“Colpo di fulmine.” A bolt of lightning. That’s what the Italians call it when love strikes at first glance.
My friend Joe Dusel, a fine woodworker, recently shared a story that reminded me of this wonderful Italian turn of phrase. It’s the perfect tale to get you in the mood for Valentine’s Day.
A customer from Virginia asked Joe to make a custom pepper grinder from wood that had deep sentimental value. The pepper grinder was to be a first anniversary gift from Katie, a chef, to her husband, Nate, also a chef.
Struck by Lightning
Katie told Joe, “We were married under a tree, which was hit by lightning about a month afterwards! I was able to get several pieces of that tree. It would thrill me to be able to give Jack a pepper mill made from our wedding tree as a first anniversary gift.”
Nate and Katie under the trees at their wedding. Photo by Amie Otto Photography.
Joe was the perfect choice for such a project. He’s a bit of a romantic; it’s obvious from a glance at his website that he dotes on his wife and daughters.
Joe’s family is multicultural: His wife, Katsuyo Fukuyama, lived in Okinawa, Japan for around 22 years and speaks fluent Japanese. Their two daughters, Emi and Hana, are from China.
Joe’s Woodworking Background
Joe is a skilled and talented craftsman. He owns a firm called Woodistry, located in Vista, California. He has been designing and making furniture, cabinetry and crafts since about 1989. He studied for almost four years under Ian Kirby at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, where he currently teaches.
Joe creates modern furniture and crafts in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement; his work features simple designs, quality materials and solid construction.
A health-conscious vegan, Joe likes to use environmentally friendly materials like bamboo and formaldehyde-free plywood. He also uses water-based finishes, “so we are not spewing volatile organic compounds into the air we breathe.”
Given his family background, it’s not surprising that Joe’s work shows Asian influences. The ring box below is one example.
Another example: Some years ago, Katsuyo wanted a place near the door to store shoes. In Japan, families own cabinets that are called “getabako”. Over the years, Woodistry had created a variety of shoe benches but not an actual getabako.
Katsuyo’s request led Joe to design pieces similar to “a traditional getabako or kutsubako that can be placed in your own genkan, which is Japanese for the entrance hallway of a home.” Some of those handsome pieces are shown at the bottom of this blog post.
Good Things Take Time
Despite Joe’s woodworking skill, the pepper grinder turned out to be a small project with a big timeline. It took about a year! He explains, “The wood that Katie sent me was very wet, so we had to wait a while…”
Quite a while!
The handsome pepper shaker turned out to be a second anniversary gift. Joe says that his client, Katie, is very happy with it.
However, Joe’s own anniversary is coming up. In the past, he has made “an Art and Crafts style picnic table and benches, coffee tables, shoe benches, cutting boards, pepper mills and a whole bunch of cabinets” for Katsuyo.
“I better get working on something special for our anniversary,” he muses. Here’s to Joe’s creativity setting off some sparks at home!
The following story originally appeared in the Sopris Sun, Carbondale, Colorado’s community newspaper.
The playfully modern furnishings that Brad Reed Nelson crafts in his Carbondale, Colorado studio are sold nationwide, and it’s easy to see why. Despite the name of his company — Board by Design — he’s clearly not!
“The name has an obvious a double meaning,” Nelson chuckled. “I wanted it to be provocative and contrary. I have a snarky sense of humor.”
Nelson’s humor shows up in his product names, as well as his design. For example, Board By Design (BBD) sells a “Very Holy” lamp; it’s a column of Plexiglas pierced all over in a polka dot pattern.
BBD’s “Elefunction” organizers are rectangular wooden plaques that spout long trunks. A bungee cord crosses the body of the wall-mounted block, functioning to hang wallets and sunglasses. Four “herculean earth magnets” are embedded behind the trunk so that keys will stick to it. You won’t be searching for your keys, Nelson quips, because the Elephant never forgets!
Nelson does use boards in Board by Design furniture. “I love wood for its beauty,” he commented. “It creates a sense of warmth, and you can decide just what parts of the wood you want to use.”
Nelson uses only environmentally sustainable lumber. His Red House table, a hefty rectangle of Douglas fir cradled in a red steel frame, was crafted from a discarded beam found at a Snowmass construction site. Some of BBD’s organizers are fashioned from beetle-kill pine.
The lines of Nelson’s chairs echo the grace of mid-century modern style, but their wood slats are accented with a playful fillip of color that comes from steel framing. “I love steel for its directness,” said Nelson. “Steel can be very thin and strong. If you want something light, steel works better. And we love color! Color adds fun and humor.”
Nelson’s Windsorrondack line of swings and rockers — handsome, classic chairs that sell for $4200 in the single-seat version — can be crafted from mahogany, ash or North Carolina walnut, and their steel frames are offered in shades of poppy red, Caribbean blue, Bermuda blue or Fruita green.
Nelson, who earned a master’s degree in sculpture from Arizona State University, first came to the Roaring Fork Valley to study at Anderson Ranch, eventually becoming its interim director. He founded Board by Design in 2001, running the firm from the Aspen Business Center for seven years.
But Brad and his wife wanted to live in Carbondale – enough so that they turned down a two-bedroom affordable housing unit in Aspen, Colorado’s Burlingame development after winning it. Nelson and his wife, a jewelry designer, now lives here with their seven-year-old daughter. Brad opened his Carbondale studio in 2007.
All of BBD’s furniture is made in that studio. Nelson, who says that he would “like to be the inventor and have it made by someone else,” often partners with other Carbondale artisans for manufacturing. Local furniture maker David Rasmussen, for example, assembles BBD’s organizers.
Currently, Nelson is creating benches for Fold, a new Carbondale restaurant located just few doors down from BBD’s studio on Dolores Way. BBD furniture is also sold through the Harvey Meadows gallery in Aspen.
