What to Do If Your Home Is Your Office


By Alvin Rosenbaum

Viking Studio Books, 223 pp., $29.95

Drag in an old desk and chair. Run a new phone line into the spare bedroom. And voila! The home office.

For many Americans who work out of their homes, this ersatz arrangement is as close as they get to the bright and functional corporate offices they left behind. For them, Alvin Rosenbaum has a suggestion: Design a space that is good-looking, comfortable, and productive.

"Dozens of books and articles have provided tips on setting up a home office, as if it were a task for Saturday afternoon rather than a project that may have enormous consequences on your life, relating not only to your income but to your sanity at work and the time you have left to spend with your family," he writes in his new book, "The Complete Home Office: Planning Your Work Space For Maximum Efficiency."

This oversized volume, buttressed with scores of beautiful photographs, aims to lead you through the process of designing the perfect work space. It's not an easy task.

Home workers represent a broad swath of people - from mothers who work part-time to professional consultants relocating full-time offices to their homes. It's the latter audience that Rosenbaum addresses. Using his own experiences building a $45,000 addition to his home and interviews with others, he guides the reader through the many considerations in creating a work space.

It is in this planning process that the book excels. Everything is covered, from parking to zoning restrictions to the benefits of an architect versus an interior designer. The author even explains how he had to redirect air vents so he couldn't smell breakfast or dinner cooking in the kitchen, aromas that overcame his zeal to work.

The book also includes excellent examples of how good design can overcome just about any limitation. Typically, a home doesn't have the space and height to accommodate the amenities found in offices. The ceilings are too low. Or space is at a premium.

Rosenbaum uses color photographs to show how designers met the challenges. One of my favorites is the "pocket office," a storage closet made over with a desk and shelving. Open the door, put a chair in front, and the space is optimized for work. Close the door and it looks like just another closet.

The author worked closely with associates of Herman Miller, an office-furniture manufacturer, so the book displays some excellent examples of home-office furniture. It's a difficult niche to fill because most office furniture is too big and out of place to work in a home, and home furniture isn't up to the demands of the full-time home worker. Fortunately, furniture designers are beginning to meld the two with innovative results.

Where the book falls down is in the practical application of its general principles. Aside from a few specifics (you can't have enough shelving; get a separate business line), the book is short on advice for the do-it-yourselfer. It's like reading House Beautiful to learn how to mix wallpaper paste.

Take lighting, a crucial topic for home offices. The author spends two pages talking about foot-candles and the importance of balancing ambient light with the brightness of a computer display. But he says nothing about the pros and cons of halogen lighting or whether to place fixtures behind or in front of the desk. His only solution: consult a lighting contractor (and kiss your cash goodbye) or a good lamp store.

Some of the author's computer recommendations are simply out of date. For example, he suggests buying a laptop computer with a black-and-white screen because it uses less battery power. That's true enough but irrelevant, since most major manufacturers have moved exclusively to laptops with color screens.

In the end, this book reflects its author: a strategic thinker with a strong sense of design and the resources to spend what's necessary to create the ideal home office. The millions of home-office workers - this one included - who don't have those luxuries might be better served looking somewhere else.

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