By Rob Kirkbride
Anyone who has ever walked the halls of the Merchandise Mart during NeoCon knows that by the second mind-numbing day, all the products seem to blur together. Show-goers begin asking themselves, "Who made that task chair with the mesh back?" and "Was that benching system on the 11th floor made by a North American company or European manufacturer?"
So KI's Director of Design Shawn Green is taking a slightly different tact this year. Instead of simply showing off the company's new products, Green and KI will be introducing new ideas -- concepts that get the industry talking and thinking about how to take the new products and use them in different, interesting ways.
And while some companies talk about ideas at NeoCon when they have no new products to offer, that is not the case with KI. The company is rolling out a half dozen major products -- a big year by any standard.
"Some people say NeoCon is just a product show," Green said. "I don't think so. I think of NeoCon as an idea show. It is a chance for us to show our thought leadership and talk about some big themes."
The major "themes" covered in KI's showroom are not especially new. They include collaborative work, benching and student-led learning. But Green believes that the ideas combined with the new furniture create a compelling story for KI and its customers. They are lofty topics and correspond to some very lofty furniture collections that the company will launch at NeoCon.
KI is launching a new sub brand at NeoCon this year called Blue Sky Design. Similar to Steelcase's Coalesse and the Herman Miller Collection, Blue Sky Design is KI's collection of high-end, high-design products that it "collects" from around the world to offer to its customers. Blue Sky Design is being launched to reinforce the company's vision of creating a collection of smartly designed furniture that is accessible in terms of cost.
One of the major themes for the show for KI is its new Connection Zone concept. Green said it is the company's "best estimate of how the world will work" in the future. It is about the transition from task work to more team intensive work. The Connection Zone addresses exactly what one would expect -- the human element of workspace and how the right "zones" foster improved performance. Focus zones, retreat zones, social zones, ideation zones and storage zones are all key areas with discrete needs.
Being productive requires a balance of time to complete tasks and time to connect with peers to interact and learn, according to the thinking behind Connection Zone. KI's Connection Zone features all of the elements needed to achieve both, including teaming tables with privacy dividers, group project areas, soft seating areas that promote interaction while allowing for personal work-style preferences, privacy booths to tune out distractions, assigned and unassigned storage space and mobile work boards for information capture and impromptu space division.
Each element of the Connection Zone collection was selected for its ability to multi-task. Teaming table bases can be expanded or contracted. Lounge seating supports multiple styles of work to accommodate users of all ages, yet it is lively enough to host an office party. Mobile marker boards dividers provide a space for idea collection and repetition, while also providing temporary privacy. Team storage areas feature stand-up height worksurfaces for brainstorming.
Connection Zone Engaging Surfaces are a sub-line of functional, freestanding screening and writable surfaces that promote collaboraton, facilitate the sharing of intelligence and create flexible privacy zones. Connection Zone's Engaging Surface products are freestanding and fully movable by users. The larger presence of the surface is substantial enough to support attachment of monitors (up to a 50-inch display) directly to the panel. Graduated opacity on acrylic screens offer both a lightness of scale and the permeation of light in and around the surface. Easel hooks allow for easy attachment and removal of pads. Optional ledges provide quick access to tools and dry erase items, while internal compartments give long-term storage. Multiple units may be nested to save space or ganged side by side to create walls.
KI will also launch MyWay line of lounge seating, which the company says allows users to interact with the chair in varied unconvetional seating styles -- all while providing great ergonomic support. Users have the ability to sit on any horizontal surface on MyWay and can sit in a variety of positions ranging from across the piece, diagonally, pretzel legged, perched on an arm, conventionally and side saddle.
Green said MyWay falls under KI's category of functional lounge furniture designed for "third spaces." It is a highly adaptive line, similar to the company's Sela lounge furniture.
"We pushed the visual even further with this product line," Green said, describing it as asymmetric. "With MyWay, we've added a bit more avant garde form."
Again, for those who have not seen KI's furniture in recent years, MyWay might seem like a departure from the heavy, "engineered" products that the company used to be known for. MyWay should be a good seller for the comapny in higher education and cool corporate settings.
Though not specifically designed as a modular piece, MyWay was designed to allow pieces to be pushed together to create love seats and sofas. The line contains lounge chairs with three differing arms: a work arm, conventional arm and low arm. The work arm has a surface to support a laptop, tablet and phone. The low arm is designed to that the chair's user can sit laterally across it or it can be used as a seating surface. The conventional arm is intended to allow the piece to be used as a conventional lounge piece. Any combination of two arms can be ordered on the product. Optional include: contrasting fabrics; a cup holder; power/USB; sled base; or metal legs.
KI has always had a strong lineup of stacking chairs and with its new Opt4, it is expanding even more. Opt4 is a comfortable, high-design, lightweight stack chair. It also comes with four mix-and-match design options: mesh/mesh, mesh/poly, poly/mesh or poly/poly, in three complimentary color combinations (black, white and stone grey). The chair collection offers three pricing options as well.
Lightline, KI's demountable wall products, was launched last year, but it is getting several major tweaks for NeoCon. The company is introduding new pre-assembled door units that should minimize initial and ongoing installation costs and maximize product reuse. Additions of back-painted and architectural glass will provide incrased privacy and aesthetics. KI is also incorporating in-direct lighting to add a line of light to Lightline.
Lightline will play a large part in KI's showroom overhaul as well. After several stages of construction, NeoCon 2013 is expected to be the last year KI makes major architectural changes to its showroom, which has won several awards over the past several years. KI is taking out all the glass from the front of its showroom and replacing it with Lightline as its storefront. The company is also knocking out a few walls and adding a formal entryway to the showroom this year as well. The changes will be used as a template for other KI showrooms across the country to give the brand a unified look.
In the past, the company has segmented its showroom into spaces defined by furniture for each of the markets it serves -- healthcare, government, education, corporate. This year, the furniture for all its markets will be mixed throughout the space. Green believes KI has done a good job of taking its furniture out of the "silos" for each of its markets and made the lines accessible across all of them. The way students sit in common areas isn't much different from how corporate collaborative spaces are set up.
"There has been this transition internally and with our customer base," he said. "I joined the company six years ago in September. When I came here, there was X square feet for government, X square feet for healthcare. Now it is much more sophisticated. There is a red thread that goes through all of thsoe. Context equals relevance."
All these changes at KI are attracting attention from the architecture and design community -- and competitors.
"We are getting a whole new set of customers," Green said. "KI has always had credibility in our core markets. Now we are seeing it across our business. When we worked with customers like Sun Microsystems and Amazon, we did it with customization before. Now we are working with those larger customers with our standard products as well."
Most of all, KI is having fun doing it, he said, and the company is preparing for its next evolution. Will KI switch from printed marketing materials to digital? Will it have 24/7 virtual showrooms? Stay tuned. A lot of changes are coming out of Green Bay.