But more BBD products are exported beyond the Roaring Fork Valley than are sold here. Last summer, BBD shipped 41 tables to Shaw Media in Toronto. BBD sells accessories nationwide via the Etsy online website, and BBD furniture is offered by William Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, Urban Outfitter and Y Living stores, among others.
Nelson markets his work at two national furniture fairs, and although he calls himself “an analog boy in a digital world,” the Internet is contributing to Board By Design’s fame. Recently the Design Sponge blog wrote about BBD, and the international Apartment Therapy website named BBD’s hanging Bike All rack one of its favorites.
“I try to make beautiful, functional objects that solve problems and are not being shipped from everywhere,” commented Nelson. “I want to make things that will always be cherished. With good materials. And made in America.”
Counter-height tables are so au-courant now — but in many homes, they are so calamitously wrong!
The dining room I just redesigned in my Carbondale home near Aspen provides a cautionary tale. This room suffered from many problems, as the “before” photos below will show: dark colors, gloss paint, blocked sight lines and a mish-mash of disconnected styles and motifs. But for this post, I will concentrate on the towering table. Here’s how the room looks now.
It’s had a makeover that has included paint, lighting, color scheme and a change of furniture that included the purchase of a round, traditional height table that expands from 42 inches in diameter to a large oval that easily seats six people, and eight if they are friendly. (This is the Ronan table from Pier 1 Imports.)
As you can see from the “before” photo below, placing a counter-height table in this rather diminutive dining space was a double-dip doozy of a design mistake. First, the dimensions of the table were all wrong for this room — or any small area — because they take up too much visual space.
When you’re short on room, whether it’s floor space or cramped vertical space resulting from a low ceiling, the best approach is choose smaller-scale furniture.
In a small bedroom, for example, a low, modern bed with clean, un-fussy lines will make the room feel more open and accessible. It’s best to leave the raised-platform beds with steps to the mansions up the hill. (However, I am sorry to report that I have seen enormous, ornate beds dominating not-big-enough bedrooms in the grand homes up in Aspen, near where I live. Some of those four-poster beds can make even a generously-sized room feel cramped.)
But back to my place downvalley from Aspen.
The faux pas committed by the too-tall table that formerly occupied my dining room was compounded by the fact that the dining room is raised. To reach it, one climbs two steps up from the adjacent living room. Given this split-level arrangement, the table top, as seen from the living room, was well above the eye-level of most visitors. Coming up to it felt oppressive, like running into a wall.
What’s more, the hulking bulk of the too-tall table and chairs blocked the light coming into the living room and the sight lines from both the kitchen and living room. This made all three areas seem darker than they needed to be.
Finally, I wondered how well that tall table and chairs worked in a family with a young child. Since he was in grade school, I supposed he had learned to clamber up on the high chairs, but the family also had an infant on the way. I can’t imagine those chairs being particularly easy for toddlers or elders to use.
Tall tables work well in rooms that are airy, bright, spacious and have high-ceilings. Unfortunately, those adjectives don’t describe dining rooms in most of our houses.
Bar-height tables feel right in coffee houses and bars, places where we expect to rub elbows with other folks and where we frankly feel a bit uneasy if the crowd’s too thin. But that’s generally not the kind of ambience we want in our homes.
Despite all that, tall tables seem to be the order of the day in small apartments and in houses with children who will without a doubt tip over those towering chairs. I really don’t understand the allure. Who’s buying them? Are these the same people who went for platform shoes?
If you’re not living in a coffee house, a bar or a mansion, my advice – which you didn’t ask for and is worth more than you’re paying for it – is to just say no. Don’t be a fashion victim.
I wanna jump but I’m afraid I’ll fall I wanna holler but the joint’s too small Young man rhythm’s got a hold of me too I got the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu
Call some other’s baby that ain’t all I wanna kiss her but she’s way too tall Young man rhythm’s got a hold of me too I got the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu…
I’m told that mice prefer to skirt the walls of a room, avoiding the center. They don’t feel safe when they are exposed in open places. Some people have a similar reaction to the wide, open spaces of the Great Plains. Folks can even be stymied by trying to figure out how to place furniture in a loft or large room.
Wide open spaces can be daunting.
My friend and client Claire is certainly no mouse! She’s an extraordinarily self-possessed and capable person, but the living/dining area of her new condominium – pictured below and at left – posed problems similar to those encountered by mice.
Claire’s wry comment about this was, “If I did what I usually do, and put the furniture around the edges, I would have just wound up with a big hole in the middle!”
A Spatial Puzzle
The solution to this particular lost-in-space problem wasn’t obvious to me either, at least not initially. The space is a bit like one of those 16-space number puzzles that hold 15 tiles. Each time you want to reposition one tile, you have scoot several others around to compensate.
While my clients’ needs imposed one set of problems on the room’s layout, the openness of the room imposed another. Somehow, the room needed to be divided into separate, functional spaces:
a dining area,
a living room conversational area,
a media entertainment area, and
a writing area that would highlight Claire’s large, antique roll-top desk.
As you can see, the room is a large box that receives strongly directional natural light. Windows wrap around two sides of the room, stretching the full length of two walls. The largest wall of windows faces west, catching the low, slanting rays of the late afternoon and early evening sun.
This makes it difficult to figure out where to place the TV. Judging from the placement of the previous owner’s satellite cable, a TV had been placed in the left front corner of the floor plan below, behind the red chair. This placement led to two bad options: It would either force viewers to squint into the sun, or they would have to struggle with a sideways glare across the TV screen.
Providing Face-to-Face Conversational Areas
The obvious solution to the TV viewing problem – placing the television so that the outdoor light enters behind the viewers, as shown below – solves the viewing dilemma.
However, it introduces other problems. When chairs are placed at a comfortable viewing distance in front of the TV, the resulting entertainment area takes up more than half of the room’s width. While this does leave enough space to place a couch and coffee table under the windows (which, in this 3-D image would be on the cut-away wall nearest you), it does not leave enough space for a separate conversation area. If a chair were to be placed on the other side of the coffee table, it would block the circulation path through the room and into the kitchen.
