NeoConnect 2020: A look at trends in the commercial market and highlights from this year’s virtual offerings - July 2020

By Meg Scarbrough

It wasn’t the NeoCon everyone was used to, but this year’s online series of events came and delivered the best it could, like just about everything else this year. The Chicago expo, which in years past has attracted more than 50,000 people, was canceled in mid-March by organizers and became another in a long list of events that were forced to bail amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of going away altogether, a schedule of events was developed as a web-based substitute and was rolled out over the entire month of June with product launches, speakers, panels and more.

In past years, attendees at the Merchandise Mart would have walked the halls of the iconic Chicago landmark and browsed the showrooms and booths to gather a sense of the coming trends in the contract interior finishes world. In the absence of the show, we spoke to several flooring designers about trends that were emerging ahead of this year’s NeoCon and where they are now headed now as a result of the virus. We also “walked” the virtual halls of NeoConnect to hear what members of the A&D community were talking about within their panel discussions.

DESIGN FOR THE MIND AND BODY
“If workspace design can improve someone’s life, it can also do the opposite.” That was one of many messages centered around the idea that design can be a part of overall better well-being and was a recurring topic among A&D professionals who spoke over the month-long NeoConnect.

In recent years, there’s been a shift toward emphasizing health, wellness and collaboration in the commercial space. There’s a growing expectation from end users that those themes will be taken into consideration when designing the places in which they eat, work and play. The movement has been noticeable within the corporate sector, where traditional workspaces have taken on a new form and are more group-oriented and reflective of the people who share the spaces. Cubicles, which have been staples of office living for decades, have given way to shared desk spaces or tables and sitting areas with couches or comfortable chairs.

Jackie Dettmar, vice president of commercial product development and design at Mohawk Industries, asks, “How do we contribute to making environments that are conducive to healthier humans and healthier workspaces while creating environments that are more relaxing?” Part of that has been through biophilic design, which centers on emulating nature through the use of colors, textures and lighting, among other things.

There’s also been an overall feeling of things being more relaxed, says Roby Isaac, vice president of commercial design of Mannington, from furnishings to what people are wearing. He points to schools, which have undergone drastic changes in recent years related to the ways in which students are learning. They’ve moved beyond the traditional construct of sitting in rows of wooden desks, and now they move around the campus, using spaces like never before. The idea is that engaged students are more productive learners. He says that relaxed, fluid learning translates to their adult years; it “becomes evident in the way they’re wanting to work.” They want their jobs to be adaptive and relaxed, as well.

The shift in the education sector is also changing the way people work together. Where people were expected to work independently to achieve goals, now there’s a team approach centered on project goals. Isaac says this means the settings needed to change, hence the move toward open workspaces.

But the emphasis on health and collaboration got an unexpected jolt this spring amid fears of catching the coronavirus, and designers say things are going to change moving forward.

CHANGES ON THE HORIZON
Discussions have been underway within the A&D community about what the outbreak would mean for commercial settings. In a matter of weeks, people around the world became accustomed to wearing masks in public, standing six feet away from other shoppers at grocery stores and following floor markings that directed shoppers through store spaces. But the question became, what will become a permanent fixture? And how will design reflect changing perceptions about health and safety in public spaces?

Architectural and design changes related to health crises have been a part of history for some time. The bubonic plague outbreak in the 14th century led to better urban planning, and as a result, fewer people were crammed into tight living quarters. Similar things happened after the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918. “You can go back through periods of time, whether it’s the worst disaster in the world, including the plague, and see the architecture and design spurred by those moments that changed the world and are still prevalent today,” says David Oakey, of David Oakey Designs, who designs products for Interface. “We are going through this turmoil and change.”

Designers agree that as workers head back to their offices and into other commercial settings, things won’t be the same, but it’s unclear yet how extreme those changes will be. There are a number of theories on where things will head. One suggests workspaces will be altered to incorporate more safety measures like hand sanitizing stations, touchless doors and temperature-testing stations. Another says companies will not bring everyone back to the office and will instead allow employees to continue working from home, possibly downsizing to smaller offices. A third more extreme view says some companies won’t bring employees back to a centralized office ever again. Twitter, for example, told its employees they could continue to work from home permanently.

