1. NeoCon 2017: Six Observations from the Merchandise Mart


  1. 1. The future of design is brighter than its past.

Anyway the designers look brighter. As a board member at IIDA, Primo’s focus over the next three years will be to promote and strengthen design education. If the kids who participated in this year’s Student Charrette at NeoCon are any indication, that’s going to be a plum job. We have noticed in the quality of portfolios young design grads are submitting to O+A a sophistication and depth of knowledge that wasn’t apparent a few years ago. The next generation is not just design-savvy; they’re thoughtful about the impact their work will have—on climate change, the housing crisis, the economy. These kids want to change the world.

  1. 2. Workplace is the center of the action.

And where better to start (changing the world) than in the world we all inhabit most of the day? At O+A we’ve been thinking hard about workplace design for a quarter of a century. It’s satisfying to come to Chicago and find that everyone else is interested too. Used to be seating strategies and meeting room options were esoteric stuff. Now every cab driver and hotdog vendor has an opinion on open plan.

  1. 3. Furniture is sculpture.

This has always been true (as Charles and Ray Eames would be quick to point out), but NeoCon reminds us every year that an artful table may outlive its meeting room (or even its company). This year there were striking exercises in minimalism by Fantoni and Martin Brattrud, lighting that evoked Alexander Calder by Marset and playful shapes from Mac Stopa (Tapa and River Snake) Stylex (Yoom) and Snowsound (Diesis). When you consider that all of these products were designed for the workplace market, it’s clear we have moved a long way from cubicles and task chairs.

  1. 4. All the world’s a circle.

Judging from the design blogs one of the hits of this year’s show was Maharam’s circle of fabric by Leon Ransmeier. Last year Ransmeier hung Maharam’s textiles from L-shaped structures that, taken together, suggested a rug merchant’s stall in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. This year the fabrics hung from a circular frame that evoked an even older inspiration—the oracles and theaters of ancient Greece. There’s no surer path to modernity than reviving ancient forms that have stood the test of time.

  1. 5. “Design” rhymes with “party.”

Every profession has its get-togethers, banquets and celebrations, but designers seem to require champagne and cheese the way other organisms require light and water. Awards events alone crowded the champagne circuit—Contract Magazine’s Best of NeoCon Awards, Interior Design Magazine’s HiP Awards, Metropolis Magazine’s Metropolislikes Awards, IIDA’s Cool Awards. And then there were all the showroom parties, the NeoCon/Interior Design Block Party and after-parties at bars, clubs and steakhouses all over the Loop. Guess it makes sense that people who create environments are really good at creating the environment for a party.

  1. 6. Time to retire the phrase “rust belt.”

Can we agree the time has come to put this cliche to bed? Chicago in the summer is a city Jules Verne might have dreamed up—the El snaking through soaring architecture, river boats cruising past showcase spaces, the culture, the commerce. Given the makeovers currently under way in Detroit and Pittsburgh and even clunky old Cleveland (sorry, Dan), it seems clear “the industrial Midwest” is redefining itself in more sustainable terms. Can’t think of a better future for this once-maligned part of the country than to become a national center of green design, green building and climate-conscious industry—all themes amply represented at this year’s NeoCon.


Written by: Al McKee