Converging Trends Take Form with Contract Furniture
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Converging Trends Take Form with Contract Furniture

July 9, 2013

John Phillips

In mid June I attended the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings, or NeoCon. This conference-slash-tradeshow serves as the epicenter of the contract furniture world, and is held at Chicago's gargantuan Merchandise Mart, the show's permanent home for over 40 years. The big draw is an opportunity to stay abreast of the latest advancements in design, technology, materials and thought leadership in the contract furniture world. Which, you may say, is all marvelous…except I don't really care about furniture, so what does it have to do with me? The answer is, you should: it's far more relevant than you may realize.

A 40-foot bank of seamless digital monitors stretches floor to ceiling along two adjoining walls.  Against a space-like black background, constellations of bright, continuously changing sketches, flipboarding data points and dynamic information graphics bombard the senses.  But where is this immersive display all unfolding?  Not on the floor at CES.  Not at the headquarters of a tech giant or the latest social media starlet.  It’s happening at the product showroom of Steelcase, a leading contract furniture manufacturer, at NeoCon 2013.

In mid June I attended the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings, or NeoCon (NOT to be confused with the political homonym!).  This conference-slash-tradeshow serves as the epicenter of the contract furniture world, and is held at Chicago’s gargantuan Merchandise Mart, the show’s permanent home for over 40 years.  The annual event brings together tens of thousands of professionals from around the globe and across an array of industries including architecture, interior design, industrial design, and buying/specification of many breeds.  The big draw is an opportunity to stay abreast of the latest advancements in design, technology, materials and thought leadership in the contract furniture world.  Which, you may say, is all marvelous…except I don’t really care about furniture, so what does it have to do with me?  The answer is, you should: it’s far more relevant than you may realize.

First off, in all likelihood, you use contract furniture all the time.  This category of furniture, as opposed to residential (think Ashley Furniture or Ethan Allen) and one-off/custom pieces (like that outlandish chair you saw on Pinterest), constitutes everything from office to hospitality, education to government, and even medical.  That mobile computer workstation at the doctors office?  The array of training tables in your client’s meeting room?  Your integrated desk/cubicle/storage system you spend so much of your working life at?  Those cool-looking lounge chairs in your favorite hotel lobby?  All examples of contract furniture.  Which means all of them were designed with consideration for a specific purpose, but with the ability to fill the same need for a wildly diverse range of users.  And to do so – durably – over the course of a relatively lengthy product lifespan.

Then there’s the impact on the bottom line.  There is a growing collective self-awareness of recent and rapid changes in our work-related behaviors.  The factors driving these changes are myriad, spanning social, economic, and technological trends, among others.  At the human level, significant shifts in generational values, interests, and expectations around work/life balance are reshaping the how and where of the workforce. This theme – the increasing bleed between work and home life – in fact is central to the aesthetic of the Serif task table, a collaboration between myself and two other Art Center College of Design alums.  The table, which is currently licensed and produced by Bernhardt Design, features a form language equally suited to personal and professional settings; it’s sleek and modern enough for use in large corporate settings, yet elegant and warm enough to fit seamlessly in a home office.

New markets, industries, and revenue models that have emerged over the last decade, joined by economic pressures, have incentivized alternatives to traditional in-person meetings and workflow (FastCompany recently features a related article).  All the while technology evolves, relentlessly creating new possibilities – all manner of devices, materials, and means of communication  – cyclically solving existing challenges and creating new ones.  Each of these aspects ties into an evolving relationship between office furniture in a reciprocal way; these trends influence design and catalyze innovative furniture solutions, facilitating the many ways and environments in which we work…which through use reveal new unmet work needs and wants and related lead-user behavior.

Steelcase knows this.  So do other giants in the contract furniture world, like Herman Miller, Haworth, and Allsteel.  What’s noteworthy is the emphasis being placed on big-budget global user research.  And what’s quite new is the front-and-center visibility:  in-depth design research (the type Kelton does) served as centerpiece of display for these brands at the 2013 show.   Steelcase identified 9 new postures associated with our modern lives, while HM invited attendees to interactively explore spatial layouts based on their latest study of multi-environment work spaces and “Living Offices”.   What I personally found most striking is the transparency of process and the elevation of research itself – not simply the resulting end products – emerging as a powerful competitive variable.  This focus on showcasing creativity and strategic thinking, all packaged in engaging narrative is deeply reminiscent of the work Kelton is known for and increasingly does.

John Phillips

Senior Director, Design Research

With a background in product and service design, John provides a different perspective on design research and strategy with an emphasis on tactical implementation. As Senior Director of Design...

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