So how can the room be set up to enable people to have face-to-face conversation? The obvious – but impossible – solution would be to make the room six feet wider!
Instead, I hit on the idea of using the available living-room-to-kitchen circulation path for both viewing distance and a walkway. It was far easier to come up with this idea in a scaled plan than in the actual room, and I’m sure the movers would have been grateful had they known this.
How many sitcoms have we seen in which the movers have to haul the heavy pieces of furniture here and there around the room while the new resident tries to figure out a floor plan?
Long before these particular movers came onto the scene, I had asked Ron and Claire to measure all their furniture. I had measured the room and created both the floor plan and the three-dimensional rendering you see here, so that I could shove all the furniture around on my computer.
By the day of the move, I had solved the space use problems and Ron and Claire knew exactly what they needed to move. This also meant that they could avoid moving furniture they didn’t need. In addition, it meant that I could be shopping for the few pieces they would need to acquire while they were busy packing.
A Few Other Needs
At the start of this project, I interviewed Ron and Claire in their previous apartment. In addition to getting a feel for their tastes, I asked them what annoyed them in their living space. Both of them said that they were pressed for closet space, and both felt that they were awash in papers. (Indeed, surfaces were piled with papers. Knowing Ron and Claire, I suspected that this had more to do with inadequate filing space than personal habits.)
Claire and Ron also wanted to highlight a few prized possessions: a large, antique roll-top desk, a glass-fronted china cabinet, a brass samovar, a collection of hats that commemorated their globe-hopping travels, and a three-foot high wooden giraffe decorated with thousands of daintily-strung seed beads. (You can see her in the photo above.)
The Old Switcheroo
My space plan, shown in the plans above, divided the living and dining areas with filing cabinets that serve multiple purposes: they allow Ron and Claire to file their papers, they serve as a side board for family meals, and they also can be used as a buffet surface for entertaining.
The cabinets that were purchased are shown in the photo above. They are matched credenzas that are finished back and front so that they’re attractive seen from both their living room and dining room sides.
One key feature that opened the space to multiple uses was replacing two old recliners with new swivel recliners that would lend themselves to a quick switcheroo – they could be oriented either for watching the TV or turned 180 degrees to face the conversation area. One of the new recliners that I found for Ron and Claire can be seen in the photo at the top of this post.
As noted earlier, the room’s architecture is functional and austere. That, coupled with a paint and trim scheme of neutral colors, meant that attention would be focused on Ron and Claire’s furnishings, rather than the room itself. Accordingly, I created a color palette that is keyed to a couple dominant and repeated hues that are featured in the rugs: a deep red, a celadon green, and an off-white.
Deep red is the most prominent hue in the tribal and Oriental rugs, and I used it to actively define the social spaces in the room. Two existing red leather chairs and an existing love seat were grouped around one Oriental carpet to create a face-to-face conversation area. Another handsome rug demarcated the TV viewing area, while yet another defined the breakfast area. These three rugs are all visible in the photo at the top of this post, while still another is featured in the entry area shown above.
Showing Off Prized Possessions
Prized possessions, such as that beaded giraffe and the china chest at right, were featured prominently in this layout. “We have acquired lots of art and other things we really like over more than 40 years,” said Claire. “But we have never tried to get things that were particularly harmonious, so we didn’t know how to make them look good together. Nicolette managed to make the things we already had look good just by placing them differently and showing us how they coordinated.”
“Nicolette also recommended a few pieces of new furniture that we have acquired over the past year. She also helped us solve a long-term problem of not having enough storage for lots of papers and books. Her suggestion was creative and looks good in our condo.”
Ready, Fire, Aim!
(A Cautionary Tale about Space Planning)
Since I’m pretty sure my ex-husband will never read my blog, I think I can safely tell a story about his foibles here.
My ex was (and presumably still is) a fabulous cook. Our Eddy Street condo had a huge kitchen, two ovens, and vast expanses of counter space. My ex loved to prepare complex and sophisticated dinners, and it wasn’t long before he began to complain that the refrigerator was too small. Dan (not his real name) wanted a big fridge that served water and ice through the door.
I measured the space and we went shopping. The features he wanted were available only on a significantly larger fridge. Dan looked at my measurements and insisted that the side-by-side refrigerator/freezer he wanted would fit.
I was dubious. The new fridge was stout, measuring only about half an inch less in width than the available space, and I wondered aloud about the lack of clearance on the sides. What if the bordering walls or the counters weren’t square, how would the unit get any ventilation, how would we clean, how… Dan interrupted my comments – more loudly this time – insisting that it would fit.
“But where’s the door going to swing? There’s no clearance…” I whined.
“No one needs to walk through the door when I’m cooking!” he fumed. By this time, the volume of our debate was starting to turn heads, so I gave up and let Dan arrange for delivery.
Okay, when the refrigerator was delivered, it did fit – but only when the doors were closed! The hinged side of each door was actually wedged shut by the counter on one side and the wall on the other.
That refrigerator sat protruding several inches into the doorway for months. It was replaced only when I decided to replace the chef who went with it…
A small space should be designed with the elegance of a Swiss Army knife.
How so? It should be convenient and pleasant to use. It should anticipate every daily task you do, providing all manner of wonderful accoutrements that open, neatly serve one purpose, then fold, swivel, and pop into another configuration, allowing you to do something altogether different. What’s more, the room and its furnishings should do all this while looking as sleek and beautiful as – well, a Swiss Army knife!
The accordion-like center that allows the XPand table to grow.
The XPand table comes in three sizes and all can grow in length without leaves or hardware. The medium sized table stretches from 63 inches long to 82 inches long.
Although I own three of those canny little knives, it wasn’t until I began researching this blog that I learned that the Swiss Army knife’s design has been included in the New York Museum of Modern Art and Munich’s State Museum of Applied Art. So I’m not alone in finding design inspiration in this humble implement.
