Updated: Oct 18, 2018
I recently returned from our Family Narrative planning retreat. We spent long, rewarding days creating a plan for our start-up company. I was energized and motivated to work on a new blog series and an online course.
Unfortunately, after arriving home, I faced a medical crisis with my parents and the reality that I would not be able to publish five completed blogs. Discouraged, but still determined to move forward, I entered my office upstairs and realized that I did not want to work in that space. I wanted to work, but not in that room. I looked for anything else to do other than go into my office. Even folding laundry was preferable. Have you ever felt the same? Is your workspace inviting? Does it inspire and liberate you to work productively? If not, maybe it’s time to curate an office designed to support your goals.
Let’s take a moment to emphasize that the focus of this blog is to present concepts for creating a space that suits your particular style. I share my story about the process, but I am not advocating a particular form of decorating. Imagine two delivery trucks colliding, one filled with authentic vintage artifacts from the twentieth century and the other containing natural and handmade items.The combining of these two collections accounts for my rather unorthodox decorating look, but the techniques I advocate will work with more traditional, classic designs or clean, modern approaches. This process is not so much about the assembling or even renovation of an office; it’s about composing a space that is as singular to you as your DNA. It’s about unifying your past and present to elevate and energize.
1. Assess what you like about the space
Typically, our first instinct is to focus on what doesn’t work about a space, and we will do that, but first, relax and acknowledge was does bring joy in the room. Although relatively small, my office has three large windows, gleaming hardwood floors, and soft, cream-colored walls. The fourth wall is covered in 1950s and 60s road maps that I put up with Elmer’s glue and water when this was my son’s room.The maps fill the wall with muted shades of blue, green, and yellow.The room is on the second floor and looks out over the front yard with its beautiful dogwoods, oaks, and loblolly trees. When the door is open to the hallway, I see the iron balustrade and a salvaged chandelier. There is a quiet, cooling fan overhead. Despite these attributes, over time I allowed it to become a storage space rather than a place to accomplish my work.
2. Determine your goals
Virginia Wolfe wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Energizing, personal space is important for every woman, whether her work is writing fiction, researching, or running a business, but in my situation, the money was not unlimited and careful decisions were required to create this space on a budget.
To maximize resources and usability of the room, I determined three major goals for the space. These goals were used to inform all decisions regarding the set up and organization of the room. My needs:
Work comfortably alone or with other members of our company, The Family Narrative Project.
Accomplish research and work as a board member for a local historical society.
Write and organize my own family history projects.
Declaring and visualizing what you want to accomplish in the space is crucial to the decision-making process. For instance, my goals led me to empty out the closet that was full of luggage and fill it instead with family memorabilia (To learn more about organizing family items read Techniques to Evaluate, Organize, and Preserve your Family Memories. ) Declaring my current objectives made it easier to edit and pack many materials left from my years of teaching. Although I loved my students and smiled as I handled their from-the-heart letters and gifts, I realized that my life has shifted and my room needed to reflect this change. On the desk sat a lovely item given to me by a former friend. I donated the gift to Goodwill because looking at it every day made me sad.
Be willing to unburden yourself from the history that is holding you back, while mindfully acknowledging the people who have inspired you in the past and the ones who support your current dreams. Every choice you make should reinforce your goal and your soul. Not to be overly simplistic, rhymes are easy to remember, and when you are in the emotional place of making decisions about what to keep, and clinging too tightly to the past, it helps to have a simple mantra to remember. The key is to surround ourselves with only those items that help you move forward. Holding too tightly to the past does not leave room for the future. Your home and office should be full of heart and history. Just choose items from the past that clearly lead you forward.
3. Ask yourself what doesn’t work
This question actually calls for another deep breath and a reflective approach. Some of the issues that inhibit your work area will scream out at you. Other areas that need to be addressed will whisper. It’s important that you listen to both voices. Don’t judge here, but acknowledge what makes you feel uncomfortable. There are design rules for creating inviting spaces, but within those guidelines are a spectrum of possibilities. For instance, too much clutter creates stress and inhibits work, yet what constitutes too much is going to be different for every individual. Personally, I need a certain number of items around me to feel comfortable, but they must be contained and organized. Others prefer a much more spartan environment. Recognize what you need and be willing to adjust to meet your goals.
When I asked myself what didn’t work, my eyes rested on the desk. Why did I always feel a little unsettled when I sat down to work at it? The desk was large and faced a window overlooking our roof and side yard. It was covered with an attractive blue and white cloth and the surface contained glass jars with colorful office supplies. There were also two matching large glass lamps on opposite ends of the desk with cupcake-shaped shades the color of white-cream icing.
I just finished reading a book called The Holistic Home-Feng Shui for Mind, Body, Spirit, and Space by Laura Benko. Granted, reading a book about Feng Shui doesn’t make me an expert in this Chinese philosophy of interior design any more than my occasional yoga classes makes me an authority on that ancient Indian art. I also admit that my definition of Feng Shui oversimplifies the subject, but if you consider that at its heart Feng Shui is the use of environment to control and harness the flow of vital energy known as chi, then I think we can all agree that more positive energy is a good thing.
