Students design own success at major Chicago trade show

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From left to right: Jorge Reyes, a Chicago architect, joined RIT’s Christina Birkentall, Janice (Hei Man) Mok and Hak Kim for part of NeoCon.

It was a year in the making, but the waiting was worth it for RIT interior design students who attended a key industry tradeshow in Chicago this summer.

The four students from the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences’ School of Design joined Christina Birkentall, a visiting assistant professor of interior design, at NeoCon—North America’s largest design exposition and conference for commercial interiors. It is widely considered the single most important industry event of the year.

“Our professor has been passionately talking about NeoCon since last summer, but we were not able to make it work then, unfortunately,” said Janice (Hei Man) Mok, a fourth-year interior design student who was born and raised in Hong Kong before moving to New York during high school.

Hak Kim, Sarah Gualtieri, Jennifer Douthett-Lund and Mok each decided to arrange trips individually and planned to meet up in Chicago for this year’s three-day event.

“We had no idea what to expect,” she said.

That apprehension turned into elation when Mok and Kim were selected to be part of the coveted International Interior Design Association student design charrette—and Mok’s team won.

The charrette featured students from across the country, assembled into random teams, given a design challenge and limited time to develop an innovative solution using only hand drawings and renderings. This year’s competition featured 10 teams that had to rethink the design of the existing food court at the vast Merchandise Mart—the trade show’s venue—taking into account elements like traffic patterns associated with the Chicago Transit Authority’s elevated train stop and the presence of café tables in close proximity to the building’s escalator, while providing a multifunctional space that could accommodate the needs of the building’s professionals.

“During classes at RIT, we have the whole semester to finish a project, but during the charrette we had a time limit of five-and-a-half hours,” Mok said.

While his team didn’t win, Kim said the experience he gained could not be quantified.

“The charrette was a unique learning experience offered only to a limited number of the association’s student members in attendance,” said Kim, a fourth-year interior design student from South Korea who transferred to RIT from University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “The networking with designers and industry professionals overall was priceless.”

Birkentall is hoping word of the experience students enjoyed this summer might help the trade show become an annual tradition for RIT students.

“NeoCon is the pulse of the commercial design industry, the problem is it just happens to be in June,” said Birkentall, whose interior design students also displayed their revitalization ideas as part of the Envision: Honeoye Falls project at NeoCon.

“Attending the show was an eye-opening and overwhelming experience for me as a student,” Mok added. “It has had a huge impact on my aspirations to become an interior architect. The idea of improving human lifestyle and protecting the Earth tangibly and sustainably now appeals to me more than ever.”