This post will be devoted to handsome and fiendishly functional pieces of furniture that, like Swiss Army knives, sleekly serve multiple purposes. Here’s what I have found:
the Bada multi-tasking table that turns into a love seat,
Murphy beds that disappear behind bookshelves,
a Study Bed that transforms into a desk,
an XPand table that stretches to welcome company without adding leaves,
Silla Garda chairs that divide and multiply,
children’s furniture that grows, flexes, and offers fun places to play,
a couch that turns into a bunk bed, and
storage that banishes clutter.
Furniture like this is what you need to live large in a small space!
Small is Beautiful
Small dwellings offer environmental advantages. A small house costs less to heat and cool. It requires fewer resources to build, and at the end of its usefulness, there’s less to bury in a landfill. A gentleman in Texas by the name of Brad Kittel builds charming, milk-truck-sized houses from 99% salvaged materials to make that very point. Jay Shaffer has put together his Tumbleweed Tiny Houses for similar reasons. While their houses are bit too small for my taste, I do subscribe to Susan Susanka’s “Not So Big” house philosophy. Susanka encourages her readers to invest in good design and detailing, making a smaller house truly livable. (She’s not an advocate of economy or frugality, but favors quality over quantity.)
EcoSystem’s Bada table folds to become a love seat
In this age of super-sizing, my love of small spaces may sound contrarian. But among all the interior design tasks I perform, I get the most joy from solving the three-dimensional puzzle of the perfectly planned small house. I get a thrill when a piece of furniture that I have measured and chosen drops perfectly into its allotted spot, wasting no space and looking as though it was created to be there. I enjoy designing original cabinets and window seats that add balance, convenience, and function to an odd dogleg in a floor plan. I get a charge out of finding a bit of wasted or forgotten interior real estate and recovering it in the form of a closet or a china hutch.
It’s even better when I can work this magic using things that are already at hand, local, or re-purposed to some clever end. In my fantasies, I’m the McGyver of interior design, whipping out my Swiss Army Knife and transforming a dozen left-over thread spools, an abandoned automobile hood, and a broken dresser drawer into an incredibly cool coffee table.
In reality, I’m not that inventive, but Ecosystems Bada table, shown above, is! It’s made from reclaimed walnut, and with a flick of the wrist, it changes into love seat.
The Guarda Silla chairs shown at right are equally clever. Designed by Alberto Villareal, they are like Russian nesting dolls. The chair’s outer shell is made from smooth white Corian. That shell, seen empty on the far left, slips over the redwood core at the center of the photo. Together, the shell and core make up the two-tone chair shown on the right side of the photo. When you need more seating, you can pull the wooden chair out of the Corian shell to form two chairs, both equally functional.
Strive for Simplicity
In a small room, you should strive for a visual harmony. Monochromatic color schemes and neutrals tend to make rooms seem larger, and coordinated furniture and wall colors will also make the space seem roomier. Another good trick is to use see-through surfaces, such as Lucite and glass. Reflective metal surfaces and large mirrors will reflect light and visually open the space as well.
A kaleidoscope of colors, dizzying detail, or a backwash of books, papers, remote controls, wires, or tools is to be avoided. Visual complication will make a small room feel cramped. That’s why it’s important to be able tuck things away or close a closet door on clutter.
In a small living room, a coffee table like the BoConcept “Functional Table” shown here will give you a convenient spot to store small objects such as books or remote controls. Its separate table tops will provide flat, raised and stable surfaces for dining or working, so it accommodates two of the most common activities that take place in living rooms and dens.
Planning is Crucial
Frankly, I think that designing for a small space is far more challenging than designing for a large one. It requires far more planning because you need to effectively use every bit of the floorplan while being sure to leave enough room to circulate around the furniture. It requires more shopping because the difference between a 62 inch long love seat and a 65 inch love seat may mean the difference between being able to open the door and having it wedged shut! Small spaces also call for a lot of attention to storage, and that, in turn, often means designing and installing built-in shelving and closet hardware.
“Doc” has removable covers and transforms into a bunk bed. From Bon Bon Trading.
What’s more, in a small dwelling, you don’t have the option of devoting one room to single purpose. Today’s McMansions can come with multiple bedrooms, an office, a dining room, a family room, a kitchen, a mud room, a guest room, a library, an exercise room, a laundry room – and one heck of a big heating bill. In a small space, however, you’re far more likely to wind up with multipurpose spaces. Here are some common ones:
a kitchen/laundry room,
a library/guest room, and
a dining room/office.
The Doc sofa shown at right would be a good choice for an older couple whose library needed to also be able to serve as a guest room for grandchildren who visited every now and again.
Another fascinatingly flexible bed – one that a teenager would love – is the Study Bed. It’s hard to find the words to describe how the Study Bed folds and rotates a double-sized bed into the wall to reveal a good-sized desk. It’s even hard to show in a series of photos, so if you’re curious about, I encourage you to head on over to YouTube to watch the video of the Study Bed in motion.
The trade-offs of using spaces for multiple functions complicate both furnishing and storage, and the answers about which functions to group together aren’t always obvious. For example, what if there’s just one unallocated room, and you need a yoga retreat, a mud room and a children’s play area? How are you going to make sure your downward facing doggie pose doesn’t wind up with its nose in mud left over from the kids’ galoshes? Will you need to rout the Space Invaders before you can achieve yogic repose?
Combining these functions would require superb storage and a lot of attention to flooring. If you had a comfortable rug that could be rolled out just for yoga, and then easily stored out of sight, this combination might work.
However, it’s better to group noisy activities in one area of the house and quiet functions in another. Doing that also involves thinking about the chronology of the family’s day. If the kids are going to home playing at the same time you want to do yoga, perhaps your yoga retreat should be designed into the bedroom, the living room, or the kitchen?
