Was this year’s NeoCon the last iteration of the show as we know it?

By Kaitlin Petersen

At the 51st-annual edition of the venerable contract design show at the Mart in Chicago earlier this month, attendees gossiped not only about the bustling new Knoll showroom a mile down the road in the city’s trendy Fulton Market, but also about the soon-to-be-confirmed rumors that another longtime Mart tenant, Herman Miller, would depart the building, as well. This year’s show also marked Vitra’s last appearance in the Mart; the company has indicated that it will not re-sign its lease.

The collective star power of the brands leaving the Mart is significant (Knoll had been a tenant for 50 years), but what do the defections really mean for the show—and for the commercial design industry at large? It depends on who you ask.

“Several leading commercial interiors brands are establishing new outposts in the building just in time for NeoCon this year,” Byron Morton, the Mart’s vice president of leasing, said in a statement. In fact, Knoll’s footprint was quickly filled, all of the Mart’s permanent showroom spaces on the third, tenth and eleventh floors were full, and the temporary showroom spaces were in high demand. “Their strategic investment is a testament to the strength and value of the Mart as a premier business location and NeoCon as an invaluable resource and hub for the commercial interiors industry,” said Morton.

And while satellite programming has existed for years, more brands are starting to recognize the advantages of getting their clients off-site. Perhaps more important than a debate about the health of the show, then, is the question of how NeoCon—a trademarked event that belongs to the Mart—and its stakeholders will respond to the growing design scene happening outside its walls.


For Knoll, leaving the Mart after five decades was a much-belabored decision—albeit one that’s very much a part of the brand’s DNA. The company has a history of moving into up-and-coming neighborhoods: New York’s SoHo, downtown Miami, downtown Los Angeles—and now Chicago’s burgeoning Fulton Market, a landmarked industrial neighborhood whose brick warehouses have rapidly filled with regional headquarters for the likes of McDonald’s and Google, as well as trendy restaurants and bars.

“We made a conscious decision to find a space that would allow us to reflect the way people are working today,” David Bright, senior vice president of communications at Knoll, tells Business of Home. “Fulton Market is at the epicenter of a new way of working in the Chicago community that we’re very much aligned with.” He points to the conceptual Louis Vuitton installation that popped up down the block as another example of pioneering retailing happening nearby: “This neighborhood offers a multi-platform approach to fashion, design and commerce.”

The move also allowed Knoll to create a new kind of showroom—which would have been difficult at the Mart. “The point, I think, is that the space feels like anything but a showroom,” says Bright of the Gensler-designed space. “We’re really responding strategically to the way the workplace is changing—and the way people are specifying our products.”

But moving out of the Mart complicated the brand’s plans for NeoCon. For starters, NeoCon is a trademark of the Merchandise Mart, so while Knoll wanted to take advantage of the attention the show generates, none of their promotions could reference the show. (Instead, they took to the street, advertising on bus shelters across the city.) It’s a problem soon-to-be neighbor Herman Miller will encounter next year, as well. After whispers throughout the show, the company officially confirmed its departure on the final day of NeoCon—another end to a significant run in the building.

“We are always evaluating locations in both current and emerging markets and on the lookout for vibrant areas where our customers live, work, and socialize,” Tim Straker, Herman Miller’s senior vice president of marketing and customer experience, told Business of Home. “After 80 years in the Merchandise Mart, we’ll be moving into a new home in Chicago’s West Loop. We’re excited to create a space where our entire family of brands can come together under one roof and where contract and retail customers will experience endless design inspiration and ideas.” (As plans for the Fulton Market location come together, the brand’s showroom in the Mart remains open through the end of 2019.)

Vitra, for its part, is leaving the Mart without a new home in mind. At a dinner for retailers and architects on the show’s first night, CEO Nora Fehlbaum’s announcement that Vitra would not be renewing its lease at the Mart was met with an enthusiastic round of applause. (Fehlbaum made it clear that the company is still working on a plan for what’s to come in Chicago, and went so far as to solicit the assembled audience for ideas.)WHY OTHERS ARE STAYING PUT

Despite the big-name departures, many exhibitors had recently renewed their leases, and countless more debuted renovated showroom spaces. “We’re disappointed by [Herman] Miller’s decision to leave the Mart, but demand for NeoCon showroom space is high and we look forward to accommodating expansions from existing showrooms and welcoming exciting new brands,” Morton told BOH. “NeoCon is bigger than any single manufacturer.”