As an emerging professional I have learned that part of the journey of professional development is finding and cultivating your resources. Working in Chicago, I am lucky to have all of the resources that this design-centric city has to offer. Among the best of all of these is undoubtedly the Merchandise Mart — the massive building sitting on the Chicago River serves as a landmark for the entire industry. Chicago designers are fortunate to have this resource at our fingertips.
On a normal day, the Merchandise Mart is a quiet place that helps us to find inspiration, to see and learn about new products, to present our ideas to clients, to collaborate with vendors, and it provides an endless array of samples and selling tools. And then, each summer, the mart is transformed for NeoCon, the yearly design exposition and conference for commercial interiors held in June.
NeoCon is attended by more than 40,000 architecture and design professionals who come to see the latest and most innovative products; to attend the educational seminars, forums and keynote presentations; and to take advantage of diverse networking opportunities. I have been to the conference several times, and each year I come away inspired, informed and energized.
A few months before NeoCon, many Merchandise Mart showrooms shut down for construction as they prepare to re-open at the conference. Whole floors become inaccessible construction zones. I can’t help but feel a sense of loss when this happens because the resource I have become accustomed to is no longer there.
That feeling is replaced, however, with the excitement and anticipation of seeing the big reveal. Walking through the mart in the weeks before NeoCon you see the building start to transform, with check-in stations going up, new displays being installed, and freight elevators being painted and carpeted.
You can feel the energy of the building change — the buzz is starting.
Then, when the big day comes, the building changes from the quiet, professional center, to a bustling mecca for design professionals from all over the world. The showrooms are unveiled, new furniture and products are proudly displayed, new themes and designs are showcased, and attendees convene.
The theme for the 2014 NeoCon was “Place Matters.” The simple, direct and powerful theme highlighted the importance that our profession has in people’s lives and the impact that smart design has on the world. You could sense this theme everywhere — in the showrooms, in the keynote and seminar topics, and even in the freight elevators that were turned into express elevators. A few weeks before NeoCon, I saw the outside of the freight elevators doors being painted pink and thought, “what are they up to with this?” I appreciated this witty design statement that also helped to solve the constant issue of the over-crowded passenger elevators of NeoCon events.
As I was taking a trip up to the 11th floor in the newly minted express elevators with many other designers, amid the conversations about which showrooms you must see and who just ran into whom, a few of us bonded over the elevator design and the sign inside that read, “Place Matters — Even when you’re in a freight car.” Places for work, health, retail, residence, they all matter. The thoughtful design of those places impacts our lives — even adding carpet, paint and a fun sign in a freight elevator impacted many people’s NeoCon experience.
After I left the elevators and continued my day at NeoCon, attending seminars, visiting showrooms, networking with fellow design professionals, I noticed another theme emerging from the conference. Not only does place matter, but so do people. One of the amazing things about NeoCon is how it brings this industry together. Professionals from all over the world who practice in all sectors of the industry convene to celebrate design, to see what’s new, to learn about new trends and topics, and to share in all of this together.
As designers we need to find and cultivate our resources; perhaps the best resources we have are one another. The professional relationships that are built throughout a career become invaluable resources that help us all be better at what we do. The design industry is made up of many types of professionals, and our best ideas and solutions come about when we work together. The people that come together to create the space matter just as much as the place. I have found that the sharing and learning, the discussing and showing, the catching up and checking in — these are the best parts about NeoCon.
Another great feature of NeoCon is — and you know I am going to say it — the swag.
Each year there is a hunt to find the showroom with the best bag, to collect samples and swag, and maybe even win a prize. This year I was lucky enough to be the winner of the ASID and Allermuir giveaway. It was thrilling to see my business card being drawn, and I am so looking forward to my gorgeous new Allermuir Open Chair.
A pleasant surprise about winning the giveaway has been all of the congratulation messages from design colleagues and friends that have been coming in over the past few weeks. Seeing posts on Facebook and getting emails and texts has been wonderful. I heard from my mentor from art school, friends from my ASID student chapter, and friends from the Illinois Chapter and from ASID national. It has shown me how many wonderful relationships I’ve developed over the years with ASID, and it is these relationships that are my most valuable design resources.
NeoCon is an invigorating conference that brings us together each year to see, learn, and connect. It offers an indispensable opportunity to develop our resources and to remind us that what we do matters — place matters — and so do people.