed Woods?

If you’ve been inspired by the handcrafted wood tables by George Nakashima, you’ll be interested to know that Formaspace can create custom-made conference tables and desks using unique materials, including rare and reclaimed woods.


Our Custom Office Furniture Manufacturing Capabilities are Expansive – Get to Know More About Formaspace 

Our ability to manufacturing customized furniture goes far beyond using unique work surface materials in unique spaces.

We have both the expertise and the flexibility to develop a one-of-a-kind product just for you.

If you have been looking for a rare piece for one of your clients or for your own office use, get in touch with a Formaspace Design Consultant today

You’ll be glad you did.



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