50 Years of Neocon

NeoCon has provided a platform for ideas that have transformed the ways we live and work for the past 50 years. Through its first five decades, NeoCon has showcased commercial design’s response to technological advances, cultural change, and growing ecological consciousness.


Before NeoCon

The level of creative output in contract interiors at midcentury was astounding. Modernist visionaries whom we today consider legends presided over postwar American design. Florence Knoll assembled star designers and architects to create furniture for Knoll while she led the charge on office planning. George Nelson and Robert Propst conceived the Action Office at Herman Miller.

In the midst of this design renaissance, the first International Contract Exposition & Congress was planned for Chicago’s McCormick Place in March 1967 with more than 200 exhibitors. But fire destroyed the venue, and the Merchandise Mart, already home to the best furniture showrooms, took on the task of creating the industry event that would become NeoCon.

1969: The First NeoCon

The first annual National Exposition of Contract Interior Furnishings hosted 750 exhibitors. More than a hundred speakers and moderators participated in the inaugural seminars and lectures between June 22 and 27, 1969. The scale of the event was unlike anything the industry had seen before.

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The Industry Organizes

With office planning now firmly entrenched in the designer tool kit and the office systems business booming, it was imperative that the interior design community in the United States come together, set standards, and move the profession forward. The creation of ASID and BIFMA in this decade were huge milestones for the contract furnishings industry.

One of the new rallying cries was environmental consciousness. The United Nations held its first global Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. The energy crises of 1973 and 1979 also put pressure on business leaders to conserve energy.

1970: Gunlocke 2461 Chair

Not all furniture manufacturers followed the midcentury Modernists in giving up solid wood for newfangled plastics and plywood. This classic chair was presented in American walnut or oak.

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1971: Allsteel Private Workstation

By the 1970s, cubicles had entered the mainstream of office design. An early solution by Allsteel offered all the necessary elements for heads-down work, including storage space and pinup surfaces.

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1973: BIFMA Established

The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association became a standard-bearer for contract furniture. Founding members were American Seating Company, Eppinger Furniture, GF Business Equipment, Harter Corporation, Herman Miller, InterRoyal, Knoll International, Steelcase, and Stow/ Davis Company.

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1974: Steelcase Showroom

The Modernist architect and designer Warren Platner, known for his luxurious interiors with mundane materials, created a dramatic space for Steelcase, setting a high bar for showroom design at the Mart. Platner’s design was expanded in 1979 by architect Harry Weese.

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1974: Herman Miller Chadwick Modular

The European Pop design trend began to inject American interiors with a bit of informality and fun. Don Chadwick’s modular furniture was made of five units that could be combined in sinuous configurations.

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1975: ASID Formed

The organization was born out of the consolidation of the American Institute of Decorators (AID) and the National Society of Interior Designers (NSID), with Chicago-based designer Norman deHaan as its first president.

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1976: Maria Bergson

Designer Maria Bergson joins Jane Pauley and others in a NeoCon discussion on the emerging role of professional women.

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1977: Herman Miller Rollback Chair

The 1970s didn’t lack for inventiveness, and this chair by Ray Wilkes symbolizes designers’ willingness to experiment with new forms and work styles.

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1977: A Focus on Energy

The energy crises of the 1970s prompted a discussion at NeoCon titled “Communication, Energy, and Design.”

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Personal Computing and Postmodernism

The first IBM personal computer was unveiled in 1981, unleashing a revolution in workplaces. Apple’s Macintosh computer was released in 1984, and Microsoft launched Windows the following year. Desktop computers began to change work and, by extension, how designers would approach workstations, with new demands for power and data connectivity.

Stylistically, with the first exhibition of Memphis design in Milan in 1981, Postmodernism found its way from architecture to furniture. Manufacturers enlisted noted Postmodern and Deconstructivist architects such as Robert Venturi, Frank Gehry, and Peter Eisenman to design objects and furniture.

1981: DuPont Antron XL Filament

After the recessions of the 1970s, the carpet industry focussed on regaining lost ground through material innovation. This strong, lightweight nylon fiber, available as hollow filaments or in a trilobial cross section, promised a revolution in stain-resistant, durable carpets. The Antron trademark is now held by Invista.

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1982: NeoCon Expo Floor

The eighth floor of the Merchandise Mart hosted Italcenter, a consortium of Italian manufacturers. Over the years the Expo Hall at NeoCon has become a platform for a whole host of special exhibits as well as a launchpad for emerging manufacturers.

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1983: Formica Colorcore

In the late ‘70s, the laminate giant instituted a design advisory board of influential architects and designers to make its products more relevant. Colorcore, a laminate pigmented throughout its body, was launched with a series of Post- modernist objects designed by architects such as Frank Gehry.

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1985: Vitra Figura Chair

The Italian designer Mario Bellini set out to solve ergonomic issues with soft furnishings in this unusual seat for the Swiss company Vitra. The colors and bulky elements reflected the Postmodern zeitgeist.

