It's your new desk

It's also a computer table. It holds your fax machine. It's a telephone

If your image of a home desk is an immovable mass of mahogany, perhaps you should drop by your local office-supply store or browse through a home-furnishings catalog.

The desk, as many once knew it, is being transformed into a multitude of new, more contemporary looks, many of them modular and practically all of them designed with computers in mind.

The operative word now is often "workstation," a word that reflects its newfound mobility. Many workstations come with casters and can be rolled from room to room, or at least away from the wall long enough to vacuum up the dust bunnies (but watch those cords).

The challenge from a design standpoint, says Jack Kelley, an independent designer with the Sligh Furniture Co. in Holland, Mich., is "to create a workstation that accommodates three shifts a day."

The desk has always been an interactive piece of furniture, but it's become more so as home dwellers take turns using the family computer.

Parents use it for working at home, paying bills, and coordinating PTA and church activities, while children log on to tackle schoolwork, send e-mail, or surf the Internet.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's super workstation

About a third of all Americans, a Wirthlin Report on home-office trends found, have a designated office area in their homes.

This figure is expected to increase dramatically because of three factors: technological advances, a desire for more flexible forms of employment, and corporate downsizing.

And with a projected 77 million children under 16 using the Internet by 2005, the home workstation is bound to assume an ever-higher profile.

Where to stash the paraphernalia

The question becomes, where does it belong? "A lot of homes don't have the luxury of an extra room in which to locate a desk and the technology used with it," Mr. Kelley says.

As a result, nearly half of home "offices" are in rooms that serve another function, such as a guest bedroom or family room, says Tracey Kelly, a spokesperson for IKEA, a major furniture retailer.

"It's increasingly important that these work spaces coordinate with the rest of the room," she says.

Since it often gets messy around shared work areas, cabinets and armoires are one strategy for hiding the untidiness.

"You can close them up and still have an elegant piece of furniture without seeing the residue of your work activity," says Kelley.

For high-end customers of solid-wood furniture, this may mean purchasing a piece like Sligh's Computer Cabinet, which accommodates a fold-up, pocket chair, with the duo selling for around $5,000.

Or for parents looking for something that suits a child's bedroom, the Pottery Barn offers a pine desk armoire with space for a computer monitor in its new children's catalog. Price: $899.

People hoping to spend as little as possible often gravitate to the furniture corrals at discount office-supply superstores such as OfficeMax and Staples.

Drew Maple, a furniture designer for O'Sullivan Industries in Lamar, Mo., says $199 is about the price ceiling in these self-serve environments. Buyers, he observes, may spend only a few seconds studying a floor model, so furniture features must be obvious.

The space race

One of the important features is adequate work space, because - despite smaller and more compact computers - people still love to spread out.

"The No. 1 consumer complaint is lack of work surface; you can never have enough of that," Mr. Maple says.

There are two common ways to create it: Elevate the computer monitor above the desktop and place a pull-out keyboard shelf below it.

Accessories such as bookshelves and rolling cabinets also help to clear the work surface. IKEA's Jerker computer table (see page 11) has two pull-out wing shelves and height-adjustable work surfaces.

Computer technology itself is assisting in this space race. "Many people have a laptop at home and don't need a huge, businesslike desk to park it on," Ms. Kelly says.

On the road, travelers are happy to settle for the compact workstations hotels have begun to provide the business trade. But at home, people will likely welcome the additional desk space promised by the new flat-screen computer monitors.

Mr. Maple doesn't believe laptops or flat screens will really drive the market to diminutive work surfaces, since consumers generally prefer attractive furniture to "utilitarian boxes."

And Mr. Kelley isn't so convinced that the current trend toward workstation mobility is here to stay. "A lot of people like to have some kind of stability in their homes, including the visual location of furniture," he says. "They just left chaos at work; they don't need it at home."

Then, too, the location of mobile workstations is limited by outlets and cord lengths, not just for computers, but also for lamps, phones, faxes, answering machines, scanners, and other equipment.

Certainly one development that bodes well for cutting the computer umbilical is Apple's introduction of the iBook, a laptop with a built-in handle and wireless access to the Internet.

"If you've got a handle on it, why do you need to put it on something that's got wheels?" Kelley asks.

Where mobility seems most attractive is with rolling files, storage cabinets, and bookcases that can adapt the desk to its changing uses and users.

"The ones with small drawers can be a really good form of storage for kids - for crayons, stickers, comic books, whatever," says IKEA's Ms. Kelly.

Adults, however, are in great need of them, too, since computers have led to more paper, not less. "People still need filing, storage, and a place to organize stuff," Maple says.

A growing design challenge, he says, is to find ways to integrate computer workstations into large, open kitchens. Some kitchens are being built with small desks and bridges that tie in to the cabinetry.

Camouflaging the workstation appeals to today's homeowners, but Maple suspects that could change. "The 20- and 30-somethings don't mind displaying their technology. This opens up a lot of opportunities from a design perspective."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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