Weekly Editorial

From THE MART to Fulton Market

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • March 11, 2024

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When it was reported last week that Steelcase would be leaving THE MART, my initial thought (and initial post on LinkedIn) was, “Oh no.” I’ve watched with dismay and discomfort brands leaving THE MART in a steady trickle since Knoll first announced it was leaving the building in 2018.

What people sometimes forget is that these companies aren’t just leaving a building, they are leaving NeoCon as well, our industry’s most important event of the year. I remember when Knoll left. I was a bit angry. Angry because I feel participating in NeoCon is part of the table stakes of being in this industry.

So what do you do when you have a show without MillerKnoll, Allsteel, Humanscale (and soon to be Steelcase), to name just a few of the brands that have gone to Fulton Market? And what do you do with a contest like Best of NeoCon when some of the best are unable to submit products to the contest?

Many have called for THE MART to open up NeoCon and turn it into a city-wide event similar to Salone in Milan, which has a trade show aspect, along with pop-up showrooms and installations around the city. But if you are Vornado Realty Trust, which owns THE MART, the show and Best of NeoCon competition, why would you? It doesn’t make sense for them to open it up to everyone (though they might be forced to make that decision anyway). People sometimes forget that Vornado is a real estate company first. It is there to rent the spaces in its buildings. If NeoCon were to open to everyone with a showroom in the city of Chicago, what’s to keep every brand from leaving the building?

The companies that have moved to Fulton Market understood when they left THE MART, they would no longer be part of NeoCon or the events surrounding it. So far, THE MART has not bowed to calls for it to expand NeoCon beyond the building or open up the Best of NeoCon competition. Someday, it might make sense for them to do that.

To their credit, the brands that have left have worked together trying to form a cohesive event on their own called Chicago Design Days, though it is interesting that Design Days just happen to fall on the same days as NeoCon.

I’m not passing judgement on companies that have left THE MART. I’m sure they have many good reasons for leaving. And some of the brands have spaces that are far and away better than they were at THE MART (Allsteel immediately comes to mind). By leaving, these companies have also opened the door for many brands that wanted a larger presence in THE MART to get it. As brands like Knoll leave, brands like Hightower, KFI Studios and Scandinavian Spaces move into THE MART, build a stronger brand and compete head-to-head with Knoll. I don’t know if the brands leaving THE MART thought about providing a stage for their competition by doing so.

But I do worry that by splitting the industry in two, the value and importance of NeoCon will be diminished. The worst case scenario would be for NeoCon to be so divided that attendees tune out and don’t show up in Chicago at all, which is a real danger.

Regardless of who is “in” and who is “out,” NeoCon and THE MART remain critical cornerstones of our industry.

I was in Chicago last week at THE MART and I can tell you, the building remains a vital design hub. Showrooms were busy hosting groups of designers and customers. The building itself looks better than it ever has. And I can’t wait to celebrate NeoCon once again this June. To truly cover the industry, I’ll make my way to Fulton Market as well. It will take some time to figure out just what can be done to bolster both of these shows in Chicago. For the sake of our industry, it is imperative that happen.

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