The redesign of one room in a small dwelling frequently causes a domino effect. I find that accommodating a change in one room often requires moving functions or furnishing in another room as well. In the case of the yoga retreat, while there may not be enough floor space for a self-respecting cobra to stretch out in the living room right now, there could be.
The answer might be to use the spare room for a play and mud room only. You could practice yoga in the living room if you replaced your bulky coffee table and that seldom-used armchair with something like the Tagei table at left. (Tagei means versatility in Japanese.) This table/bench combo would free up the floor space you need for daily exercise, and it will easily open into seating for the occasional buffet or cocktail party.
Provide Lots of Storage
My final tip on furnishing small spaces is to provide plenty of storage, particularly units that do not protrude into the room. Your storage might be built in – like the closet I discussed in last week’s blog – or it might be a wall system. (If you like Asian-inspired design, there’s a firm called Green Tea Design that creates some very handsome wardrobes and wall systems using wood recycled from old Korean barns.) It’s often effective (if counter-intuitive) to shrink the room’s footprint slightly by creating a full-width wall for a closet or wall system. When the view is uninterrupted by edges, it appears less busy. Visually, a whole-wall system intrudes into the room less than a dresser or breakfront would.
Modern Murphy beds take the same approach, and they often include options for shelving and closets. Some include desks and drop-down tables that really make them more like wall systems than beds. Hardwood Artisans has a nice selection of Library Wall beds. The Wallbed Factory, which has an active green initiative, offers library and wallbeds with plenty of storage features, and prices ranging from $2,100 to around $5,000. Flying Beds offers a Murphy bunk bed, a library bed and also a computer bed.
Who You Gonna Call?
So there you have it, a whole passel of solutions for shaping up your small spaces. The links below will help you explore all of your options save one.
If it turns out you don’t care for measuring, drawing floor plans on quadrille paper and cutting out little chunks of paper to represent your furniture, you can call for help. There are odd souls around who actually enjoy wrestling with the three-dimensional puzzles of space planning. I’m one of them. Like my fellow interior designers, I’d be happy to help!
Have you ever complained that you don’t have enough storage space? I’m willing to bet that you have – and I’m also willing to wager that you’re at least partly wrong. Although the lack of closet, book, filing, and storage space is the single most common housing complaint I hear, I find that it often results from using the space that we do have rather poorly.
Take my friend Meg, who recently moved to the wine country. Like most retired ministers, Reverend Meg Whitaker-Green has a lot of books. A gifted photographer, she also has hundreds of photos. But her house was built as a cottage and has only two tiny clothes closets – each about three feet wide and two feet deep. The linen closet is so tiny that it holds only towels; sheets must live elsewhere. Meg would like to rent out her house when she travels, but right now it’s too cluttered.
With tongue in cheek, I could say that she has no vacancy right now because the place “is booked solid.”
Except for the baths, every room has at least one book case, and every one is stuffed solid! Yet there are still books piled on the kitchen table, on the desk, on the hearth, on the mantle… on almost every flat surface, including the floor. Clearly, Meg needs to find more and better ways to house her beloved books.
That’s the kind of challenge I love!
Although Meg insisted that I had been invited to rest during my visit, and not to work, I just couldn’t help myself. I can no more keep myself from solving spacial puzzles than I can prevent myself from reading the promotional drivel on the back of cereal boxes. As I moved around her house, I kept seeing one “wasted” space after another. There were many ways to solve Meg’s storage problems.
Look to the Heavens for Help
While sitting at Meg’s kitchen table, gazing at the window, I spotted the empty space above the window and envisioned the book shelf illustrated above. Heavens! This would be a great spot to keep volumes that aren’t often needed, such as Meg’s theology texts and over-sized art books.
In my own house, which lacked closet space, I installed the “hotel shelf” shown at left over the bathroom door. Meg could do the same in her powder room. Because the toilet blocks access to the wall, and because the wall also holds the TP dispenser, it’s shielded from traffic. Even a tall person wouldn’t bump into the shelf. If Meg moved the towels there, she would be able to put her sheets in the linen closet. (A note about the title of this blog: I have no special knowledge about the gender of god. But since the Reverend Whitaker-Green is a feminist minister, I’m assuming that Meg addresses god as “she.”)
What’s Over the Refrigerator?
Meg also has a problem with finding a spot for her photos. Because they need to be kept dry, they can’t be stored in the basement. Right now, they are piled on the floor near her desk.
During breakfast, I spotted a home for Meg’s photos – over the refrigerator! A cabinet is mounted alongside the refrigerator, and it reaches the ceiling. But there’s no parallel cabinet over the refrigerator – just a big, open box of space. Given the height, depth, and width of the refrigerator, that space is about 30 inches square and three feet high. I have a similar space above a stackable washer and dryer, and I use that space for storing large, rolled-up architectural drawings. Meg could use her warm, dry, over-the-fridge space in a similar way.
To reclaim this forgotten spot, Meg should ask her carpenter to build a box to fit the space. It should have horizontal shelves; it could optionally include a hinged front door. Because Meg’s cabinets are painted, rather than wood-stained, this box will be easy to finish, too. She can match the color by removing one of the painted wooden knobs from the front of an existing cabinet door and taking it with her to the paint store.
Look for Hidden Spaces
Unfortunately, many houses have been designed – or even remodeled – without enough attention to space planning.
Both of the older houses I have remodeled included odd doglegs, uselessly shallow closets, and mysterious enclosed dead spaces that could be effectively re-purposed for storage. In my current house, only two of the three bedrooms had closets. Those odd little spaces were only about one foot deep – far too shallow to hang clothes! After I retrofitted them with shelves that used the space efficiently, I immediately began looking for places to put functional closets. (There’s a photo of an efficiently redesigned narrow closet near the end of this blog.)
