A Uniquely Rewarding Neocon
Maria VanDeman, NCIDQ, LEED AP, IIDA
OFS District Sales Manager & DEI Committee Chair
It was good to be back in the windy city with many familiar South Florida faces for NeoCon 2022, the world’s leading event for the commercial interior design industry and showcase for new products, awards and galas, keynotes, learning and discussions with the biggest names in Interior Design. Think of it like the super bowl of commercial interiors.
As a designer, NeoCon is an exciting time of being surrounded by top talent from around the country, walking through magazine worthy showrooms full of stunning new products, and being spoiled with fancy dinners and parties into the night (all with a cocktail in hand). As a rep, NeoCon can also mean an avalanche of new product information to absorb and retell (again, and again, and again), with few spare moments to scarf down pizza in the backroom or give your feet and voice a moment of relief. But the electric energy of the NeoCon environment, excitement from colleagues, and laughs shared with clients are absolutely worth it.
I’ve experienced NeoCon as an interior designer and a sales rep, but this year NeoCon was different than many I’ve attended before. Having spent the last year personally invested in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within my company, increasing my knowledge and voice, and engaging in speaking opportunities (shoutout to JTI’s Joy Lynskey and the CEA), I had the wonderful opportunity at NeoCon to moderate an IIDA Student Roundtable focused on equity, design, and social justice, with two Chicago-based leaders, Ciera C. Payton and Dave Pabellon, who are teaching youth, mentoring, and advocating for design equity. Two of my takeaways from this roundtable were that awareness can be spread through various mediums including art, design, and word and, representation is critical, but anyone can use their voice to elevate the importance of DEI. In an industry with little diversity, it was refreshing to take part in and see keynotes and special programming representing a diverse range of voices with focused conversations on the importance of design equity in the industry.
On the manufacturing side of the industry, another exciting part of NeoCon is the awards and accolades that can accompany innovative new products. With 15+ new introductions this year, the OFS team had our eye on several of the coveted “Best of NeoCon” and Interior Design Magazine’s “HiP” awards. It was my first time being invited to attend the HiP Awards ceremony on the grand staircase of the Merchandise Mart, an exciting event hosted by the magazine’s editor in chief, Cindy Allen. In the first half of the awards, dedicated to innovative new products, the OFS & Carolina team showed up loud and proud, and gleefully took home two HiP awards for the new Fleet tables and Sorta chair.
The second half of the HiP awards recognizes individual leaders within design and manufacturing. When the “Furniture Manufacturer Leader” award was announced, my team’s cell phone videos started rolling, and I looked up at the giant screen overhead to see a photo of myself at 5 years old with a big grin on my face holding a paper bag puppet. My jaw dropped as I realized Cindy Allen was talking about me – this year’s HiP Leader. The embarrassing childhood photo was followed by a heartwarming narrative of my path in the design industry, history with OFS, and advocacy work in DEI. Allen read a quote of mine, “In a profession where there are very few people of color, I continue to be humbled by the opportunities to be welcomed into rooms and circles were I can use my voice for the good of many.” In that moment, I was reminded that every mentoring conversation, zoom call leading alongside various DEI teams, and hours of preparation to speak or teach was not only being recognized on the big screen in the Mart, but my efforts were also creating ripples of impact wider than I had even known.
This NeoCon was filled with every emotion, from the highs of connecting with industry colleagues and Michelin star dinners, to the stress of a double-booked tour calendar, moderating a national roundtable, and literal tornadoes, to the exciting 10 awards claimed by OFS & Carolina and the honor of being recognized alongside other leaders I respect. Year after year, I’ve been inspired by the energy and innovation of products and leaders at NeoCon, and this year I’m even more humbled and motivated to continue doing the work I love. Furniture, fancy dinners, and awards aside, NeoCon inspires the best in us all, and I hope we continue to use our talents and resources to have an impact on the places and especially the people around us. I hope you’ll join me.