This interview was conducted by Metropolis as part of its NeoCon 50 retrospective series as told to Avinash Rajagopal.
Since 2011, Todd Bracher has had a host of releases at NeoCon—across product categories like furniture, flooring, and lighting—and has also designed a number of showrooms at the Mart. On the occasion of NeoCon’s 50th edition, Bracher spoke to Metropolis about how American design is different from the European scene and how NeoCon has been a vital to its development.
I had been living overseas for a long while so I hadn’t been to NeoCon until 2007. Interestingly enough, I discovered that NeoCon had a platform that you don't find in Europe—to some extent at Orgatec, but not at Milan, for example. It had the business component, and that business component is very important for how my studio operates and how we run our business.
We run quite differently than, say, European designers, because what we design has other deep-running strategic components. We care about design that has real value for a company, and ultimately value for the end user. We don't put ourselves forward, we think our design is much less interesting to the end user than a great product. And so for us, going to NeoCon year after year and going to visit workspaces and seeing the architects and designers, and really understanding the lay of the land in terms of how folks are working, was fascinating. We quickly realized that if we do things right, not only can we bring value to the end user and to each of our clients, to the companies we work with, but also we can help shape and define, in some ways, the future of the workplace.
My first releases at NeoCon was a year where I launched three or four things at once, including the Music Project with Shaw Contract and the Nest Chair for HBF. Since then, we’ve also designed the showroom for Shaw Contract and we worked with Humanscale last year to do their showroom as well.
Shaw Contract Music Project
What makes designing for the Mart interesting is the traffic. It's very high volume traffic over a very short period of time—sometimes its a little frustrating for me that everyone's on billable hours and flying in and out. How do you manage that traffic flow, and how do you feed information in that short period of time? The work that we do in terms of showrooms is to create activities and zones of stories, so that folks can understand how furniture can potentially be used—as opposed to the European model, which tends to be a white plinth with an object on it, and it's very beautiful but there’s very little understanding of how it's used.
I'm less interested in the object aspect of what we're making, ultimately. We do a lot of research around air quality, around acoustics, around physical wellbeing and environmental wellbeing, and how all this relates to each other. And when you start to add it all up, when you start to look at it holistically, it drives a lot of new opportunities, and then the challenge is finding companies that have appetites to develop and to pioneer these opportunities. We do a lot of behind-the-scenes work with these companies.
A lot of furniture in Europe tends to be versions of versions of versions, and not really exploratory. And I think that's where it's exciting at NeoCon, that's where it's exciting with the big companies here, where they're really trying to shape and define new ground. Some get ridiculed for it or skewered for it if it doesn't work, but I think they have to try it, otherwise we're not going to progress.