Why an empty booth was my favorite exhibit at this year’s NeoCon trade

With 4 million square feet of floor space, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago was the world’s largest building when it opened in 1930. It even had its own zip code. Over the past three days, that same building was abuzz with the 32nd biennial NeoCon trade show, highlighting new office products from more than 400 brands.

[Photo: Jacek Kadaj/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

The result was an absolute furniture bonanza: modular desks, ceiling lights that double as acoustic baffles, sofas that would look equally chic in your home or an office, and an overwhelming number of planters.

NeoCon is one of the world’s biggest trade shows, so I knew what to expect when I first walked through the building’s gilded doors. But on the seventh floor, amid a sea of products, was one virtually empty booth. The outline of a chair was stamped on the floor, and a logo stretched across the back wall: Reseat.

[Image: Reseat]

Unlike the slew of other brands exhibiting throughout the building, San Jose-based Reseat isn’t in the business of making new furniture. Instead, it’s focused on giving old furniture a new lease on life. Think of it as a digital marketplace that provides companies, designers, and furniture dealers a place to buy and sell secondhand office furniture by top manufacturers like MillerKnoll (formerly Herman Miller), Steelcase, Haworth, and Allsteel—for about half the price of their new counterparts.

It’s a surprising contender for a trade show that relies on novelty, but Reseat’s booth stopped me in my tracks precisely because it wasn’t like the others. I’m not saying that every furniture company should follow suit and stop making new products altogether, but Reseat’s model certainly offers a refreshing alternative.

[Image: Reseat]

Reseat’s client portfolio includes Oracle, LinkedIn, Rivian, and Yelp. And since launching in 2020 (it was known as Clear Office then), Reseat has tripled in sales, while saving more than 3 million pounds of furniture from landfills. Some 17 billion pounds of office furniture end up in landfills every year, largely due to the fact that 98% of companies ditch their old furniture when they move, paying tens of thousands of dollars for a company to pick it up and drive it to a landfill.

“It’s furniture that’s built to last decades and decades, and most of the furniture isn’t even seeing one decade and it’s being thrown away,” says Brandi Susewitz, Reseat’s CEO. In the Bay Area, she notes the cost of removal for one 6-by-8-foot workstation averages $200. Scale it up and you have what she says Macy’s removal budget was for one of its five-floor corporate offices in downtown San Francisco: $280,000.

[Image: Reseat]

Reseat wants to change all this. In 2021, it launched a feature called Reseat ID, which helps companies build a detailed inventory as soon as they buy their furniture. This included renderings of each product, measurements, and how many pieces they have in each category. Put simply, this made it easier for companies to account for everything they owned at the end of their lease, when the last thing they want to do is figure out how much furniture they have and how much it’s worth. But clients couldn’t see when those products would become available, nor could they place an order directly on the website.

Now Reseat is launching a membership-based upgrade that lets companies sell or donate their furniture on a user-friendly dashboard. Crucially, it also lets clients know what furniture will be available months in advance, so designers can quote them in upcoming projects, and dealers can plan ahead.

Depending on how involved a company wants to be with selling and coordinating the move, it can get between 30% and 70% of the sale price; Reseat gets the rest. (Perhaps the biggest catch is that secondhand furniture doesn’t come with a warranty, but Susewitz says clients can visit and inspect the furniture in person, which helps alleviate some of those concerns.)

[Image: Reseat]

Susewitz says that Reseat’s average order is around 500 products, which are usually purchased by several different companies, often startups looking for a good deal. But the industry is changing, she says, as more and more companies, including LinkedIn, are committing to buying only secondhand furniture for certain locations—in this case, an office in the Bay Area. (For 2%-5% of the total price, Reseat can clean, refurbish, and reupholster the pieces, too.)

Broadly speaking, the furniture resale market is booming, and analysts predict it will hit $16.6 billion in sales by 2025, a 70% increase from 2018. At NeoCon, though, the resale market seemed like a distant dream. On every floor, I watched brands racing to share their hot, new, seemingly unique take on hybrid work. But every new object that’s produced comes with its own carbon footprint, so if we’re going to design, and manufacture, and market new products every year or two, then they must improve on existing products, and do it in sustainable ways. (And for the love of everything, please bag the conference swag.)

[Photo: Steelcase]

Several brands did pull through, largely by focusing on material innovation. Furniture giant Steelcase, for example, displayed its new Savina sofa—made with 70% recycled foam from discarded mattresses and upholstered with recycled fabric—and a brand-new stool collection called Flex Perch, made of 70% recycled electronic waste.

Italian furniture brand Arper reimagined its famous Juno chair, originally made of plastic; “Juno 02” comes in six new colors, but it’s also made of 70% postindustrial recycled plastic.

Juno 02 by James Irvine [Photo: Salva Lopez/courtesy Arper]

Meanwhile, Andreu World launched an intriguing collection of furniture made of interlocking pieces of wood, negating the need for screws or adhesives.

And Carnegie unveiled the world’s first bio-based outdoor textile. When I ran my fingers through the fabric, it felt and sounded surprisingly plastic-like, yet more than 85% of the material is made from sugarcane—a more sustainable alternative to the oil-based polyester in most outdoor textiles. Free of chemical coatings or toxic dyes, the material is both water and UV resistant, and can apparently withstand bleach cleaners.

[Photo: Carnegie]

I’m sure there are many more that I missed. The Mart is a maze and a palace at once, and NeoCon is all about standing out in a highly competitive market. On my way to Reseat’s booth, I heard a corny pickup line: “Would you like to see the coolest thing you’re gonna see today?” Reseat’s product-free booth proved that there are less-wasteful ways to make a splash. And if Susewitz were to borrow that line, it would still be corny but at least it would be true.



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