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Hightower won Best Showroom at NeoCon 2021. Photo by Petra Ford, courtesy of Hightower

Modular, mobile, with a strong emphasis on function—after a year break due to the Covid-19 pandemic, NeoCon returned to Chicago with much to say about where the future of office design is headed.

From recreating the comfort of home to embracing the outdoors, here’s what we learned about how to make the return back to the office feel comfortable, safe, and—well, normal.

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DARRAN’s Honey flexible office system. Photo courtesy of DARRAN

Gone Modular

By far the biggest theme at NeoCon this year: Modular, flexible workspaces that not only create varying types of workstations but also encourage employees to adapt their work environment as needed.

For many offices, especially large companies that need to accommodate a plethora of working styles, creating a flexible environment may mean turning to adaptable, modular furniture systems like Honey from DARRAN, which won NeoCon’s Best in Competition recognition.

“The concept was to provide more visual and sound privacy into the office to combat the negatives of an open office environment,” says Jeff Hollingsworth, DARRAN’s vice president of sales, of Honey.

Designed by Mark Müller and Christopher Wright, Honey is highly adaptable, with a honeycomb-like hexagonal shape that delineates between private desking for quiet, heads-down work and open, collaborative meeting spaces. The whole system was designed to be fixed or mobile, allowing for instant office changes and improved space efficiency.

Although the word modular implies many moving parts, that’s not to say that the future of office design is complicated. In fact, it shouldn’t be. OFS’ newly launched Rowen pull-up table, for instance, offers a sleek, simple, and clean design that can transform any space into a productive place to work.

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Photo courtesy of The HON Company

Home Comforts & Customization

When employees were forced home in 2020, many were left without comfortable, all-day work seating—a problem that many remedied by investing in well-designed, ergonomic task chairs.

But with the return to office on the horizon, even if it’s hybrid, employees are being intentional about the reason they are coming to the office. With the right task chair at home, the office environment is no longer singularly about creating a productive workspace.

“The expectations for amenities are different now,” says Leslie Eichelberger, director of marketing for The HON Company. “They want the warmth from home but also the community aspect of the office.”

That means creating spaces outside of desking where employees can focus and get comfortable, as they would at home. “Everyone needs multiple places to sit in the office,” Leslie says. It’s why HON’s West Hill collection centers on what the furniture company is calling “relaxed productivity,’’ where spaces are still professional but with a lived-in, homey feel that fosters comfort.

The Mixu chair. Photo courtesy Arper.

Another way to offer comfort and a homey feel is to offer a way for employees to customize their workspaces. The Mixu chair from Arper was designed in collaboration with Gensler to do just that. The three-part system of seat, backrest, and base can be personalized with dozens of different colors and textures.

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Hightower’s Levels bench system. Photo by Petra Ford, courtesy of Hightower

Safe Ways to Connect

With togetherness at the heart of why so many want to be in the office, employees need new ways to safely come together to collaborate, connect, and simply be together and yet still maintain social distancing. For many offices, that means coming up with new configurations that “break up the monotony” of the traditional office, says Kathryn Senger, senior communications manager for Hightower.

For example, Levels, Hightower’s new benching system designed by Form Us With Love, was designed to give employees—or anyone in a public space—the ability to maintain personal distance in public areas. The modular bench system nixes the idea of conventional side-by-side bench seating and comes in varying heights and lengths that can be configured and overlapped in countless ways, allowing people to sit on varying planes or at a distance so they can come together while keeping their personal bubbles intact.

The Hopper bench. Photo courtesy Extremis.

Belgian furniture design firm Extremis presented the Hopper bench with low entry points and slanted corners to make it easy and inviting for employees to spread out or take a quick break our outdoor meeting. Hooper was inspired by the benches found at Belgian beer festivals that offer “cosiness, friends, laughter and a wonderful time together.”

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The Phlox collection. Photo courtesy of Okamura

Embracing Organic Forms and Materials

As home became a place to live and work over the past two years, many people sought relaxation and freedom in the outdoors. With the return to the office, embracing the outdoors in design can help create a sense of calm—not only by increasing biophilic design but in the shape and form of the furniture itself.

Take Phlox, a collection of commercial seating and tables from Okamura, inspired by the Night Phlox flower. Designed by Rainlight, the collection features rounded edges that hark back to nature. “The roundness of the pieces reflects the petals of flowers,” says Lorena Vargas, marketing coordinator at Okamura, a design detail meant to inspire a sense of softness and serenity.

Not only does Phlox take cues from nature, but its materials are also good for the environment. The upholstery fabric for Phlox seating is made from salvaged fish nets from Japan’s sea, which have been knit together with recycled PET yarns to create a sustainable textile.

Photo courtesy of Emeco

Keeping the Focus on Function

Although aesthetics are an important factor in design, function reigns supreme. This new era of office design must remain a place where productivity can blossom.

For designers, that may mean stripping back the design, as in Emeco’s new Truss collection, designed by Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec. The collection features modular tables, sofas, and benches that the Bouroullecs kept in their simplest, most essential forms with an aluminum frame and US-sourced Douglas Fir plywood.

“Simplicity is a long process. Truss was to be naked, and it took a while to strip it down to the best minimum,” says Erwan Bouroullec.

“What is simplicity? It’s a kind of transparency, when the nature of things appears. It is a state where eyes understand everything while people’s behavior is not compromised by a stylish figure. I believe Truss is generous with the openness it provides. It’s made for a group, it’s made for a space, it’s made to be together.”

NeoCon returns June 13-15, 2022. Visit NeoCon.com for more details.