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1986: Steelcase Sensor Chair

Developed with West German designer Wolfgang Müller- Deisig, this affordable office chair was intended to adjust automatically to all body sizes and movements.

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1988: Knoll Currents

Prewired panels had been available since the 1970s, but Knoll’s Currents system provided a holistic data and power-cable management system that freed up office layouts. It prefigured the need for flexible spaces that would become more vital as computing technology advanced in later decades.

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1988: Versteel Patented Folding Mechanism

Finding a competitive edge became hugely important to manufacturers, and patents for mechanical elements were a great way of securing that edge. This folding mechanism for table bases was designed to be both safe and reliable.

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1988: Tom Brokaw

NeoCon 20 Keynote Tom Brokaw discusses the role of business in the design of the urban environment.

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Ergonomics Reigns Supreme

One of the big impacts of computers in the workplace was that people had to adjust to new ways of sitting. So while the major books on ergonomics—Henry Dreyfuss’s The Measure of Man and Niels Diffrient’s Humanscale—came out in the 1960s and 70s, it wasn’t until computers became ubiquitous that ergonomic task chairs became de rigueur.

Companies spent years of research in getting everything right for blowout chair launches. Michael McCoy and Dale Fahnstrom’s Bulldog Chair for Knoll opened the decade; Herman Miller’s Aeron Chair, shown at NeoCon in 1995, provided a high point in the middle; and Niels Diffrient’s Freedom Chair closed out the decade by catapulting a new company, Humanscale, to prominence.

1990: Knoll Showroom and Bulldog Chair

Award-winning graphic designer Tibor Kalman brought vibrant color to the Knoll showroom in the year that the company launched its second, and hugely successful, ergonomic chair.

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1990: Americans with Disabilities Act Passed

This landmark civil rights legislation put a new onus on employers to provide comfortable working environments for people of all abilities. It provided the impetus for a new wave of ergonomic research that continues to this day.

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1990: Best of NeoCon

Facilities Design and Management Magazine presents the first Best of NeoCon Awards.  Today’s awards are sponsored by Contract Magazine.

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1992: NeoConvoy

The NeoConvoy of branded manufacturer trucks launches on The Mart’s South Drive and runs for several years.

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1993: Steelcase Personal Harbor

Video studies of how people actually work were used to develop this self-contained unit. Each 48 square-foot individual work setting came with its own sliding door.

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1993: U.S. Green Building Council Formed

The USGBC was cofounded by Mike Italiano, David Gottfried, and Rick Fedrizzi, with 60 architecture firms and nonprofits attending the first meeting. It led the charge on sustainable certification.

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1995: IIDA Midnight Affair

The Institute of Business Designers (IBD), the International Society of Interior Designers (ISID), and the Council of Federal Interior Designers (CFID) merged to create the International Interior Design Association in 1994. The following year, IIDA held its first event at NeoCon.

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1995: U.S. Chapter of Forest Stewardship Council

Key to sustainable efforts in the manufacture of wooden furniture, the chapter began to offer FSC Third Party Certification.

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1996: Versteel Companion Chair

This collection was Versteel’s first foray into seating, and its hallmark was versatility. The Companion chair could adapt to a whole host of settings and uses; it is still popular today.

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1997: Teknion Ability Furniture

This full suite of office furniture used technology-friendly features to support flexible, mobile work. Designers had begun to recognize that employees might have different work needs in different situations, and office systems began to embrace this diversity.

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1997: New Trade Shows at the Mart

The NEWHospitalty and Office Expo trade shows were launched, while the Decorex show, spotlighting European-inspired luxury interiors, ran for its second year. These shows tailored platforms to particular market verticals.

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1999: Humanscale Freedom Chair

Task chairs had begun to bristle with knobs and levers, offering the most minute of adjustments, but these features were often lost on the average user. Human-factors pioneer Niels Diffrient believed that comfortable sitting should be intuitive, and designed a chair that automatically adjusted to the sitter. This line of thinking continues to inspire task seating today.

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Pushing for Sustainability

In the new millennium, the contract industry adopted more rigorous standards and third-party certifications, as specifiers made more sophisticated demands for environmental performance.

The decade opened with the unveiling of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system. In 2002, chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which suggested

a new manufacturing paradigm. Many companies quickly made significant strides. Designtex, for instance, was able to offset the full carbon footprint of its global operations—the kind of achievement that would have been inconceivable in a previous decade.

2000: USGBC Unveiled LEED

In March, the USGBC announced the first 12 buildings to be certified under LEED v1.0—all new constructions. By May, an updated version of the standard had been released.

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2001: GreenGuard Indoor Air Quality certification established

Scientist Dr. Marilyn Black established the Greenguard Environmental Institute in 2001, bringing indoor air quality and emissions into the purview of sustainability with GreenGuard Certification.

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2004: Haworth Unveiled New Showroom

Haworth demonstrated its holistic approach to workplaces—one that encompassed technology, building systems, and furniture design—with an award-winning showroom by Perkins & Will/Eva Maddox Branded Interiors. Its raised access floors and movable walls were adopted by other designers. The pool, perhaps not.

