The Chicago weather this June was decidedly unseasonal. Delegates to Neocon were welcomed on Monday by overcast skies and low temperatures and were bid a fond farewell on Wednesday by threats of a derecho – destructive winds, golf ball-sized hail, flash flooding and even tornadoes, which were expected to sweep through the Chicago area on the final day of the show. In between, the weather gave us a taste of everything, including fog. In contrast, the business atmosphere was anything but cool – it was like old times, with lots of optimism and enthusiasm. There may not have been quite as many dramatic new products as in the high-flying days but after years of economic upheaval and the dumbing-down effects of aggressively priced commodity products from Asia, there was evidence of fresh thinking and design-led investment from some of the larger companies.

More than 45,000 had pre-registered for the show, many more than in recent years, and judging by the massive Monday morning crowds fighting their way through the registration process, they all arrived at the same time. In theory, Neocon is a three day show and if only visits were spread more evenly over all the show’s opening hours, the visitor experience would be much more satisfactory. Instead, everyone turns up on Monday, overloads the elevators, blocks the corridors and swamps the showrooms, especially on the third floor. No one expects to get salespeople’s attention on Monday, so new ideas and products go unexplained and visitors have to guess the stories behind what they’re seeing. The trickle of visitors still around on Wednesday have the luxury of viewing the displays in peace and quiet, but no hope of seeing anyone senior – they have all gone home, exhausted.

Neocon has increasingly become two shows; the permanent showrooms on floors 3, 10 and 11 have little to do with the temporary show stands on floors 7 and 8. Us and them. Who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ depends on your perspective. The space available on floors 7, and to an even greater extent on 8, was not fully taken up which was probably a reflection of the dismal state of the markets in the countries from where these exhibitors usually hail. Similarly, there seemed to be fewer overseas visitors than in past years. By contrast, everything about the permanent showroom floors was hyper – not a spare inch of space and heaving crowds of visitors making it hard to get around, and very noisy.

The most obvious trends involved aspects of technology, European styling, homely furniture, earthy colors and felt. Some companies seem to be so intent on promoting the technology, they seem to have forgotten they’re furniture manufacturers. Although there was no evidence of any wholesale invasion by European companies into the market, European styles of benches and high backed seating enclosures abounded. As for colors, white benches were fighting upholstered furniture shown in primary colors and all shades of yellow and orange. However, there was also a noticeable use of earthy, muted, browns, tans, warm greys and greens. The use of felt as an upholstery material made its appearance in 2012 but this year, it was everywhere – suspended from ceilings, sitting on floors and dividing up spaces.

For some years, the trade association, BIFMA, has heavily promoted its environmental and sustainability standard they call Level which has been taken up by 50 companies, including some from outside North America. This has led to signed-up companies, and others, this year, for the first time, promoting all things environmental. One wonders whether all the claims they made were in fact sustainable.

There wasn’t as much light-hearted fun as usual at this year’s Neocon. Apart from lots of noisy bucolic showroom parties – why on earth were they all held at the same time on Monday afternoon? – there was only AIS’ silent disco; a bit like the visual equivalent of a karaoke – which bemused most visitors, who looked as though they were rather too self conscious to join in.

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