Concurrents: Opinion – NeoCon: Rivalry or Renaissance?      

Maria Van DemanJune in the Windy City ushers in a mix of emotions as we gear up for a few jam-packed days in Chicago as a collective industry.  Let’s call it the “Super Bowl” of commercial interiors – a grand showcase for innovative design and products, prestigious awards, glamorous galas, inspiring keynotes and essential dialog.  Most importantly, the event draws the best and brightest leaders in interior design from around the world, creating a community network of shared principles and passion.  Products can launch anywhere, but the scale, collection of people and meaningful interactions make the event truly transformative.   

As a designer, NeoCon was an exciting opportunity to be surrounded by peers from around the country, walk through magazine-worthy showrooms full of stunning new products, and learn all the new buzzwords and trends.  As carefree spectators, my colleagues and I navigated the heavy crowds and patiently endured long elevator and bathroom lines (with donuts and cocktails in hand).  Let’s not forget the bags full of swag, fancy Michelin star feasts, and parties late into the night! 

As a manufacturer, NeoCon means an avalanche of new product information to absorb and retell (again, and again, and again), with few spare moments to scarf down pizza in the back room.  There is rarely time to give your feet or your voice a moment of respite when navigating a full client showroom schedule and entertaining for 16 hours a day (no tornadoes this year, please!).  Pressure aside, the electric energy and laughs shared with colleagues are exponentially impactful under the towering Chicago skyline and sparkling new products.  NeoCon is special.  

For an event as beautifully unifying as NeoCon, it has become more challenging to navigate in recent years.  The name NeoCon is a trademark of the Merchandise Mart building, which has historically hosted the event under one roof.  Today, it runs parallel to Design Days of Fulton Market, a collection of showrooms and brands located in the trendy new district. You can’t help but notice entirely separate marketing, colors, keynote events, and manufactures rallying together in two distinctly separate neighborhoods of Chicago.  Design is ever-changing, and so are the NeoCon and Design Days experiences, as physical distance has injected a new energy. 

Stepping into the shoes of my clients, I can’t help but sense that NeoCon vs. Design Days sometimes feels like a cross-town team rivalry.   Neither team will say the other’s name out loud, but both are vying for the time and attention of attendees by dangling shiny new objects and planning enticing events.  Meanwhile, there is the added pressure of managing appointment locations, executing travel between two neighborhoods, and sometimes having to choose one team over another.  If this “Super Bowl” industry event is truly for the benefit of our design community, wouldn’t it be nice if we could come together to amplify industry conversations around a unified platform?  

I want it to be easier for my clients to celebrate Design Your World with me on the Mart grand staircase, and drool over iconic Charles Eames and Florence Knoll classics.  Friendly competition is healthy to spur growth, continue pushing the boundaries, and do right by our clients.  This means that unity within the industry is more critical than ever.  If not everyone has a seat at the table, are the fancy innovation awards even credible? 

I often think about the parallel to Art Week in Miami, which started two decades ago with the single show, Art Basel Miami Beach.  It has now grown well beyond the walls of the original convention center into Art Week Miami, which envelopes the entire city in an array of art shows and celebrations drawing thousands of visitors from around the world.  Similarly, imagine if the commercial design industry embraced design with the entire city of Chicago as the unifier, not just one block or neighborhood.  Instead of feeling the tension of cross-town team rivalry, can we come together like never before as the must-see all-star team?  Perhaps a larger mainstream appreciation of design, architecture, and the evolution of commercial interiors would help us all ditch the dreaded “home decorator” label.  

I know that I’ve raised a lot of questions without providing a lot of answers.  Regardless of what the future holds, let’s make sure this event stays true to its roots of being a unifying celebration.  I hope everyone gets the opportunity to experience the beauty and joy of both NeoCon and Design Days (with a full belly and a cocktail in hand, of course).  Bringing the world of design together and preserving this event magic is a must for innovation and inspiration to thrive, boundaries to be stretched, and connections to flourish.  I want us all to walk away from Chicago with aching feet but inspired minds, hoarse voices but energized souls, so for years to come we can continue doing the work we love alongside an industry that inspires the best in all of us.