My kind of town…

Chicago is… my kind of town (well, city).

The birthplace of the modern skyscraper, the windy city is home to unique and innovative designs that have shaped American architecture. To quote the late, great Anthony Bourdain: “You wake up in Chicago, pull back the curtain and you KNOW where you are. You could be nowhere else. You are in a big, brash, muscular, broad-shouldered ************ city.” I was immediately impressed with how clean and friendly it was. You get the feeling locals are proud of their city and what’s taking place throughout its boulevards and avenues. Quite similar to how I felt at the end of the week about the industry I am lucky enough to work in.

Last week, NeoCon celebrated its 50th edition as the world’s leading platform and most important event of the year for the commercial design industry. Hosted annually in the United States’ second city, Chicago, the show and conference act as the industry’s launch pad for innovation. NeoCon has served as the annual gathering place for the commercial design world’s manufacturers, dealers, architects, designers, end-users and media since 1969. With nearly one million square feet of exhibition space, the show featured new, improved, classic and prototype products and services from both leading companies and emerging talent—providing unparalleled access to the latest and most pioneering solutions in commercial design.

The show is held in downtown Chicago at The Merchandise Mart, a leading retailing and wholesale destination hosting 20,000 visitors and tenants per day – and as you can imagine, it was quadruple this for NeoCon. ‘The Mart’, as it has come to be known, centralised Chicago’s wholesale goods business by consolidating architectural and interior design vendors and traders under a single roof. The illustrious Kennedy family owned the building for over half a century and at one stage it had its own zip code due to being so large. When it opened in 1930 It was the largest building in the world.

Personal standouts were CF Stinson (innovative… taking wellness to a whole new level), Knoll (simply beautiful), Herman Miller (felt like home), Allermuir (Instagram-mably perfect), Framery (the only true acoustic pod), and Shaw Contract (doing heart-warming things on the sustainability front).

The exhibition is complemented by a world-class programme featuring some of the most creative talents in the industry. Presentations included panels, talks and keynotes that reflected on innovations in the contract industry and discussed the infinite possibilities for the future of commercial design.

Two presentations really made an impression on me. The first was a panel discussion moderated by Interior Design magazine’s editor and chief, Cindy Allen. The discussion, entitled ‘she said, she said’ took place in front of a packed auditorium, who heard from female powerhouses Robin Klehr Avia, managing principal, Gensler, Gisue Hariri, principal, Hariri & Hariri Architecture, and Lauren Rottet, principal, Rottet Studio. The panel, with personal anecdotes and insights, shined a light on the struggle of entering the boys’ club of architecture and design.

The second was a presentation by Carol Ross Barney, founder and design principle at Ross Barney Architects.

Honoured with more than 100 design awards, Ross Barney has been in the vanguard of civic space design since founding her practice in 1981. Her projects vary in type and scale but uphold a deep commitment to the role architecture plays in the quality of life, which was amazing to hear. The main thread of the talk was about Chicago’s River Walk, which Ross Barney has transformed over the past few years, with an aim to enrich the metropolitan experience for both Chicagoan’s and visitors alike. She began with a history lesson of the city and talked through the planning and implementation stages of the project up to the current day.

Impressed by the River Walk already, and now knowing the in-depth process behind its transformation, I almost immediately wandered to the beautiful Chicago Winery on its banks and indulged in glass while catching up on emails. It was the end of the day of course.

Stand by for my official in-depth review of NeoCon 2018 in FX magazine, as part of the workplace supplement later this year.


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Ben Keeley