The turquoise areas in the floor plan below show where I found space for closets. I enclosed one end of a bedroom to create the 10-foot-wide closet pictured at left. Note the white sliding doors above the mirrored doors. These wooden doors enclose a somewhat inaccessible space that is used for storing Christmas lights, back taxes, and memorabilia.
When you plan your storage, you should place the items you use daily close to where you need them. For example, our everyday clothing is located behind the mirrored doors. Holiday supplies, out-of-season clothes and items you rarely need should not be taking up space in your most-accessible storage areas.
As you can see in the floor plan below, I created a second closet by enclosing an odd dogleg in the hallway between the bathroom and dining room. This created a much-needed coat closet near the front door. I saw no need to remove the existing door into the dining room, and this closet now has doors on either side, making it accessible from both the entry hall and the dining room.
Unless you’re friendly with contractors or have done some remodeling, you might not have thought about what’s behind the surface of your walls. Most modern residential walls are formed by a half-inch-thick sheet of gypsum board (also called “drywall”), which is like plaster. Older houses’ walls are formed by plaster on top of lath, thin wooden strips that look like they came from orange crates.
Under these plaster surfaces are parallel uprights called “studs.” Studs are usually made of two-by-fours, boards that nowadays measure slightly less than four inches wide and two inches deep. They are placed at 12 or 18 inch intervals, and on rare occasion, every 24 inches. Between them is open space.
That space can provide room for insulation, electrical wires or plumbing. However, in many cases, it’s just an open area. Although the cavity is not deep, its space can be used for recessed storage. For the vanity shown here, a space has been cut between studs, and then finished in tile that matches the bathroom walls so that the assembly looks like it was designed in from the start.
If you decide you’d like to recover some of the space inside your walls, get a contractor’s help. Your shelving will need to be placed between the electrical outlets on the wall. Even in places where you don’t see outlets, wires could be running inside the wall to an attic or basement. Hidden wires could be severed when you cut into the drywall. (Whoever remodeled my current house managed to cut through all of the phone wires! When I moved in, not one of the three phone jacks was working.) In addition, some homes have heating and cooling registers in the floor; if this is the case and the house sits on a concrete slab, duct work will be positioned between wall studs.
If you have an unfinished garage or basement, however, the space between the studs is easy to use. You can even buy “Stud Buddies“, pre-made shelves that can be quickly mounted as storage space for tools and other small items.
Vertical vs. Horizontal Space
Recently, when Meg wanted to frame a photo, she tried to do it on the carpeted floor. Having tried that myself, I can testify that it doesn’t work. Matting and framing require a stable, unmoving surface. Accordingly, Meg has been shopping for a credenza. That will work, and it won’t take up any more floor space than her stacked photos are currently occupying.
But a credenza may not be the best solution: it will not use the space
e above the work surface, nor will it extend the full length of the wall. I suggested two options:
Install modular shelving above the credenza, with the wider shelves placed higher so that they don’t cramp the tabletop work space, or
Have a carpenter build a box that extends the wall’s full length, and include horizontal shelves sized for the photos. She can install a counter top on the workspace (she can probably even find a used counter top and recycle it for this purpose). By placing a sheet of glass over part of it, she can create an area where she can cut with Exacto knives without gouging the counter top.
Meg’s credenza v. cabinet decision illustrates a couple of key storage principles:
Determine whether you need horizontal or vertical storage space and design the closet or shelving to accommodate those needs.
If you’re pressed for storage and spot usable space, use all of it – don’t leave a hole at the top or gaps at the side. Often, when people purchase furniture, they fail to measure the space and/or fail to buy something that truly makes fits the area. For this reason, it’s often better to ask a designer to plan built-in storage and then have a carpenter build shelving or counters from the plan.
Create spaces and places that accommodate multiple uses.
A good example of this last principle would be the space plan I designed for my clients Ron and Claire, who were moving into a condominium where picture windows wrapped around two adjacent sides of the living/dining room. They weren’t sure how to position the furniture, or what to bring from their old place. As Claire observed, “You can’t just put the furniture around the walls because there would be a big hole in the center!”
Ron and Claire needed to divide the big space horizontally while preserving its open character; they also needed places to tuck the papers away. For them, I created a floor plan showing which pieces of existing furniture would work and what needed to be replaced. The keys to using the big, open room were:
Two credenzas that were finished on the back as well as the front to separate the dining room from the living area. The matched credenzas create a low wall that divides the two spaces, and in addition to hiding papers, the credenzas’ flat, open tops double as a buffet surface. It can be used for serving meals or to provide canapes accessible from either area when Ron and Claire are entertaining.
New swivel recliners that do double-duty because they can face either the TV or the conversation area.
A neat storage hassock that hides newspapers. It can be used as a seat, and the removable top also flips over so that it can be used as a small side table.
Judging by the 30 or so people who showed up for Karen Price’s ergonomic workshop, there are a lot of aches and pains in the offices of Alliant International University. When Karen asked how many people compounded the damage by working in an awkward home office, about half of them sheepishly raised their hands.
This post, which is about two of the biggest problems in home offices, eye strain and aching backs, is for them and for my friend Alexei. As a support engineer for Filemaker, Alexei has a great “fuzzy slipper job” but also a home office that is giving her a pain in the posterior – or perhaps even a CTD. (I’m the one with eye strain – but more about that later.)
There are about 25 different CTD’s – Cumulative Trauma Disorders. But whether it’s tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, tenosynovitis, tennis elbow or Blackberry thumb, a CTD by any name is just as sour. Every single one of them hurts because of damage to soft tissue, and every one occurs as result of the same risk factors:
Force (including overly forceful typing!)
Contact stress (from resting your arms on the sharp edge of your desk, for example)
Static load (holding the same position for a long time)
The good news is that you can mitigate many of those risk factors, as well as the causes of eye strain, by paying attention to the design of your home office and by altering some of your own bad habits (funny how those darn behavioral modifications keep cropping up in one health discussion after another). This post will talk a bit about each option.
