July 15, 2024

Furniture Warehouse

Beautiful Space, More Comfortable Living

Flexibility, natural looks lead NeoCon as 400+ companies return to the Chicago tradeshow

4 min read

CHICAGO – More than 400 contract furniture companies specializing in office, hospitality and classroom settings are currently showing off their products and showrooms at this week’s NeoCon, the contract furniture industry’s largest annual tradeshow set in downtown Chicago.

Exhibitors showed off a wide variety of items across many different settings. But several trends weren’t a surprise to those familiar with the residential side. Natural wood tones were strong, as well as organic shapes, “unique” storage options and perhaps most of all: flexibility.

“Our best-selling product is a private office, but we still talk a lot about collaborative settings,” said Lucas Pearl, vice president of product development at Washington-based office furniture specialist Watson. “We’re totally focused on function and flexibility. People’s needs are changing in the office, particularly with storage. Lockers are becoming popular. Same with new and clever ways to store things.”

Watson’s Tonic collection features “trolley” storage, a solution for users with limited space.

Like Watson, classroom and office furniture manufacturer KI is pushing flexibility. Its new Passel desking system includes a more private workstation on each side, with a collaborative area in the middle.

Passel features two workstations with a meeting table in the middle and a storage area in the front.

“We want people to be able to meet in the middle but still have the option to work privately,” said Moroni Mills, product marketing manager.

Also important are communal spots and the office’s growing role as a “cultural hub.” “More of our seating is designed to feel homey and to promote relaxation,” he said. “Our new Zeker L-shaped system is great for the communal spot of an office. It also works for café seating and in lobbies.”

Similarly, for Room & Board, a supplier and retailer offering both residential and contract furniture, it’s about making an office feel like home.

“Because we’re also on the home side, we excel in having that residential look for companies wanting to get people back in the office,” said Jackie Schneider, business manager. “We think there’s less resistance for employees to return if the office can feel like home.”

Room & Board showed off several new items, including the Lisbon (second from left) and Harmon (far right) chairs.


Schneider said the company’s edge lies in its domestic sourcing. Around 90% of its product is made in the U.S.

“We do ‘light’ manufacturing,” she said. “We will get the leather for a chair from one manufacturer and the chair’s base from another. Then we’ll assemble it. Our customers at the mid-to-upper end, which we serve, care about quality construction and that it’s made here. Making here also allows us to ship most of our product in three weeks, helping facilitate projects that are needed to be done quickly.”

NeoCon’s attendees are primarily designers and representatives from architecture studios, so the goals of exhibiting companies are different than they are for residential furniture suppliers at a show like High Point Market. Although they’re of course open for sales and orders, it’s more about brand recognition and getting “specified,” the process of getting recommended by a designer or architect for a prospective project.

“NeoCon is less about writing orders and more about just showing off new product,” said Coleman Gutshall, vice president of strategic operations at Bernhardt Design. “We’re contract driven, and we’re looking for specification from designers and architects.”

Like its sister company in residential, Gutshall says Bernhardt Design specializes in the “jewels” of the office. Sustainability and human-centric design are key. The company showed off several new collections, including the ICE tables, gallery-inspired objects designed in collaboration with architect and artist Daniel Germani.

Bernhardt Design’s ICE tables

“It’s about well-being and elevating the feel of a space,” Gutshall said.

At the primarily residential Ethnicraft, the focus is on the “big fish.”

“We launched a new portal for designers, which is great for them because they often just buy lone items,” said Anne-Marie Earl, U.S. communications manager, who says the company’s contract side is growing. “It allows us to invest more time and sales efforts for the bigger architecture firms. Our product focus is solid wood and high-quality construction. People are wanting the natural wood grains and just everything natural, just like residential.”

Like residential, exhibiting companies said business is weaker post-COVID.

“Contract has slowed, but it’s not in the doldrums,” said Gutshall. “We didn’t have the craze of COVID like residential did. We’ve sort of gone from a fire hose level of business to a garden hose. We just have to work harder for business. The election and high interest rates are affecting us, too.”

At Watson, Pearl agreed. “Europeans are back in the office, but the U.S. hasn’t moved as fast,” he said. “Business is still down from pre-COVID, but it’s coming back.

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