Isaac doesn’t see the office space going away entirely, and he says that while companies will be making adjustments to accommodate safety and health, they will also be very mindful of the expense that comes with updating a building. “We’ve been listening and talking to a lot of our customers, and what we’re hearing is that in an ideal space, you’d be able to retrofit everything, or you’d be able to spend a little money updating things to touchless doors or sensors,” says Isaac. “But the reality is that when people come back, there’s still going to be an apprehension about what people can spend on how to navigate this space. There’s going to be a lot of ‘how can we work with what we have in a smaller way?’”

Oakey feels office spaces are too important to abandon. “It’s a place where you’re going to exchange and get ideas,” he says. “If you’re not connected with people, will innovation, creativity, all that, start to suffer because you don’t have those people together? Will your culture survive?”

Collin Burry, design principal at Gensler London, which does design across several commercial sectors, spoke on one of the NeoConnect panels and says his clients have been reaching out for help with interim solutions to get workers back in their buildings. He says his firm has software that allows them to create individualized plans that take into account the number of employees and social distancing. With a combination of proper planning, signage, sanitation stations, daily cleaning and staggered workdays, they should have a safe and effective plan in place, he adds. Looking to the future, he says, “What does the other side of this look like? I actually think that’s exciting. It gives us a huge opportunity. … It may mean that spaces are shrinking. … But I think for us [in the design community], it’s going to create an opportunity for us to rethink what the workplace of the future will be.”

Among ways designers see office spaces shifting is through flooring, and safety and cleanability are going to be key factors. The debate around which surface is “healthier”-hard versus soft-has been simmering since the outbreak began. Many agree the preference for hard surfaces, primarily luxury vinyl tile, in commercial spaces will likely prevail, though, reflecting trends that were already happening pre-COVID-19. Dettmar says she’s already had more clients asking for hard surfaces, but she cautions about overreacting. “One of the things I’m afraid of is that people will go too far and will start creating spaces that are not conducive to human well-being,” she says. “We need that tactility in our environment, and we need that visual interest in our spaces.” She says pairing hard surfaces with area rugs is one potential solution.

Flooring will also be used to support social distancing and wayfinding within spaces. Susan Curtis, vice president of design and marketing for EF Contract, says designers can use color, texture and patterns to create visual cues in the floorplate throughout a space, noting that modular flooring will continue to be a popular format. Reesie Duncan, vice president of global design for Shaw Contract, says it could also be important to create flooring solutions that can be easily changed in the future to meet new demands or desires.

As far as colors go, designers say there will be bolder palettes moving forward, for both wayfinding and for mental health. Says Curtis, “Where we were looking at a lot of natural, subdued colors [pre-COVID], there will be a lot more colorplay moving forward. People really need happy colors.” Bolder colors aren’t necessarily primary, she says, but likely secondary or tertiary. Dettmar says colors will be warmer and nature-inspired-not super bright but beautiful and subtle.

LAUNCHING PRODUCTS
Each year, the A&D community descends on Chicago for the nation’s largest show of its type. It’s a time for them to see new product launches, programs and technologies. As they discuss trends that will be coming out of this year’s crisis, they are also taking a look at what products can support them. So in the wake of COVID-19 and the cancellation of NeoCon, commercial manufacturers have been left to make some hard decisions. Are their new releases still relevant in a pandemic era? When should new products be released? And who will buy them? “We’ve been careful to not make rash decisions on products; we don’t want to be knee-jerk in our reaction,” Isaac says. “At the end of the day, we want to bring out products that people need and value for their space.”

Some are using the time to center their messages around the health and wellness movement and to highlight products-new and existing-that can meet the needs of those in the commercial sector. It’s also been an opportunity for design teams to regroup, re-energize and develop new ideas and products.

“We are taking this time to dig a little deeper than in the past, just because of time constraints,” Isaac says. “I think in some ways, this has been really good for our product development team to just build better products.”

Curtis agrees, saying, “We wanted to pull back and look at small things, daily observations, and be inspired by them. And it’s reflective of where a lot of people are right now.”

“There’s going to be more creativity in the next six to nine months than we’ve ever seen in the last six years,” Oakey says.

Although NeoCon did not happen in its normal physical sense, there was still a virtual “exhibition hall” of sorts that allowed manufacturers to announce more than 1,000 new products.

Tarkett hosted a live product launch, discussions on new workplaces norms and a live social hour. During a live Zoom in front of dozens of viewers, five members of the Tarkett team unveiled new designs in the company’s existing iD Latitude LVT line. Dovetailing off the health and wellness theme, presenters highlighted the collection’s certification as being asthma- and allergy-friendly.