In her book, Benko writes,
"The desk represents career and projects. The ideal desk position should be so that you are facing the door but not in direct alignment with it.Your back should be firmly positioned against a wall and your view should be of the largest expanse of the room."
How can I argue with thousands of years of wisdom? One of the time-honored reasons for a desk not to face a wall is so that no one can attack you from behind. So I cleared off the desk and repositioned it so that I could see out the door and down the hallway and stairwell; no one could sneak up on me now. I immediately sat down at the desk in its new position to test it out. My first response was a sigh of relief. The difference was almost magical. This one change was so significant that I was tempted to end the office remodel, but another part of me was excited by the prospect that if one tweak had the power to rewrite the story of my space, then what other clever tricks were there for me to uncover? Positive energy was flowing; I could feel the chi, and I wanted more!
4. Ask yourself again what doesn’t work
Perhaps making this another step seems redundant. That’s because it is. Remember, I said that some changes are obvious and boldly make themselves known with little encouragement, but other changes appear softly; for these changes, you need to pay attention.
Once I dealt with the positioning of the desk, I took a closer look at the desk itself. Did I need to purchase a new one? The piece was given to us about 30 years ago by my husband’s work colleague. It is a heavy, solid oak piece circa 1940s. There was some minor damage to the corners that the previous owner painted over. I have since painted the desk two other times. Once in two shades of green (remember sponge painting? That’s a technique that went out of vogue, for good reason!) Later, I painted it a soft white, but over the years the white turned dingy, so I covered it with a cloth and used the surface to store supplies.
The desk may have been dinged up, but it was incredibly solid and all the drawers and pulls were in great shape. During its tenure with me, the desk has transitioned from supporting my life in medical sales, as a teacher, a master’s student, and a member of a new company. The desk has also relocated with us from Virginia to South Carolina and changed homes five times. I am sure that this hard-working piece of furniture had an impressive resume prior to living with us.
I consulted with several Feng Shui sites online to see what they recommended for an optimal work surface. I was pleased to learn that the ideal Feng Shui desk is rectangular and made of real wood. My desk may be humble, but it is a strong and supportive 3 x 5 feet of hunky, solid wood. I decided wholeheartedly to keep the desk. The fact that I already owned it also made my budget happy.
5. Be willing to pull out the power tools and paintbrushes
I resigned myself to repainting the desk, so I pulled out the electric sander to smooth out the uneven finish from multiple bad paint jobs. An interesting thing happened. As portions of the white wore away, the two greens came through in this lovely marbleized way. It was a happy accident, but for me it is also symbolic of how people and objects have multi-layered lives that are imperfect, but unique and beautiful.
6. Ask yourself again what doesn’t work
I promise, this is the last time I will repeat a step, but the point of this journey is not just to make do; rather, it’s a process to align your space to your life vision. It’s important to be deliberate when marrying your past to your future.
When I asked myself this question for a third time, I realized that I still needed a long, narrow area for supplies, storage, electronics, lamps, and that I needed to hide the cords needed to charge these items. There are many lovely consoles and credenzas available for sale that would work perfectly, but again, I was trying to rely more on what I already owned.
7. Shop your home
I walked from room to room looking for a piece I could adapt. I considered a buffet in my dining room, but the storage was needed in that room, so I kept looking. I thought of moving a large bureau from the guest room, but it would be extremely difficult to relocate and too big for the small office space. After a few minutes, I found the perfect piece buried under a pile of tool boxes and old fishing rods in the garage. It was a ten-foot workbench left by the previous owners.The workbench is three feet tall and only eighteen inches wide, so I knew it would perfectly fit on the wall behind the desk. I cleaned off years of dirt and spiderwebs and then painted the top with white paint. Through the years, I have found that white paint is a cure-alI for many decorating ills. I like rustic objects and have collected several handmade wooden tool boxes over the years. There is something romantic and reassuring to me about reinventing new uses for work items built and once used by craftsmen.
I am well aware that many of my readers are dismayed by the idea of an old workbench in a renovated room. That’s okay. Remember your office should represent your style. Walk through your own home looking for the underutilized farm table or the mid-century credenza. The key is to approach your home with fresh eyes open to possibilities.
8. Empty and clean space thoroughly
By this point, I had a desk in my office along with a vintage Sellers cabinet. While the workbench was drying in the garage, I removed all the small items from the office. This emptying out of the space forced me to evaluate and edit thoroughly. Then, I cleaned every inch of the room. Cleaning the windows inside and out was transformative. Laura Benko wrote in her book The Holistic Home, “In Feng Shui, the windows represent the eyes and the ability to see things clearly.” Dirty windows cloud not only our vision of the outside world, but they impede our ability to see our internal world with clarity.
9. Bring in only what is useful or beautiful
How do you decide what to bring back into the room? This time, instead of consulting ancient Asian philosophy, we will listen to the sage advice of William Morris, a well-known British designer of the 19th century. He is also an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement that emphasized goods made by hand instead of machines. Morris wrote, “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Make this your mantra and whenever possible carry it one step further by seeking usefulness and beauty in every object.
