At the risk of getting political, the term “neoconservative”/”neocon” hasn’t always had the best reputation, especially not in Europe where its connotations of American supremacy through military force has long made it a subject for suspicion, intrigue and popular rejection.
Thus for us it is all the more amusing that one of America’s main contemporary furniture trade fairs should be “NeoCon”. The imagery the name conjures up easily keeping us amused for the duration of a transatlantic flight……
Staged since 1969 in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart wholesale showroom and exhibition centre, a building so big it famously has its own ZIP Code, NeoCon is America’s largest platform for “contract furnishings” – so essentially, though not exclusively, office furniture, and the 2016 edition featured some 500 companies across three floors of permanent showrooms and one floor of temporary trade fair stands.
First things first. There is nothing glamorous about NeoCon. A building full of men in suits trying to convince other men in suits that their chairs are more ergonomic and environmentally responsible, their height adjustable tables more health promoting and their soundproof booths better soundproofed than those very, very similar looking objects being offered by the man in a suit further down the corridor, is never a good place to find oneself.
Outside is life, colour, titillation, noise, dirt, emotion, natural light.
For three days.
But then events such as NeoCon exist to sell furniture, or at least to promote the potential sale of furniture, that’s their raison d’etre. We and our perverse fascination with design quality just have to grind our way through, hoping to find projects that reaffirm our faith in the truth that a design led furniture industry is a healthy and sustainable furniture industry.
And Hallelujah we did!
As ever what follows is our subjective assessment of those new products on show, or at least products new to us. And as ever we didn’t see everything, and didn’t necessarily understand all that we did see, that said here our NeoCon Chicago 2016 High Five!
Horsepower by Antenna Design for Knoll
Good design is, as we recently noted, not necessarily a case of finding the correct solution but of correctly understanding the question. Which is why we have long admired both the Kantbank by Andreas Grindler for kkaarrlls and the metal bar that runs around the border of the exhibition halls in Milan. A metal bar which we presume is there for security but which is often the best chair design in any given hall. Sometimes we just need a place to perch. Which is also the reason why we were immediately taken by Antenna Design’s Horsepower for Knoll. When you’re next out and about in an urban, civic or commercial space, look around you, you will see untold individuals sitting on stairs, bollards, window sills, their luggage, the floor, and every 5th person will have a mobile device charging in some hastily found, inconveniently located, plug. Give the people a simple beam. Equip that beam with a cushioned top. And plugs. And USB charging ports. The world can be that simple.
BuzziJungle by Jonas Van Put for BuzziSpace
The future of office environments is vertical. Not all office environments obviously, that would be ridiculous. But as part of an integrated office environment, an environment that features areas for quiet work, concentrated group work, brainstorming, social and individual free time, vertical solutions are becoming increasingly unavoidable, as they offer spatial and organisational possibilities traditional “2D” office environments simply cannot. In the past we have posted favourably on, amongst other innovations, the installation “The End of Sitting” by RAAAF & Barbara Visser at gallery Looiersgracht 60 in Amsterdam and on the effortlessly logical “Shrinking Office Project” by Rotterdam based Roy Yin. The BuzziJungle is, as far as we are aware, and we may be wrong, the first commercially available solution for vertical workplace solutions. Developed by Belgian designer Jonas Van Put for Belgian brand BuzziSpace, the BuzziJungle is freely configurable and thus can be adapted to meet the specific requirements of a given location and offers a range of options for sitting or lying at a range of heights and thus an environment for either informal group work or for employees to hang a little during the work day. No we’re not particularly taken by the use of wire meshing as the base for sitting/lying, understand the thinking, just feel it gives it a very slight “prison” feel, and yes would have preferred something modular rather than the rigid and permanent version presented; however, as an entry into a brave new world the BuzziJungle is a very positive and very welcome step. And the fact that BuzziSpace have taken it, not only makes perfect sense, but also bodes well for future developments.
Massaud Conference Low Back by Jean-Marie Massaud for Coalesse
The Massaud Chair by French designer Jean-Marie Massaud for US manufacturer Coalesse isn’t new, the Low Back Conference version is, and for us the defining, if not crowning, feature are the armrests. Visually very reminiscent of Hans J Wegner’s PP19 “Papa Bear Chair” the armrests’ well considered curvature make them convenient – something, somewhat ridiculously, not always achieved by armrests – and in addition allow for a very comfortable sitting experience, without unnecessarily cocooning the sitter. One has freedom and enjoys that freedom. Add to this comfort and usability, the very nice, clean, connection between seat and backrest, and the welcoming familiarity more akin to a lounge chair than a conference chair and you have a very well rounded and interesting object. Yes, the conference and guest chair market is arguably over-saturated, but for us the Massaud Conference Low Back is a very welcome addition to the genre. And we can think of a good few others we’d could happily do without.
Presto by Thorsten Franck for Wilkhahn
Furniture design isn’t just about developing formally attractive objects, indeed in many respects that is the last thing furniture design is about; much more furniture design is about adapting to changes in the social, cultural, economic and ecological contexts in which furniture is used, adapting to changing technology and thus new processing possibilities and about following the evolution of materials and of translating this evolution into new products and/or production processes. An excellent example of the latter is the new Presto stool by Munich based designer Thorsten Franck for the German manufacturer Wilkhahn. A bi-conical stool there is nothing especially new or exciting in the form, visually pleasing as it unquestionably is; however there is plenty new and exciting about the fact that it is a 3D printed stool. According to Thorsten the possibility to print such a stool only arose with recent developments in the commercially available materials for 3D printing; whereas such was previously theoretically possible, the thermal stability of the material meant that on hot days the stability of the structure couldn’t be guaranteed. Newer materials being more thermally stable allow for the required stability. A further important factor in Presto’s stability is the exterior pattern. More than mere ornamentation the pattern provides for the physical stability of the very thin-walled structure. Form following function in that the decoration is functional. A state of affairs which we believe is very much in the spirit of Louis H Sullivan.
Aside from the object itself what particularly excites us about Presto is that it takes us one step closer to decentralised industrial furniture production. The idea of producing a furniture object in location X and shipping it around the world is becoming ever less justifiable, and every technological, material or process development that brings us a step closer to reducing such to a bear minimum is to be celebrated.
Technically “available” in a variety of patterns and sizes, NeoCon Chicago was a “pre-launch-launch” the main product launch, and market availability, is planned for Orgatec Cologne this coming autumn.
Zip by Alex Akopova for Bernhardt Design
Legs on a sofa unquestionably have an important function. Aren’t however universally necessary. Just as a bed can rest on the floor, so a sofa. Created as part of a long standing collaboration between US manufacturer Bernhardt Design and students from the Pasadena based Art Center College of Design Zip by Alex Akopova delightfully demonstrates that removing the legs not only changes the way a sofa relates to a given space, but also provides for a new sitting experience, different modes of seating and thus a different relationship with the sofa.
And yes, it is a sofa. Zip is no glorified bean bag. But a sofa. And a very comfortable one at that. And a modular one to boot. The individual units are sturdy without being overly heavy and join together via a, well, Zip, meaning that one can effortlessly configure and reconfigure the units to meet your current needs, be that a group sofa, individual chairs or a landscape featuring both. A functionality perhaps more important in an office, commercial, public space situation than in a domestic setting; and although created for contemporary office environments, we do see Zip working equally as well as a domestic object.
The other advantage of a sofa without legs is of course that should you fall asleep on it, either deliberately because your having a nap, or involuntarily because it is Thursday afternoon and its been a long week, and subsequently roll off, the way down is short and the landing painless. It can be important……..