Acting Up at NeoCon

For O+A’s designers, NeoCon always requires an action plan. We are never just visitors attending a furniture fair to scout product and go to parties. We’re participants. This year was no exception. At our first live NeoCon since the pandemic, we plunged in just like old times—but with a “new times” mindset. Primo joined two panel discussions; Verda and her podcast partner Jon Strassner did a talk and several live broadcasts; Lauren P judged new product and competed in Interior Design Magazine’s HiP Awards (and won!); and our design roadies, Grace, Kaylen, and Mhalu… okay, scouted product and went to parties.

One lesson the design industry seems to have drawn from the pandemic’s disruptions is that now is the time to act—and if necessary, act up—on whatever front of radical change is currently in your face. NeoCon’s theme this year was “Design Makes a Statement,” and advocacy and activism ran through the exhibits like a hot new fabric.

Furniture Speaks!

Grace noted that mobility was built into a lot of solutions. Wheels! Everything on wheels, as if the furniture itself was pledging to get active. Outdoor workplaces, plants, moveable walls, furniture with built-in charging outlets—designers are clearly thinking hard about how to make our spaces as adaptable, as active as possible. Kaylen detected a similar purpose in the soft curves, rounded edges, and warm tones of many products. It’s been a hard-edged couple of years. Maybe comfort is the radical stance now. Sustainable comfort.

Mhalu put it this way: “What excites me about NeoCon, beyond seeing and testing the latest and greatest products, is the stories and brains behind the products.” She was talking about Carl Magnusson explaining Silent Silo, the elegant phone booth he designed for Knoll. And Bernard Brucha demonstrating Mural, the agile space configuration tool MASH Studios produced for Allsteel. And Mia Cullin, whose furniture designs combine recycled steel with responsibly-sourced wood and natural fabrics in ways that prove an eco-friendly world IS possible.

Disruption Is the New Ho-Hum

“Design in the Face of Fear,” was the title of the panel at which Primo joined Eventscape’s Gareth Brennan and Woods Bagot’s Kristi Ninivaggi to talk about hope, not fear. (Designers don’t do fear except in the privacy of their own panic rooms.) So the conversation was about how custom fabrication could be a tool for critically thinking through a problem and devising a solution. Devising solutions was also a theme at Cindy Allen’s roundtable on the future of workplace for Interior Design Magazine. It’s a perennial subject in design circles, made newly relevant by this era of apparently ceaseless disruption.

There was a sense all over NeoCon this year that disruption was finally baked into the design cake—and if the cake looked a little wobbly at times, that was okay. It’s the world we live in. Kaylen reported a good example at the Shaw Contract party at Uber’s HQ on the roof of the Old Post Office. The venue was spectacular: 3.5 acres of green space, the food delicious, the mood convivial—and then Chicago’s tornado warning siren called a swift halt to the festivities, and everybody had to get off the roof. No worries!

And Yes, We Know, Weather Is Not Climate

“No worries” is not exactly the message of Break Some Dishes, the climate action podcast Verda has been producing with Jon Strassner since 2020, but what lifts this climate change program out of the doomsday genre is its steadfast focus on what people are doing now to address the problem. “We were all over the place at NeoCon,” Verda says.

She and Jon did a panel talk, “A Designer and an Activist Have Found Their Place at the Bar,” though Verda’s not so sure about that title. “We may be finding our spot at the table, but we have so much more to learn.” For more information, click here. They also ran a series of “hot seat podcasts” for Imagine a Place Productions grabbing people off the OFS showroom for ten-minute interviews, a compilation of which will be the next episode of Break Some Dishes. OFS also hosted a meet-the-artist Q&A with Verda signing prints of one of her fine art pieces. In short, so much to DO there was barely enough time to LOOK.

As Long as You’re HiP…

Ultimately, NeoCon every year is about self-renewal, the never-ending process of rethinking everything. So we find it especially gratifying that Interior Design’s HiP Award in the Design for the Greater Good category went this year to our Senior Designer and champion rethinker, Lauren Perich.

From the time she arrived at O+A back when Food for Thought Truck was taking shape, Lauren has been an endless source of action items—adventurous concepts for the truck, bold design narratives for big corporate clients, advocacy on those projects for inclusive design and sustainable materials. During the pandemic when O+A produced two books, A Toolkit for the Times and Eco Playbook, Lauren was an organizer and driving creative force on both. That’s her rare gift (and the secret of her HiP-ness): equal ability as a creative thinker and a practical doer. It’s what these times demand, and it’s why at NeoCon O+A was proud to have fielded a team of activists so dedicated to both.

NEXT WEEK: Lauren’s report from the field as a product judge at NeoCon.