How Do I Know If I Have a CTD?
The short answer is that if it hurts and keeps on hurting, you probably do. Karen Price, who is Director of Risk Assessment for the Hays Companies, says, “If you have pain anywhere for three to five days, pay attention! Don’t assume that it will go away. Sometimes it will, but the most difficult CTD cases I see almost always have to do with problems that could have been dealt with fairly easily if caught early. But by the time they get to me, they may require surgery.”
Most CTD injuries don’t appear out of the blue; they announce themselves gradually. You are working away, and holding the phone seems like a hassle. After awhile, your shoulder and neck feel uncomfortable. Then it really hurts… and you are on your way to being injured. Early warning signs of injury include:
Pain and discomfort
Redness and swelling
Numbness or tingling
A pins and needles sensation
When developing design plans, I encourage clients to complain to me about whatever it is that’s annoying them in any room of the house. Paying attention to the hassle-factor is doubly important in a home office.
An Aching Back
That kind of desk/table/chair arrangement that will work best depends very much on 1) the kind of work the person is doing, and 2) the physical attributes of the individual. Is the person 5’1″ tall, or 6’5″? The answers to those questions will make a lot of difference as to what kind of chair is comfortable, how high the desktop should be, and how the lighting is arranged.
When it comes to the measurements that are used for American product design, Alexei and I are at the bottom end of the “normal” spectrum. The average of height of a white woman in the US is 5′ 4.9″. Product designers use average heights, along with coordinated measurements for reach, leg length, fanny width, etc., in designing all kinds of products.
Thus, Alexei’s height is a major problem at the gym, where designers have probably assumed that most of the exercising is going to be done by men. Alexei told me that one machine, designed to build the upper body, gives her abdominals quite a workout. And if she doesn’t curl her feet around the lower bars of the machine when she lets the weights down, it also works pretty well as a pilot ejector seat!
Alexei and I would fit in better in Nigeria or Japan, where we come in right at the average height for women. As it is, when we go to symphony hall and sit back in our seats, we feel a bit like Lily Tomlin playing Edith Ann! (When your feet dangle in the air, your circulation is impaired and that leads to discomfort and swollen feet. This can be a major problem on airplanes.) Our neighbor, Blake Seely, who is 6’6″, has the opposite problem. He’s on the far end of the normal height spectrum, coming in above the 95th percentile for men. In the US, the average height for men of Blake’s generation is 5’10.4″ – and Blake would be tall even in the Dinaric Alps, where the average male scrapes the clouds at 6’1″. (If you happen to see eye-to-eye with Blake, you might want to check out Tall Paul’s Tall Mall, a website started by a 6’11” architect who couldn’t find a bed or bed sheets that would fit him. Tall Paul has tall office chairs.)
The fact is, anyone whose height, weight or reach puts them at the edge of the anthropometic range is going to have difficulty with chairs. Nearly two decades ago, in the November 1986 Human Factors Society Bulletin, Rani Lueder, CPE, wrote the following about how the standards for table and seat height affect females, particularly short ones like Alexei:
…when the work surface height is fixed, small females sit higher than large males (Burandt and Grandjean, 1963; Floyd and Roberts, 1958; Floyd and Ward, 1964; Langdon, 1965). Langdon (19.65, p.66) notes “in consequence, although the chair is raised to the point where the limbs cannot be accommodated beneath the desk and the feet cannot reach the floor, the operator is well above the keyboard and sits on the edge of the chair, gripping the curved feet of the chair frame with her shoes”.
Ironically, pending seat height recommendations that attempt to address the difficulties of the small female inadvertently increase the potential for the worst case situation, in which her seat is fully jacked up, legs unsupported, yet she must still maintain excessively elevated arms…
To be sure, better (and far more adjustable) chairs have been designed since that article was written, but in most cases, people at the ends of the height spectrum are still going find themselves fighting with their chairs.
In researching this post, I stumbled across the “CrunchGear” blog which has an interesting review of ergonomic office chairs followed by a revealing series of cross-comments between designers who have tried the various chairs discussed. The Think Chair from Steelcase, the Aeron from Herman Miller, and the Liberty Chair from Humanscale all scored points in the reviews. But in the comments, among the raves, you will also see laments like these:
Those chairs look great… until I sit on them. They seem to be designed for the universal 5′6″-5′10″ range, but easily turn into disappointing torture devices and flip-overs for guys my height (6′2″)…
Women have different ergonomic needs than men because the computer-based injuries they sustain tend to be in their neck and shoulders, whereas with men, their pains are usually in the low to mid back. This is because women have a small musculature in their upper bodies that can’t hold her arms out in space for hours and hours a day in a static posture. Unfortunately, most ergonomic chairs don’t help with this, because the arm width is too wide and … not width adjustable…
The Think Chair from Steelcase, a high-end ergonomic office chair priced at $729, has a seat height that adjusts from 16-21 inches. It also has back and seat “flexors” that track with your natural movements, a pneumatically adjustable seat height and is made of sustainable materials.
However, it has a seat depth of 18 1/2 inches. Alexei’s height makes her a fifth-percentile adult female, which probably means that her buttock to knee length is about 17 inches. Without adding a lumbar pad to push her forward in the chair, Alexei’s feet may be dangling even when she’s sitting all the way back, in contact with the back rest.
The typical solution for that is to add a foot support under the desk. That’s an inexpensive way of dealing with a desk that’s really too high and an otherwise comfortable chair that you don’t want to have to replace. But the foot pad is far from the only – or the best – solution.
Aeron: Petite, Medium or Tall?
Herman Miller designed the Aeron chair to solve the problems of those at the far ends of the height spectrum – both for short people like me and Alexei, and for tall people like our neighbor Blake. The Aeron chair is notable not only for its multiple ergonomic adjustments, but also because it comes in three different sizes. The Herman Miller website even includes a height and weight chart so that you know which size to order. (While checking prices for this post, I discovered a website that offers the genuine Aeron – not a cheap knockoff – at very significantly discounted prices. There’s actually a market for “pre-owned” Aeron chairs!)