I often find useful objects beautiful. My kitchen has a cafe quality to it because just about everything is visible. My pots are on open restaurant shelving and my silverware sits on the counter in old pottery containers. For me, when I see items, I keep them organized. Office supplies and files are equally attractive to me. On my workbench, I store paper clips, erasers, and thumb tacks in 1960s pastel spaghetti-string highball glasses. Rainbow colored pencils reside next to old wooden boxes filled with notebooks, files, and staplers. An antique chest is the perfect size to host hanging files while its lid conceals ugly electrical wires. Wires and cables are useful objects that I do not find beautiful.
When determining useful, remember that every item must reinforce the goals you want to accomplish. Electric kitty-litter boxes are very useful, but unlikely to advance your purpose.
From the quote above, I am particularly encouraged by Morris’s words “...or believe to be beautiful.” This allows me to enjoy my work-worn bench as a thing of infinite beauty, while leaving room for others to be inspired by gleaming, streamlined surfaces.
10. Use symbolism and themes
Positive symbols and themes multiply productivity and joy; conversely, negative images or objects drain our energy even when we aren’t consciously aware of them. Pay attention to the messages inherent in your workspace. Most offices have some family pictures. Does every picture bring you joy? For example, maybe you have a photograph displayed of a family trip to Disney World. If it truly was a magical trip and makes you want to whistle your favorite Disney tune when you look at it, then great, display the picture prominently and proudly. Conversely, if the memory behind the forced smiles is of a blistering hot day with long lines and whiny children, then banish the photograph from your work area. Only display photos of people and places that bring you joy. This is also not the place to display Aunt Ethel and her permanently judgmental attitude.
Surround yourself with objects that link you to the people who have cheered you on or contributed in some way to your success. Under the glass top on my desk, I have a copy of my great- grandmother’s voting registration card. Janie registered to vote on September 29, 1920, only one month after the 19th amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote. She was a kind middle-aged woman married to an abusive husband, but she understood the historical significance of that moment. Connected to her card is a lovely pencil drawing rendered by my younger sister of our grandmother in a bob haircut sitting on some steps outside of their home. My grandmother Ola was the daughter of Janie. Ola, a brilliant student, was pulled out of school after the seventh grade to work in a textile mill. Their lives were not easy, but they helped to lay the groundwork for my sisters and me. Their sacrifices remind us to move forward with gratitude.
11. Display objects from nature
Fortunately, in my home office I have real wood floors and views of nature outside my windows. Even so, I added plants, stones, and natural wood objects. We all need connection to the outdoors, especially in corporate offices where often there is little or no contact with nature. My husband has a fairly spacious office, but the large pieces of furniture issued to him are faux cherry wood.The carpet is synthetic and the wall color is a depressing greige (name of color that is a combination of beige and grey). We couldn’t change those characteristics of the room, but we did warm up and authenticate the space by adding several plants, handcrafted pottery, wood elements, a natural wool rug, and soft lighting. In addition, we hung pictures with outdoor themes. Other ideas for naturalizing a space include adding shells, fish, gemstones, river rocks, glass, baskets, and fresh fruit.
12. Purchase items necessary to meet your goals
I intentionally saved buying to the end. It is important to do all the other steps before rushing to purchase new furniture or supplies, especially if your budget is a concern. As you remember, my first goal was to work comfortably alone or with other members of the Family Narrative Project. After making all of the other changes, I sat at my desk and realized that I had neglected to provide a space that was comfortable for me to work.
The plastic chair at my desk was a groovy vintage 1960s Caribbean blue piece. This looked great when the office’s primary function was storage, but I needed a chair that would allow me to work longer hours. In addition, there was nowhere for anyone else to sit or work. Fortunately, I found two linen and wood chairs that actually swiveled. I also scored on a small wood and marble side table in the clearance rack. The only other purchases necessary included a stapler, a plant, and some notepads. Shopping in your home, reducing what you need to store, and waiting until the end to shop will save you money and result in a better work sanctuary.
Leave space to grow
Your story is not over and your work is ongoing. Leave room for expansion in your office and in your life. My family grew last year with the addition of my kind, intelligent son-in-law. I will soon add a photo of him near the ones of my children. In addition, I have empty drawers and containers to store my future work projects. Space invites and welcomes growth. Clutter, on the other hand, inhibits growth and stagnates energy. Give every object in your workspace room to breathe.
Work is important and necessary. Only you can align your space uniquely to your purpose. Craft a workplace that honors your story and the people you cherish while renewing your commitment to your goals.
It is a week later and much has changed. I am happily writing from my transformed office. My golden retriever is sleeping at my feet, and my young kitty, is stretched out in the chair behind me. It is October 1st and the long, hot summer has given away to crisp fall skies. One of my neighbors is walking her dog past the house. Coffee cup in hand, I am content and grateful for my new space.
- Kim Winslow