At NeoCon, Big Brother and nanotech invade the office

At the NeoCon interiors fair in Chicago, telepresence and nanotech infuse a new crop of office offerings, says SmartPlanet's C.C. Sullivan

Big Brother is watching you. At work.

Earlier this week at NeoCon, the Chicago carnival of commercial furnishings held in the hulking Merchandise Mart, the Astute Architect saw more furnishings geared toward technology than ever before. Clearly, the marketers are banking on a coattail effect.

The Sylvie chair from upstart Sparkeology, with its built-in power -- the company's trademark.

The contract furniture giant Steelcase remains focused on the use of videoconferencing -- or Telepresence, the 21st-century term from Cisco Systems we much prefer -- with their “living on video” collection of seating and integrated monitors and tele-widgets. Many of these conceptual products are geared toward making users feel more comfortable or look prettier while on a monitor or handheld.

Hmm. Others actually offer a platform for better working. For example, "media:scape" is a collection of tables and lounge seating with integrated HD videoconferencing.

So instead of sitting like masters of the universe at a huge oval conference table, we can recline and relax around a coffee table. When the moment is right, we connect a laptop to the company's "Puck" device and share on the big screen.

Steelcase was also showing off "TagWizard," which is essentially an automated room-reservation system for the office.

It builds on the company's RoomWizard series, integrating occupancy sensors and data on user comfort: lighting level, air temperature and even CO2 levels. The interface has been improved -- the main NeoCon 2012 offering -- while the product still works as before: Users scan in to reserve and save a workspace or conference room.


Nanotech research also infused a number of novel materials into the NeoCon mix.

Reserve your space first -- using Steelcase's TagWizard system.

IdeaPaint and the coatings merchant MDC showcased CREATE, a topcoat available in black or clear that transforms any smooth surface into a whiteboard or "colorboard." Black is ideal for neon dry-erase markers.

And the stuff is basically odor-free and healthy as it is low in VOCs.

The upstart company Seeyond, based near Minneapolis, added new substrate offerings at NeoCon 2012 for its interior walls, facings, enclosures and "clouds." The Solid Resin and Metal Composite products add much-needed breadth in the material palette for their successful modular spacemakers.

On display was a 20-foot, S-shaped wall by Seeyond that served as a projection surface for Contract magazine's Best of Neocon award-winners. This one was made of a cellular resin with a brushed copper, screen-printed texture alongside a pleated surface.

Companies like Seeyond (pictured) have introduced new materials technology into their contract office products.

Soy, not silicon

Elsewhere, the Astute Architect saw even higher-tech materials research coming to bear in the Merchandise Mart showrooms.

Ithaca, N.Y.-based e2e Materials, for example, an innovative clean technology spinoff of Cornell University, showed up to tout its advanced biocomposite materials for furniture, cabinetry and casework. Its new spinoff, the predictably named e2e Office, promises furnishings that are "safer, less expensive, stronger and lighter than conventional wood-based products."

Like many other companies at NeoCon -- and the material suppliers behind the scenes -- e2e Office is mainly focused on the environmental benefits that help sell a large portion of today's office products. With LEED certification and safer work environments in mind, e2e Office showcased its TransFORM Workstation, with surfaces made from a proprietary biocomposite of soy flour and flax fibers.

Sounds delicious, I know.

But the real appeal is its lack of sensory appeal: No nasty VOC scent, no off-gassing of toxics like formaldehyde, and an ingredient list with zero hazardous "red list" chemicals, as defined by the Living Building Challenge.

From Sparkeology, the Eddie table has an integral "power hub."

Plug in here

For interiors, materials matter. But it's user touch and user tech that are really driving NeoCon's latest crop, not just unobjectionable, green surfaces.

As an example, many of the latest furnishings winning Best of NeoCon cred included utilities for tech users.

One company was founded on this premise: Sparkeology, a two-year-old venture founded by furnishings manufacturer The Worden Co., along with Via Design, which is in part an architecture firm, is fixated on "places to plug in" on virtually every product.

Sit down on the new upholstered Sylvie seat, or pull up to the Eddie table, and you've got power within arm's reach.

Is this the future of all furnishings? Maybe. If so, the cute new Stella coat rack ideally would have a plug for my dying phone battery, sitting in my jacket pocket during a typical meeting visit. But no, she just holds out her arms.

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