Rival Chicago fairs to "lose ground" without cooperation says Design Days organiser


Rival Chicago design events NeoCon and Fulton Market Design Days must start working together for the benefit of the city, an organiser of one of the fairs has said.

The two events, both geared towards the contract furniture market – furniture meant for commercial installation – take part over the same few days in early June.

Design Days is a fledgling flair just a few years old but is supported by a number of marquee brands such as Herman Miller, Knoll and OFS that have recently moved over from NeoCon, which has been running for nearly six decades.

Merchandise Mart Exterior
NeoCon takes place yearly at The Mart in Chicago. Photo by Gillian Fry

“I think both sides know that there’s something that needs to be discussed,” Fulton Market Design Days (Design Days) development director Rob Tivadar told Dezeen.

“But nobody’s sitting down and trying to hash anything out.”

NeoCon is located at The Mart, a massive two-block-long structure with 25 storeys and more than 250 showrooms, as well as offices.

Fulton Market is just a mile away, and by contrast consists of a strip of showrooms intermixed with restaurants and anchored by new buildings with multiple tenants such as the stepped, SOM-designed 800 Fulton Market building.

Both events have social components, with NeoCon hosting a number of events for registered attendees, many of whom pay for their badges, while Design Days has no central event but this year hosted several activities, including screen-printing t-shirts.

Neocon Mart
NeoCon involves hundreds of showrooms at The Mart. Photo by Gillian Fry

Tivadar also runs Oetee, a studio that builds out showrooms and retail installations and has been working with brands inside and outside of NeoCon for decades.

His work with Herman Miller, which previously had a showroom in The Mart, led him to work on build-outs in Fulton Market, and he has since become involved with the promotion of the district as a whole, helping to lead the Design Days event and liaising between the 35 brands at Fulton Market.

He said that more interest has come to the Fulton Market area as Herman Miller and Knoll – both part of the same company since a 2021 merger – and OFS pull away from The Mart – a move that he sees as motivated by the more public-facing nature of Fulton Market.

But he said he hopes that the two organisations can find a way to work together.

“We’re moving into new real estate that [NeoCon] have no stake in – so we understand that it’s definitely not what they would like because we’re taking business away from them,” said Tivadar.

During Design Days this month, most people walking between the showrooms on Fulton Market had NeoCon badges – and Design Days offered a shuttle service between The Mart and Fulton Market completely on its own initiative.

Some brands outside of either camp, such as furniture outlet Luminaire, hosted events during the week to capitalise on the huge influx of design enthusiasts – though many visitors could be heard wondering aloud why NeoCon and Design Days had not collaborated to organise a city-wide festival.

While cooperation has been lacking so far, Tivadar is optimistic.

“I’m hopeful that over the next couple of months we’ll get closer to having some sort of discussion about what the future looks like,” he said.

And while the loss of several marquee American brands might be painful for The Mart, NeoCon itself is still growing.

A report by NeoCon said more than 50,000 attendees and 12 new showrooms took part in this year’s fair.

Fulton Market
Fulton Market Design Days just had its second year and is backed by brands such as Miller Knoll. Photo courtesy of Oetee

While NeoCon did not respond directly to questions about potential tensions between the events or confirm any potential collaboration with Design Days, a spokesperson struck a positive tone in comments to Dezeen.

“We had a fantastic NeoCon 2024 with strong attendance and high energy and engagement that extended throughout our beautiful city,” The Mart’s Lisa Simonian said.

“As we begin to plan for NeoCon 2025, we will be reaching out to potential new local and global collaborators to explore innovative ways to further enrich and evolve the NeoCon experience for the international design community.”

“We look forward to these conversations and sharing more updates in the coming months once we have had a chance to connect with these potential new partners.”

Tivadar said that brands at Fulton Market hope that the city can move towards “more of that design week feel” and argued that a more official, city-wide design week in June would also benefit NeoCon.

“I think the only way for that to happen is for all of us to sit down and say ‘hey, how do we make this something that’s beneficial for everyone in Chicago?'” said Tivadar.

Design Days in Chicao
Design Days and NeoCon take place on the same days in June. Photo courtesy of Oetee

In 2020, a group of local designers tried to put together a Chicago Design Week. It did not take off, though the city is a host to other major events in the architecture and design calendar, including the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Tivadar pointed to the growing popularity of the 3 Days of Design festival in Copenhagen, which also takes place in early June, as another reason for collaboration.

“Us not being a unified front here, we’re definitely going to be losing some ground somewhere to [3 Days of Design],” he said.

“Moving forward, I think it’s better if we all sit down and talk about what the path is moving forward.”

According to Tivadar, this path should include bringing more local designers and community-oriented events into the fray.

“June in Chicago is the best time in Chicago, right?” he said. “We are a beautiful shining star of greatness right in the middle of the country. And so I think there’s hope on the horizon.”

NeoCon 2024 took place from 10 to 12 June 2024 at the Mart, 222 Merchandise Mart Plaza, Chicago, USA. Fulton Market Design Days took place from 10 to 12 June at various locations in the Fulton Market District, Chicago. For more events, exhibitions and talks in architecture and design visit Dezeen Events Guide.



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