Back in the virtual exhibit hall, Mohawk Group announced a number of new products, both hard and soft. But its latest news is the announcement that it will host its own NeoCon-like virtual summit, July 15 to 17, called DesignFWD. It will feature webinars, roundtables, podcasts and more. For more information or to register, visit MohawkGroup.com/DesignFWD.

Other launches included Shaw Contract, which did a partial release of a new carpet tile collection called Shifting Fields.

Mannington announced the release of a new LVT collection called Signature under its Amtico name, a company it purchased in 2012. Isaac said it was rolled out in a virtual format, and the company had a good response.

EF Contract announced three new additions to its lineup called Special Drift, a modular carpet tile; Imprint, a new Kinetex product; and Simple Weave, a broadloom and carpet tile style. Its sister company, J+J Flooring, introduced Downtown, a new Kinetex product, which for the first time has a tufted appearance. More details on products releases can be found at https://bit.ly/3fQtL1D.

Launching products and reaching designers in this new world has been a challenge. Shaw’s Duncan says in a way it’s forced a closer relationship with designers. “They are basically handing us their design questions and asking us to put together all the carpet and hard surfaces selections based on their space, mood boards and design,” she says. “We’ve been working on a lot of projects in an intimate way, which helps us understand better what people are looking for right now.”

PROGRAMS AND MOVING FORWARD
Aside from COVID-19 and current trends, the programs offered by NeoConnect addressed a variety of topics, including environmental responsibility in design and ways to adapt settings around neurodiversity and making spaces inclusive for those with autism and ADHD. Much of the programming focused on the urgency for design focused around health and well-being.

There were more than 70 live panels and forums in total, of which about 30 were hosted by NeoCon with the remainder being hosted by outside groups like the International Interior Design Association (IIDA). Moderators noted that audience numbers were anywhere from 600 to 900 people for some of the sessions.

Those who were able to attend said they enjoyed the sessions, noting that this year’s conversations were different than in previous years. Isaac cites one panel, which focused on art in design and its role in capturing the events of this year. It featured Madeleine Grynsztejn, the Pritzker director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and architect and artist Amanda Williams, also of Chicago. Isaac says, “I really enjoyed that one because the content was so different from what we’ve been listening to for the prior weeks, where it has been about solutions in terms of space and sanitizing. This was more refreshing.”

Some took the opportunity to address racism and equity within the design community. “Design is such a powerful tool for change,” says Cheryl Durst, executive vice president and CEO of the IIDA, adding that society, culture and design have been intertwined for generations. She calls it a time of reckoning and questions what the A&D community can do to address long-term solutions on equity.

Others focused on more pragmatic topics, like how to choose contract furniture or standards and tips for tile installation. One of the challenges to a virtual format is the ability to get people invested in connecting and learning. Several attendees commented it was hard to commit to tuning in when you’re not fully consumed in the show. “When we saw the lineup for NeoConnect, we were excited,” Isaac says. “But when we are at NeoCon, it’s all in, and you don’t have to worry about anything else; there are things going on in the office and in the plant, but we are relying on other people to take the helm.” But since many are still working while trying to “attend,” he says it’s a challenge to fully invest. But like others, he was pleased with the offerings.

Another thing “attendees” say gets lost in a virtual show forum comes down to one of the most important aspects of shows like these, which is sensory perception and the tactile experience of being able to walk through a showroom and touch the products and react to them in person. “I will say [NeoConnect] has been great, but nothing replaces that face-to-face interaction,” says Lisa Simonian, vice president of marketing for NeoCon. “We can’t wait to get everything back to normal.” Moving forward, she says the organization will continue to offer a menu of digital components in the future.

As for when shows will get underway again, some are slated for this fall, albeit with new safety measures in place, but many hope to relaunch next year. Marco Sabetta, general manager of Salone del Mobile, an annual trade show that’s held in Milan, Italy, says his association of exhibitions has been working to create a common protocol that can be followed in Italy, with the hopes that it will be adopted in Europe. He says it’s an important first step toward returning to “normalcy.” He adds, “The human being is a social animal. And in the future, we will need to be together, because we were born together, we live together and we need contact.”

NeoCon 2021 is slated for June 14 to 16, 2021. To watch previously aired panels from NeoConnect, visit NeoCon.com.

Copyright 2020 Floor Focus 


Related Topics:Interface, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Tarkett, Mohawk Industries, Mannington Mills