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Originally published Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Slipping into something more comfortable in office furniture

Design Notebook: At NeoCon, office furniture loosens up with designers challenging the idea that serious work requires serious furniture.

The New York Times

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CHICAGO — NeoCon, the contract furniture trade show held at the Merchandise Mart here every year, is the place to go for businesslike items like a conference-room table or motorized blinds. The show fills several floors of a gargantuan brick block of a building with products designed for commercial and institutional settings: schools, hotels, hospitals and especially offices.

Typically, the scene is a field of laminates and steel. The color palette tends toward oatmeal and gray, and there are countless wire-management systems on display.

But this year visitors to the show, which ended Wednesday, were greeted by the unexpected sight of a bright yellow quilted chair that would cheer any workplace — a color so jaunty you might even want it at home.

Hosu, as this happy chair is called, is intended for any easygoing workplace, home offices included. Designed by Patricia Urquiola for Coalesse, it evolved from research suggesting that wherever people commune with their handheld digital devices, they like to lounge close to the floor and even sprawl a bit.

As a result, the chair, which starts at $2,000 and will be available in September though Coalesse's online store, has a grommet at the base that allows a power cord to be neatly drawn up around the seat, and a pocket at the back for storing a tablet computer. Users are encouraged to wedge a smartphone into the narrow slit that borders the seat cushion. And a convertible version of the chair unfolds so they can recline in a position one might ordinarily equate with sloth.

Urquiola offered a demonstration at the Coalesse showroom, stretching out her legs and tossing back her long blond hair. She described Hosu as "a little nest" and "a comfort zone," characterizations that challenge traditional ideas about work as a serious business that requires serious postures. And Hosu, it turned out, was not the only piece at NeoCon with a laid-back attitude.

Apparently it's no longer enough simply to fend off carpal tunnel syndrome; now office furniture is expected to promote emotional satisfaction, too.

As people tethered to their digital devices extend the workday into night and through weekends, the workplace has become a mutable environment that can morph from a cubicle in a corporate tower to a living room. And work-related furniture has a greater duty to relieve the tedium of long, sedentary hours.

At NeoCon this year, the word "ergonomic" seemed to have gone out of fashion, but several representatives of furniture companies echoed Urquiola's words about comfort, including Mark McKenna, design director at Humanscale.

"We like to say comfort is not a privilege, it's a universal requirement," said McKenna, whose company introduced the Diffrient Smart Chair, a no-fuss-to-adjust desk chair by the octogenarian industrial designer Niels Diffrient.

(The chair, which will be available in October, starting at $1,330, is the latest to feature Diffrient's patented mechanism that automatically calibrates the angle of recline to the sitter's weight. Simply lean back, and whatever your size, the seat moves forward in a smooth, easy gesture.)

Adaptability appeared to be a watchword as well. Herman Miller, a company that has long straddled the boundary between office and home with its handsome designs by midcentury modernists, showed AGL, Leon Ransmeier's group of streamlined aluminum worktables with compartments for charging electronic gadgets. Close the compartments and they visually melt away, leaving an uncluttered surface for dining.

In a statement, Ransmeier wrote that he saw the tables as a boon for "compact apartments where additional furniture is not feasible."

Other pieces converted domestic settings into work spaces. LOFTwall, a company founded in 2009, showed partitions that can be used to carve out a home office from a larger room. The walls are made with panels in a variety of materials, from translucent plastic to adhesive squares on which users can stick almost any fabric.

There was also a new iteration of IdeaPaint, a product that turns interior walls into erasable whiteboards: Create is a clear coating that can be slathered onto walls of any hue, so that users can maintain a consistent color scheme even if one of the walls in the room has become a giant memo board. (It is sold in kits that cost $225 and cover 50 square feet.)

Toboggan, by Antenna Design for Knoll, is a whimsical chair with a curved backrest when you sit on it one way; turn around, and the backrest functions as a small desk that can support a tablet computer.

It was shown in robin's egg blue and dark red, colors that are anything but institutional. The seat, which starts about $400 and will be available in the fall, reflects an effort to move away from monochromatic office schemes, but in a way that would allow the pieces to blend with natural materials, said Masamichi Udagawa, Antenna's co-founder.

"We wanted a ground color, not a figure color," he said. "Nice, but quiet. And not in the baby-powder sense."

Sigi Moeslinger, Antenna's other founder, added: "It can also be a great coffee table."

Alan Heller, a furniture manufacturer who has collaborated with the likes of Massimo Vignelli and Frank Gehry for some 40 years, presented a plastic stool called ErgoErgo (see it at http://www.ergoergo.com/) that rotates almost like an exercise ball, requiring sitters to use abdominal muscles to remain balanced.

The stool, which is in its final days of development and will sell for $100 ($75 for the child's version), is not only back-strengthening but also reinforces a "mind-body connection" that helps improve concentration, Heller said. And an optional swivel underneath encourages users to engage in an exercise he called the Chubby Checker, which he demonstrated by swinging his arms in alternating vertical arcs.

Another piece of playfully wobbly seating could be seen in the showroom of the office furniture giant Haworth: Shetland, a rocking stool that the company first released in a limited number in 1997. Michael Welsh, who designed the revival, said the piece was "meant to be informal, supple and iconic in its shape," plus you can stow a briefcase underneath it. The stool, which comes in a stationary version as well, will be available in September in a painted finish or a walnut veneer, and will range from $700 for the stool alone to $2,000 with the optional companion covers in wool and leather that evoke horse blankets and saddles.

And where once you would have had to go through a dealer to get it, the Shetland, like an increasing number of things shown at NeoCon this year, will be sold directly to the user at some point in the future.

Office furniture, it seems, is not just adopting a more accessible, informal appearance — it actually is more accessible.

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