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Onward to NeoCon

Next Monday an estimated 50,000 people intimately involved in the office furniture industry will gather in Chicago to view innovations and new product introductions, many of which will come from companies in West Michigan.

But while new chair designs and the latest gadgets for the office will take center stage at the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings, better known as NeoCon, the behind-the-scenes work in preparation for the show supports and nurtures a mini-industry of graphic designers, photographers, product designers, public relations practitioners, and interior designers in metro Grand Rapids.

“It's a huge local economic benefit here, and you can see the fingerprints everywhere in Chicago that week,” says Clare Wade, a Grand Rapids public relations professional whose client list includes Spring Lake-based furniture manufacturer and NeoCon exhibitor izzy.

NeoCon presents a high profile opportunity at Chicago’s 6-million square-foot Merchandise Mart for local creatives to present their best work during the three-day show.

“It’s not just a show in Chicago and it’s not just about furniture,” says Joey Ruiter, an industrial designer who works with NeoCon exhibitors Herman MillerNucraft and izzy. “Everyone is busy and everyone talks about what’s going on with the show. The local creative community stands still while everything gets finished.”
The largest tradeshow of its kind in North America, NeoCon certainly is the premier event for a number of office furniture manufacturers that are looking to make the biggest splashes possible with eye-catching and often edgy brochures, websites, space design plans, larger-than-life images projected on walls - even semi-trucks and sailboats traveling around the city, wrapped in graphics.

There is a lot at stake for West Michigan as local companies put their best foot forward.  The area has the nation's largest concentration of companies that manufactured an estimated 24 percent of all the U.S. shipments of office furniture products last year, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Industry leaders Steelcase Inc., Herman Miller Inc., and Haworth Inc. are all headquarted here, along with a number of old-line companies such as American Seating and relative newcomers such as izzy.

Because nearly 1,200 companies are vying for the attention of NeoCon attendees, the pressure is on to do something memorable.

"There are all kinds of ways that appeal to people other than just the product,” Wade says. "The creative teams have to come up with something that people will talk about after the show ends.”

Ruiter estimates that he spends at least half of his time leading up to the show on NeoCon work, and will spend his fifth NeoCon meeting with buyers in his client’s showrooms.  “I was there a few times last week, and could get called in to look at something at any minute,” he says.

As a public relations consultant, Wade arranges interviews and prepares her clients to interact with local, national and trade media covering the show. She also serves as an extended member of izzy’s showroom team, greeting visitors, connecting customers with sales reps, and making sure the product displays are in order. In her 10th year of attending NeoCon, Wade has discovered the quickest elevator to the showrooms, the cafe with the shortest coffee lines, and the necessity of comfortable shoes. 

Grand Rapids photographer Dean Van Dis, who will attend the show for the fifth time, spent three days shooting images that will be used in light boxes and banners in izzy’s two showrooms. “Their theme is izzy+, so I took shots of 60 different objects that formed a plus sign, from spaghetti and sauce to plants to a computer mouse with a cord,” says Van Dis, who also works with NeoCon exhibitor Haworth. During the show, he’ll snap shots of izzy’s showroom for use in future product literature.

The six-person team at the Grand Rapids-based graphic design firm Square One Design has poured nearly 200 hours into a 16-page new product brochure for Nucraft, the Comstock Park-based furniture manufacturer. “The deadline that NeoCon creates is kind of crazy,” says Lin Ver Meulen, founder and principal. “It’s not uncommon for the ink to still be drying or final work completed right up to the wire.”

In addition to supporting existing clients, NeoCon also provides creatives with an outlet to network with other professionals, check out the competition and develop new business opportunities. Seminars, special events and dinners during the show provide an opportunity for relationships to be established and strengthened, providing economic benefits for the creative class long after the show ends.

“Going to NeoCon is like going to the Addy Awards in some ways,” says Wade, likening the show to Grand Rapids’ advertising industry awards.  “I'm more likely to walk down Michigan Avenue on June 15th and see professionals from West Michigan's creative firms than at Rosa Parks Circle.”

Ver Meulen says that the local presence of furniture companies has helped to foster the area’s creative class, a symbiosis which culminates at NeoCon. “There is such a strong tie to local creative firms, it’s outstanding,” says Ver Meulen. “The show gives us a chance to showcase the great design that gets done here, as the industries have been intertwined for years and have creatively matured together.”

Kelly Quintanilla is a freelance writer born, raised and living in West Michigan. She is also the marketing director at Ada-based CUSO Development Company.


Grand Rapids photographer Dean Van Dis (2)

Clare Wade, a Grand Rapids public relations professional

Media kit for izzy design, by Clare Wade

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved 

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