Safety Seal Your Work Envelope
The concept of “work envelope” is useful to have in mind as your evaluate your office setup. Sit at your desk and reach your arms out in front of you, and then to the sides. Reach only as far as you can without stretching, leaning or noticing muscle engagement. You want your bones to do most of the work, rather than stressing the muscles and tendons. Visually mark the boundaries of the space you can comfortably reach. That’s your work envelope. Every item that you use over and over again during your time at the desk should be sited within that envelope. That includes things you read, as well as the things you handle regularly.
Here’s a checklist of things of how the things tucked inside that envelope should look:
Computer monitor – You should not have to lean forward or back to read the screen, nor should you ever have to turn to the side to see it. When your chin line is parallel to the floor and your eyes are gazing straight ahead, they should be falling about an inch above the Zen Stones image at the top of this blog. Your monitor should be about 18 to 24 inches away from your eyes, and it never should be placed in a corner unless your desk is specifically designed to accommodate that option. This placement will also help you avoid eye strain, which more often occurs due to being too close than too far away.
Documents – Your reading matter should be placed at the same distance and angle from your eyes as your monitor on a paper stand. If you are typing from a document, you should not have to continually swivel your head to go from document to computer monitor. This positioning will also help reduce eye strain because you are not forcing your eyes to refocus when going from document to screen.
Keyboard – When typing, your wrists should not be bent; your hands should be out in front of you and your elbows should be at your sides. If your wrists are bent so that your hands are reaching up or down, you need to reposition your keyboard. Your wrists should rest comfortably on the table without any pressure points. (If your desk has a sharp edge that presses into your arm, you need a wrist cushion.)
Mouse – Your mouse pad should be placed a stable surface within your work envelope and you should not have to stretch to reach it. Your wrist be positioned the same way as described above for the keyboard. If you do a lot of mousing, you may find that a trackball or a light pen and tablet provide a more comfortable alternative.
Phone – Your phone should be easily accessible within your work envelope. If you find yourself attempted to pinch-hold the phone between your cheek and shoulder while you type, you need to either learn to use the speaker phone or purchase a headset.
Eye Strain and Lighting Solutions
If your eyes are burning or tight, if you’re feeling sharp or dull pains, watering, blurring, double vision or headaches you might have eyestrain. And if you do, the likely culprits are your computer monitor and/or your office lighting.
What’s the best kind of lighting for your home office? There’s no one answer to that question because what’s healthiest and most comfortable depends on two things: 1) how the room itself is situated, and 2) what tasks are being done in the course of the work.
For example, a person running a home tailoring or graphic design business needs ample natural light, which usually means south-facing windows. If the room that’s available doesn’t have that kind of light, then they are going to need to provide some full-spectrum task lighting. A variety of “full spectrum” or “daylight” task lights are available. There is also evidence that providing this light helps to prevent or lessen seasonal affective disorder syndrome (SADS), especially if your office is in an interior room that doesn’t receive daylight.
However, if the person in the office happens to be a computer programmer, the advice I gave in the paragraph above is all wrong! Sunlight flooding a computer screen is a recipe for eye strain. In that case, north-facing windows are better. Ambient fluorescent room lighting or incandescent lights directed toward the ceiling, rather than the task, will be a better choice. And if you are working with both papers and computer, you will need a combination of both types of light.
Whatever kind of work you do, you should watch out for these common causes of eye stain:
Direct glare. Bright light from any source shining directly into your eyes can cause discomfort. Shield your eyes with your hand for a moment and notice whether you feel relief. If you do, you need to add curtains or blinds or redirect the lamp.
Reflected glare. Sometimes even the reflection of a white shirt on a computer screen can cause a problem, and not just for vision. The worst effect may be that you unconsciously adopt a crabbed posture in an effort to see.
Contrast. A dark screen surrounded by a bright background such as a window or a lit wall can cause eye fatigue; light letters on a black background are particular offenders. The best solution is to find a way to darken the area around the screen.
Ten Helpful Behavior Changes
Warm and stretch for 5-10 minutes before starting to work (Yes, even keyboard athletes need a warm up. Karen Price says, “five minutes of warm up each day are more beneficial than a perfectly ergonomic workstation.”)
Observe the 55/5 rule. If you have been typing or talking on the phone for 55 minutes, get up, change position and do something else for 5 minutes.
Change positions when you start to feel uncomfortable. (It takes 10 times longer to recover from static load injuries than from other types of CTD injuries.)
Get up and stretch every hour or so. Don’t forget to take a coffee break or lunch.
Blink! When we concentrate, our blink rate slows down and eyes tend to get dehydrated. If your eyes start to blur, that’s a likely sign of dehydration. Your doctor or pharmacist can also recommend a sanitary saline solution drop that will restore the edges to your sight.
Lowering the height of the monitor can help with dry eyes. When you look downward, more of the eye’s surface is covered by the eyelid. That causes you to blink more, and it also causes your eyes to produce more lubrication.
Follow the “20/20 rule” for your eyes. Every twenty minutes, look twenty feet away for twenty seconds.
If you wear bifocals, get a special pair of computer glasses that allow you focus at the right distance; you will avoid both eyestrain and the pain in the neck that comes from tipping your head to get the image in focus.
Read and follow these Ten Principles of Ergonomics by ergonomicist Dan McLeod. His website offers ways to cure the pain, along with nice, clear drawings of how it looks when it’s right and when it’s wrong.
Stop reading this blog. Go outside, take a walk, breathe, stretch and let a little natural beauty soothe your weary soul.
Down Under – Chicago back and comfort store that offers all sorts of chairs, pads, wedges, keyboards, mattresses, sleeping pillows, etc., on the net
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.