Don Chadwick on 50 Years of NeoCon

On the occasion of NeoCon's 50th edition, Chadwick reflects on his career and the design industry's evolution.
Don Chadwick 50 years NeoCon

Don Chadwick Courtesy Chadwick Studio


At age 82, the veteran furniture designer Don Chadwick still attends NeoCon—he was at the Mart last year to mark the launch of the new and improved Herman Miller Aeron chair, which he first designed in 1994. On the occasion of NeoCon’s 50th edition, Chadwick spoke to Metropolis about his favorite product to be released at NeoCon, how product releases have changed over the years, and what he thinks should be the goals for product designers today. The following as-told-to text was reported by Avinash Rajagopal.

My first NeoCon was in 1974—that’s when Herman Miller introduced the modular seating. It was very exciting for me because this was the first major product I had done for Herman Miller. And they were very generous in the way they showed it in their showroom at the time.

I’ve been to NeoCon many, many times since. There are other important venues like the Milan Fair. But the Milan Fair isn’t so much about contract work—I only did it once. NeoCon has always been the most important venue for U.S. manufacturers and now it’s becoming more important for some of the foreign manufacturers because the market is strong here.

My most important release at NeoCon was the Equa Chair, introduced in 1984. It was probably one of the earliest chairs to demonstrate a sort of self-adjusting shell. Prior to that all shell chairs, for the most part, were rigid and had very little ergonomic movement in them. The Equa shell became the first of a series of chairs that adjusted to body type and weight. The other innovative aspect of the chair of Equa, was that the seat was floated above the structure. The whole idea was to really visually demonstrate the functionality of the chair. Up until that time, most chairs would either hide or disguise any kind of tilt mechanism.

At NeoCon I spend time going into all the other show rooms because I’ve designed products for many manufacturers—I did work for Knoll, I did a product for Humanscale. So I’ve made it a point to go around all the show rooms and see what was going on. There’s value in taking a look at what the competition is doing. Or more importantly, what the competition isn’t doing.

If we go back to 1974 when we introduced the modular seating, you didn’t have the internet, so the way of communicating your product really was through analog items, like brochures. Pretty graphics became very important. We also did a video, which demonstrated the concept behind the chair in a playful way.

But today, a lot goes on, even before the product is shown at NeoCon. That’s the official exposure, but before that a lot of people or groups are brought in to see a product to get some feedback. I think it’s much more market-research driven today than it was back in 1974, for instance. Or even 1984.

On the other hand, there’s a tendency for design today to be a little bit fashionable. I think a lot of design is disguised as fashion. It’s difficult to be impressed by a lot of this new work unless it really has a great value and provides, in the case of a chair, for instance, comfort, functionality, sustainability. The products that exhibit those qualities will stay around for a while. I’d rather work on something a long time and have it be available for a long life if possible.

You may also enjoy “Minnesota Design: Tracing Architect and Designer Ralph Rapson’s Reign.”

Categories: Design, Furniture