The Office that Isn't

Making a case for working at home: the computer armoire is the hottest innovation in home office furniture.

By Barbara Garet


It's 9 a.m. Do you know where your office is?

Increasingly, the answer is "at home." One in three adult Americans work at home, at least part of the time, and the ranks of workers-at-home have swelled to an estimated 45 million.

Breakthroughs in communication technology make this remarkable growth possible -- computers, fax machines, modems and copiers are reasonably affordable, as well as essential. Working electronically has become a requisite skill for anyone out of the corporate office.

Desks and writing tables have been around forever, it seems. "Throughout the 1900s, desk manufacturers have sought to integrate work into the home," said Jack Kelley, ASFD, independent furniture designer. "But only during the past eight years have desks undergone a dramatic transformation to accommodate the needs of people who work at home."

Finally, there are affordable, attractive and functional furnishings specifically to house the glut of electronic equipment. And manufacturers can't make them fast enough. Home office furniture has exploded into the fastest growing segment in the industry.

Major manufacturers of home office furniture include: Hammary, Hekman, Hooker, Kimball, Riverside, Sligh and, since October, American Drew, Bassett and Bernhardt. Contract furniture manufacturers Haworth, La-Z-Boy and Herman Miller have entered the home office market and Bush, Sauder, O'Sullivan and Techline offer ready-to-assemble products.

Moving to diversify its seasonal product line, store fixture manufacturer Tarrant Interiors introduced a prototype mobile office in a cabinet at NeoCon95. The company returned to NeoCon96 with The OFFICE designed and engineered by Summerland and Grand Prize Winner in the Home Office Competition.

Let your people go (home)

Not too long ago, the concept of professionals working at home seemed like a pipe dream. But savvy companies are happy to keep employees out of the office. One reason is the spiraling cost of office real estate.

Twenty-five years ago, office space averaged about 156 square feet per worker. By 1991, space per worker had grown to 278 square feet, a figure that includes individual work areas plus common areas like lobbies and hallways. Meanwhile, occupancy costs increase 20 percent a year, according to the Building Owners and Managers Assn.

When workers stay home, working space still comes at a premium. Even subtracting common areas and allowing only half as much space -- 139 feet -- as the 1991 average office allotment would dictate that a sizable chunk of personal real estate be set aside for work purposes. Few at-home workers have the luxury of a dedicated workroom that measures 11-1/2 feet by 12 feet.

Scaling down the size of the furniture or decreasing the number of pieces in a room might help resolve the space problem. But invariably more space has to be found to set up the machines; to store the files, reference books and supplies; and, of course, to accommodate the worker. The latest alternative is to retain the original functions of the room -- sleeping, watching TV, dining -- while hiding the office equipment in a single functional piece of furniture with a small footprint.

Enter: the office in a case

Designer Kelley and the problem-solvers at Sligh introduced the ComputerCabinet, a complete home office within an armoire, in 1993. The one-place-for-everything model is not a conversion, but was designed from the ground up as a space-saving computer work station that was completely hidden when its doors were closed. A functioning mini-office within a handsome piece of furniture, the computer cabinet represents the ideal union of home and office.

The impetus for the Computer- Cabinet came from a list of attributes that Sligh's research showed users wanted in home office furniture. "Way down on the list," according to Kelley, "was No. 15: 'Concealing the clutter.'" People sharing home space don't want visible work to detract from the original purpose of the room. In the same vein, no one wants an office chair sitting in the living room.

Kelley said Sligh was the first to build a cabinet without a bottom to allow generous knee space, unencumbered foot clearance and a place to store the industry's first collapsible chair, the PocketChair, which he also designed. Other features of the ComputerCabinet include: pullout keyboard tray, multiple-plug receptacle and wire management. It was an instant hit and has become a best-seller for Sligh. A smaller ComputerSecretary won Home magazine's American Furniture Award in 1995.

The computer cabinet/armoire is right at home at the center of the home office boom. Traditional and RTA manufacturers offer a number of good-looking units that blend easily with their own modular wall systems or other residential furniture, in a variety of styles and sizes and a wide range of prices (from $500 to $7,000). Common, but not universal features, behind those closed doors are: drop-down work surfaces, adjustable shelves, pull-out keyboard and printer trays, bulletin boards, surge-protected outlets, built-in lighting, master switch, phone and modem jacks and concealed cableways.

Editor's Note: Check out Barbara Garet's story on Tarrant Interiors' "OFFICE" of the future in the January 1997 issue of Wood & Wood Products.

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