NeoCon Chicago History as a Mecca For Interior Design

By Jenn Harrman on May 1, 2015


Long before I became a Chicago local, my first ever visit to Chicago was for the international interior design convention, NeoCon, which takes place every year in June at the Merchandise Mart. This was when I fell in love with Chicago and found myself in awe of not just the city, but its buildings, especially the massive Art Deco building that is “the Mart.” As a student of interior design, I tried to take in as much of the city and the convention as possible, including collecting countless free product samples that still live in my parents house back in St. Louis. With these fond memories I decided to look into the history of this building, interior design, and the NeoCon convention.

merchandise mart chicago art deco
Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

First of all, lets talk about the location of NeoCon. Taking up a full block, the Merchandise Mart was once the largest building by square footage in the world. It is still in the top 50 and has claim to its very own zip code. Architects Graham, Andserson, Probst and White designed the building in the Art Deco style and it clearly represents Chicago architecture as a combination of three building types: a warehouse, a department store, and a skyscraper. These building types were chosen because merchandising giant Marshall Field and Co. built the Merchandise Mart as a wholesaling facility for the growing needs of their retail empire. On the south side of the building along the river, you will see his patina bust proudly displayed as part of the “Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame.” His face is joined by other department store moguls such as Frank Winfield Woolworth and Aaron Montgomery Ward.

merchandise mart hall of fame marshall field chicago
Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

Having researched the history of Marshall Field and Co. for our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour, I also knew that Marshall Field’s on State Street had once had an entire model home on the 7th floor with all the latest furnishings of interior design. This made me wonder if there was any connection between the department store and the interior design convention.

The profession of interior design grew out of the sale of furniture. As prosperity increased in the mid to late 19th century, furniture companies expanded their lines to include full lines of home furnishings in a number of different styles. Because of this, furniture manufacturers came to be considered advisors of the latest interior fashions and even began offering amateur design services to customers. In addition, retailers like Marshall Field found that displaying these lines in model home showrooms in their department stores was a valuable advertising tool.

The retail and furniture manufacturing industries eventually separated from the industry of interior design and decoration, but its roots are still there. Showrooms are still one of the most tangible and effective tools in selling design products from furniture to wallpaper. So it’s natural that a building and a city so tied to that early industry has become the home to one of the largest trade show in contract interior furnishings in the world.

The Merchandise Mart was designed for retail and design showrooms. It was once the largest producer of trade shows in the country. Architects Graham, Andserson, Probst and White designed it as “city within in a city,” a concept later used by other architects including Bertrand Goldberg for his Marina City and River City, both right here in Chicago. To satisfy the needs of trade show attendees the building included a number of modern amenities like restaurants and lunch counters, a beautician, optician and a barber. And because the building once had its own zip code, a post office serviced tenants. It is still there today along with many of these amenities.

merchandise mart neocon chicago interior design
Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

The first NeoCon was held in Chicago in 1969 and coincided with the American Institute of Architects convention and is now a must-do event for designers across the country on its own. Thousands of exhibitors flood the city’s hotels and many permanent showrooms fill the floors and floors of the Merchandise Mart for three days every June. And now we are gearing up for NeoCon 2015, June 15-17!

— Jenn Harrman, Tour Guide


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