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Corporate workplace design: 8 interiors trends to watch

October 05, 2018

By Gwen Morgan and Katey Trepanier

NeoCon 2018 revealed a softer focus, including organic shapes, smoky glass, integrated accessories, and Scandinavian partnerships

This summer’s NeoCon 50 was a whirlwind. It was the 50th annual gathering in Chicago and a showcase of commercial design, innovation, and a catalyst for the future of the industry. There was much to take in and process. Now that we’ve had time to catch our breath and take a second look at our notes, we want to boil it down to the biggest trends in the corporate workplace furniture design in 2018 and beyond.

Here are eight trends that stood out to us at NeoCon 2018.

1. ‘Resi-mercial’ changes the commercial workplace

Mapbox in Washington, D.C., is a cutting-edge technology company where gathering spaces are intertwined with work areas—a beautiful example of "resi-mercial" design.

“Resi-mercial” (commercial design that looks residential) emerged a few years ago, but this year it was dominant throughout the show. Taking the harsh edges off the corporate workplace through softer seating, tactility, and biophilia was the primary story (or at least an undercurrent) told through every showroom.

In line with this move toward resi-mercial, manufacturers are adapting existing products to be more playful. This means conference tables that turn into ping-pong tables, lounge chairs the become rocking chairs, workstations that double as yoga and mindfulness retreats, and so on. Expect the workplace environment to look more homelike, fun, and welcoming.

2. Wellness and biophilia

Olathe West High School in Olathe, Kansas where biophilia is alive. (Stantec and Hollis and Miller Architects)

Wellness and biophilia (a theory that people have a natural affinity for nature and natural processes) are being emphasized through the introduction of greenery into the workspace with living walls, planters, and greenery incorporated into existing furniture pieces.

3. Soft edges and curves

“The Nest” collaboration and meeting area in Stantec’s Sacramento, California, office at 555 Capitol Mall. The furniture selections showcase softer edges and curves that were highlighted at NeoCon.

Curves are in.

The desire for a more residential feel, along with the influence of biophilia and wellness, is pushing furnishings in a softer direction, resulting in more organic shapes (seen in chair and table legs, for instance) and eased edges, softened rectangles, curved corners in new pieces as well as redesigns of existing furniture pieces.

We saw several 120-degree workstations, an effort to get away from the right angles of straight benching.

4. Lots of color, including pastels and jewel tones

The Café floor at Gartner’s Mid-Atlantic Center of Excellence in Washington, D.C. At NeoCon, we saw plenty of color, including pastels and jewel tones.

Softness spills over into colors for fabrics, furniture, and finishes as well. Pastels were still huge this year, but so were deep jewel tones and extremely vibrant bold hues—all these right alongside one another in a mix of soft and hard surfaces. We saw these softer colors monolithically applied (a chair can now have pink seats, pink backs, pink arms, legs, and glides). Solid laminate colors have moved away from the popular bright, stark white to a soft grey color. And we’re seeing lighter wood tones in general.

5. Designer accessories to match the furniture

Manufacturers don’t like to see their customers going to office chain stores to buy their pencil holders, trays, file holders, coasters, and so on—especially when these items disturb the aesthetics they’ve worked hard to craft. 

This year, numerous vendors introduced desktop accessories to complete the look for end users and help them avoid purchasing accessories that don’t fit the design. Workplace furniture is now available with coordinating products and office essentials that integrate seamlessly. There are even options for integrating plants (artificial or real) into boxes that compliment and/or attach to workplace furniture.

The desire for a more residential feel, along with the influence of biophilia and wellness, is pushing furnishings in a softer direction, resulting in more organic shapes.

Whether they’re offering their own accessories or providing them through partnerships, many manufacturers are enabling the direct purchase of accessories alongside furnishings. It’s like a “one stop shop” for the office.

6. Dark materials

Smoky glass and black metal are all the rage, bringing an industrial edge to that pervasive residential influence. Manufacturers have made smoke glass an option on table tops and workstation dividers. Black metal finishes are now showing up in applications including ancillary pieces and workstations.

We also saw experimentation with new materials like carbon fiber (in a new Steelcase task chair) and flooring out of plastic bottles (from Shaw, Interface, and Tarkett). These looks suggest a corporate world that is becoming less concerned with polish and formality and more focused on comfort, style, and wellness.

The crowds gathered at NeoCon 50 in Chicago earlier this year.

7. Informal furniture

Informality was the common factor at NeoCon. Divider screens are nothing new, but those on display at NeoCon allow for the creation of informal, temporary spaces. Handles on furniture make them more informal and give users the ability to adjust the pieces as needed. Plywood-edge banding is a new option that manufacturers are introducing on new as well as existing pieces to give them a residential feel. Showrooms featured storage pieces the same way people would use storage in their homes.

We saw experimental and clever options too, from cantilevered support systems (Steelcase adjustable-height desks and Enwork conference tables) to streamlined integrated power and technology access.

8. Partnerships ... with a nod to Nordic design

The large furniture manufacturers announced major design partnerships on a broad range of products including lighting, soft seating, accessories, space dividers, and so on, primarily with Scandinavian design groups. The Scandinavian design influence was present throughout the show. We saw light woods, natural materials, clean lines, and beautiful furniture legs everywhere—all evoking a modern Nordic design aesthetic.

Overall, we were inspired by the high level of attention to detail and the emphasis on craftsmanship at the show. Manufacturers and designers seem to be on the same page when it comes to creating a workplace where users are excited to be.

  • Gwen Morgan

    With a true passion for developing educational facilities, Gwen designs sustainable environments that promote healthy learning as well as communal growth.

    Contact Gwen
  • Katey Trepanier

    An interior designer, Katey focuses on collaboration, teamwork, and building great relationships. She’s worked on projects through all design phases, and she focuses on interior finishes and layouts.

    Contact Katey
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