Design smarts make tight home offices work

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      Merike Lainevool’s False Creek condo may be less than 500 square feet, but she still has a bright home office. She drew on her interior-design skills to make it all work: below her desk is a pull-out Parsons table that does double duty as a keyboard tray when she’s working and a coffee table when she’s entertaining. The wall-mounted TV acts as a second monitor for her laptop. A storage bench can be used as dining-room seating, and clutter is hidden away with clean-lined overhead binder bins.

      “I took a hotel-room approach to planning my home workspace in the way that I incorporated it into the living area,” says Lainevool, design director at Shape Properties. “I placed my work area beside a window because I didn’t want to be in my kitchen or in a dark corner. Because I live in a small space, I chose not to have any open shelving. All of the storage that I built in is behind closed doors to keep the space visually uncluttered.

      “Everything is close at hand and within reach but out of sight, like on a sailboat,” she adds.

      With Vancouver’s staggering house prices, one-bedroom or even “junior one-bedroom” suites are the reality for more and more homebuyers who are swapping white picket fences for shared walls. But even without a second bedroom to use as a home office, pros like Lainevool prove that small spaces can still accommodate workspaces.

      Keeping clutter to a minimum is the golden rule when it comes to making a modest space seem larger.

      “Closed, compartmentalized storage is always great in a small space, so you can get all that work stuff out of the way in a flash,” says Brandon Lange, project designer at LUX Design, who recently helped create a private residential unit at Shangri-La. “If you don’t have the luxury of built-in cabinetry, you can use standup boxes or magazine holders to keep paperwork organized, and baskets can go on top of cupboards or under tables.”

      Kendall Ansell, of Kendall Ansell Interiors, points to the Container Store (a U.S.–based store that ships to Canada) and Room in Order as good sources of stylish storage options.

      “You need to be organized so you can leave the office space as the office and your home as your home,” says Ansell, who recently converted a storage closet at home into a computer station for her husband. “Use things that conceal your work and have some storage so you can tuck things away on a Friday afternoon.”

      Using lighter colours in smaller rooms also helps make them seem bigger, and that goes beyond the paint on the walls. “Everyone used to have these giant, dark executive desks years ago,” Ansell says. “Make sure furniture is lighter; if I buy storage boxes from IKEA, I always buy the white ones. Make sure you invest in good lighting too. All that will make the space feel brighter and bigger.”

      The walls behind or next to a desk are often underused when it comes to maximizing space in a condo.

      “A lot of times, people don’t utilize vertical space,” Lange says. “Shelving above your desk helps get anything off your work surface and clutter off your desk. Then you can have fun with it, too, and bring in a bit of colour, like using a nice fabric or material on a pin board. Baskets can go on shelving above the desk and not only serve as organization but bring in a nice visual interest too, so you’re accessorizing while keeping organized. You want things to be streamlined visually to make the space feel a lot bigger.”

      Bob’s Your Uncle Design recently created workspaces in some of the one-bedroom homes at Shape Properties’ Amazing Brentwood project. BYU principal Ada Bonini says it takes creative thinking to work within tight spaces while dealing with restraining factors like building codes.

      “With small spaces, it’s becoming less likely you can just close the door on your work area, and because of local building codes, you can’t close cabinet doors over live electrical switches: say, if you’re thinking of putting your computer and printer inside of a millwork piece that houses active electronics,” the registered interior designer says. “One solution is to use a momentary circuit switch, commonly known as a kill switch. When the door is open, power can flow through to an electrical outlet. When it’s closed, it stops power from running to the outlet.”

      However, Bluetooth and wireless technology make it even easier to have a tidy, wire-free workstation, and more and more condos are being designed with niche areas for such purposes, Bonini notes. If your space is very small and you have no designated work zone, she suggests that you consider furnishings that are dual-purpose.

      “If you are using your dining table as a work zone, you should consider using chairs that have wheels and an ergonomic function,” she says, pointing to the MultiGeneration by Knoll hybrid base chair as an example. “It’s available with casters, a padded seat, and comes in fun colours and could easily pass as dining chairs.”

      Functional, multipurpose, and aesthetically pleasing desks can make all the difference in a small space too. Keith Lawrence, merchandising and design manager at Mobler Furniture, says desks like the New York and the Alberni, which come in white and chrome—“You want to stay away from dark colours, anything that grabs too much attention”—are ideal for condo offices. “The nice thing about both of these is they pivot,” he says. “The desk and shelf unit are built together but swing 360 degrees so they can fit in a corner, they can go straight up against a wall, they can go around a corner. With a lot of new developments these days, the rooms are not necessarily square. So many clients say the room is triangular and it’s very difficult to fit a home office in there, but these desks work.” Check out the sleek white Dow Jones desk, or the Richard for other airy, lighter styles.

      Sleek white works in small spaces, as shown by the Dow Jones desk and Sylvia chair from Mobler Furniture.

      Other options include the Powell desk, which is only 16 inches deep. “If you’re working with a laptop or iPad, this is a perfect size,” Lawrence says. “It doesn’t take up space in your room. It’s white lacquer, so there’s no visual weight at all, and it has a centre drawer.” The midcentury-inspired Dalia desk, with two drawers, has a high-gloss white lacquer finish and walnut splayed legs: “That’s going to add some visual interest to your room without being commanding.”

      The company’s Dalia desk has midcentury touches that add subtle visual interest to a room.

      Then there’s the Lift, a height-adjustable coffee table that ranges from 11 inches off the floor to 26. “You can take it up to a comfortable desk height or all the way up to dining-room-table height,” Lawrence says. “If you’re working with a laptop or iPad, you can easily use this as your desk. When you’ve got company coming, you shrink it for your coffee table, and when it comes time for dinner, you lift it all the way up. I’ve had people realize once they move in that 500 square feet isn’t as big as they thought. With a 500-square-foot condo, you don’t have room to seat four people at a dining-room table and have a coffee table and have a desk.”

      Finally, when outfitting your home office, Lainevool suggests carefully curating the space and avoiding impulse buys.

      “Look for items that do double duty,” she says. “A dining bench can have a hinged seat with storage below, as can an ottoman. Before purchasing any item, think first of other ways it can be used. My home-office chair is nice enough to do double duty as guest seating in the living room or to take a place at the dining table. Buy less and choose quality items with style to eliminate visual clutter.

      “Have a plan, make a budget, and save up,” she says. “Use tools such as Houzz or Pinterest to collect images, examples, and sources of home-office setups and small spaces that you like. And subscribe to mailing lists of furnishings retailers that you like, so you are notified of sale dates.”

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter @gailjohnsonwork.