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2006: Maharam Layers

Dutch designer Hella Jongerius brought a craft sensibility to this upholstery fabric, which consisted of two layers of felt stitched together. It was an early precursor to the maker movement, in which the handmade aesthetic made a comeback.

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2006: LEVEL Certification Established

As the industry body for contract furniture, BIFMA created Level as a third-party environmental- and social-impact certification program. The certification contributes to several sustainable buildings rating systems.

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2007: Gunlocke Converge Conference Tables

Recognizing that ease of connectivity had become key to successful conferencing, Gunlocke created an adaptable system that could accommodate a host of digital, power, and AV connections.

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2008: Knoll Luxe

Fashion emerged as a key influence on upholstery textiles in this decade, and Dorothy Cosonas’s inaugural collection for KnollTextiles’s Luxe line set the tone for innumerable crossovers between the runway and office furniture.

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2008: NSF/ANSI Introduced Environmental Program

In 2008, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched a sustainability program for companies to reduce the environmental impact of products, supply chains, and operations through a range of standards applicable to various industries.

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2009: Buckminster Fuller Dome

Buckminster Fuller’s original Fly’s Eye dome makes its way to The Mart’s South Lobby as part of the Vitra Lounge.

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The Start-Up Era

The Great Recession of 2008 precipitated an upheaval across all industries. While interior design eventually bounced back from the economic setback, the cultural repercussions changed commercial spaces forever.

Entering the workforce at a difficult juncture and finding few opportunities, the millennial generation began to create its own, launching a host of tech-savvy, countertraditional start-ups. As both employees and entrepreneurs, millennials were digital natives who adopted iPads and telecommuting with great ease; they were cause-driven and brought urgency to ecological and social concerns; and their easy blending of personal and professional goals transformed office culture.

2010: Momentum Textiles Silica

The first ecofriendly alternative to vinyl and polyurethane was created by blending silicone and polyester, with no solvents required. The Silica collection paved the way for all Momentum products to become PVC-free.

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2010: Knoll Antenna Workspaces

Antenna Design’s intention with this office system was to use furniture as an adaptable tool for social interaction. With the table as the starting point, the designers brought functional minimalism back to office design.

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2011: Shaw Contract Music Collection

Among the first projects to receive Cradle to Cradle certification, these carpet tiles designed by Todd Bracher demonstrated that sustainable products could also be poetic. The designer worked with software engineers to translate songs from various musical genres into carpet patterns.

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2011: HBF Nest Chair

A poster child for crossovers in furniture design, this seat by Todd Bracher married traditional materials (steam-bent wood) with cutting-edge ones (mesh) and proved that lounge and task seating were not mutually exclusive categories.

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2013: Steelcase Gesture Chair

In a research exercise reminiscent of the ergonomics studies of the 1970s, Steelcase embraced all the different ways that iPads and laptops had transformed how we sit at work.

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2014: Haworth Openest

Bouncing back from the recession, furniture industries underwent a range of mergers and acquisitions. One of the most dramatic was Haworth’s buyout of the Italian Poltrona Frau Group, which brought Spanish powerhouse Patricia Urquiola into the company’s ambit. With her first product for Haworth, Urquiola set the bar for this decade’s human-centered office furniture—bringing color, texture, and above all, a softer sensibility to the workplace.

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2014: WELL Building Standard established

Founded by Paul Scialla, the International Well Building Institute was created to focus on the intersection of human health and real estate. The institute’s WELL Building standard certifies spaces that promote well-being, and was designed to integrate with LEED certification.

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2014: HiP Awards

Interior Design launches its HiP Awards to honoring the most notable products and industry people of the year.

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2016: Teknion Luum brand

Teknion’s rebranded textiles division launched with a hand loom at the heart of its new space. Designer Suzanne Tick invited attendees to try out the basics of weaving.

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2016: Tarkett Collections Infinies

Customization emerged as a holy grail for contract manufacturers, with clients increasingly demanding uniqueness over standardization in solutions for commercial spaces. This collection—a foray into digital printing in the burgeoning category of luxuiry vinyl tiles—invited designers to co-create their own flooring solutions via an online tool.

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2016: Guerilla Truck Show

A satellite version of the popular emerging design event features prototype work and objects of design in the back of box trucks along The Mart’s South Drive.

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2017: Mohawk Group Lichen

Inspired by nature in both form and content, this collection was the first flooring to receive Living Product Challenge Petal certification. Over the course of its production and installation, Lichen is designed to have a net positive impact on the environment.

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What’s Next?

Office design is being transformed by coworking and virtual reality, even as big data and smart technologies drive new modes of office planning. Trends in residential, hospitality, health-care, education, and workplace interiors continue to converge and intersect.

Human well-being is emerging as a new benchmark for good design, as is inclusivity for people of all abilities, genders, and ages.