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There's no space like home

Technology and downsizing have cast a generation of workers out of the traditional office and into their abodes --creating a fast-growing design industry in the process.


In olden days, there was The Study.

The word conjures images of a stately and serene refuge lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and dark leathery tomes, a globe and other trappings of the contemplative life.

Of course, that was before e-mail, fax machines, telecommuting and downsizing cast a generation of workers out of their skyscrapers and sent them home to earn their livelihood.

With that ongoing migration is coming sharply increasing numbers of people who need a place at home to do their work--and a generalized scramble by office furniture firms to sell them the desks, chairs, file cabinets and other necessities.

The major suppliers of office furniture, the companies that have made their fortunes on the foundations of heavy-duty corporate fixtures, are only just beginning to understand the requirements of these small and home offices.

Meanwhile, office and furniture superstores are rushing to capture the market with lower-cost modular units of melamine-surfaced particleboard, but they are only partially successful in satisfying the needs of the modern, high-tech home worker.

Thus, the home office market is a major growth industry for custom furniture makers--and for the interior designers and others who understand what it takes to put together an office that will accommodate the computers and other electronic equipment that increasingly dominate work spaces of all kinds.

"It's definitely one of the hottest areas of design right now," says Sybil Roth, an interior designer with Closet Factory, a maker of modular furniture for offices and storage. "All of the major office furniture firms are scrambling to get in on the home office area, but most of them haven't got a clue what's needed."

These days, some sort of designated work space is becoming a staple of the average home, says Liz Steward, a West Los Angeles real estate developer and interior designer. Sometimes the offices are an adjunct to a primary corporate workplace or a place to tend personal finances and letter writing, but increasingly they're headquarters for self-employed professionals.

"It's a virtual world we live in now," notes Joe Ruggiero, design director and executive producer of two home design programs for the Home & Garden Television network. "You can make your office anywhere."

But most of the people involved in shifting workloads home have never had to think about designing an office. At its best, home office design is more than a question of matching the rug to the curtains. It's a study of workplace efficiency, productivity, even physical and mental well-being, all factors critical to the people creating a space in which to spend eight, 10 or 12 hours a day.

"You've got to find products that interact with you, not the other way around," says Don Dotter, who runs the Healthy Home Office, a Marina del Rey workplace design firm that emphasizes ergonomics--design that's both functional and healthful.

"A lot of people start off working on nonfunctional furniture in their home offices," Dotter says. "They'll stick the computer here and the printer there, and they'll make do with a hodgepodge of stuff for months or years before their backs start to hurt or they get carpal tunnel pain."

Home offices not only have to work, they have to look good. Whether a particular taste runs to industrial chic, French provincial, comfy Californian or high-tech spartan, one of the primary aesthetic directives in the home office market is the development of furniture that's functional yet blends with the homelike surroundings. The hulking steel-and-veneer desk that looks good in an office building would probably be out of place in the average home.

"We know that most people don't have a separate room, and we really try to take care of them," says Pamela Diaconis, a spokeswoman for furniture retailing giant Ikea. "A lot of people want to be able to hide their office when they're not working."

"More and more people are saying they want their home office to be a place that feels good to be in," adds Patricia Hewitt, owner of Carlyle, a Santa Monica furnishings design showroom. "They don't want a cold, corporate look."

And though hiring a professional designer might seem extravagant, it's not necessarily as expensive as it sounds: Hewitt has designed offices on budgets as low as $1,000, and also as high as $25,000.

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