Author Margot Carmichael Lester
THERE AREN’T MANY SURPRISES IN A modern executive’s office: oversized desk, cheap laminated bookshelves, box-store desk lamp. “Let’s face it, the office furniture and decor world today is ugly as all get out,” says Genevieve Gorder, host of the home makeover show, “Dear Genevieve.” “It’s limiting and institutional. Work is hard enough; we might as well make our offices beautiful.” That message has been reinforced by the Emmy Award-winning show “Mad Men,” about a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960s, which provides a welcome reminder that there was once a Golden Era of office decor that was elegant, comfortable and efficient.
As an executive, you rely on creativity, innovation and risk taking, so why not bring a little “Mad Men” swagger into the equation? “The reality,” says San Francisco-based David Bromstad, winner of HGTV’s Design Star competition and host of “Color Splash,” “is that your office as a company executive should reflect your brand, your leadership skills and your achievements.”
Executive Summary / Redesigning your office isn’t all that different from creating a new business procedure. The key is to look at mission-critical needs. “The easiest way to avoid a bland office is to create a space where productivity and comfort are given priority,” explains John Gidding, an architect and host of HGTV’s “Designed to Sell.” “Examine your day-today work habits.” Start with a few simple inquiries: How do I use my office (for instance, as a private workspace, a meeting place, or both)? What message would I like to convey to other people? How would I like to feel when I’m here? What is the most comfortable and practical arrangement for my office equipment?
“Your office should reflect your brand, your leadership skills and your own achievements.”
Once you answer these questions, the big decisions about furnishings, lighting, paint colors and the other elements that’ll define your space will often flow naturally. If not, hire a consultant. “Maximizing the design of your office is sometimes not the most obvious process,” Gidding says. “Start by talking to a few designers to see which one best understands your concerns.”
The Desk / The hub of any executive workspace is the desk. As your base of operation, it should be designed for maximum performance and comfort. If you’ve got money to burn—say $10,000, minimum—opt for custom furniture, built to your physical specifications, modeled in 3D and milled by computer-controlled machines. “The technology and man-hours means the price tag is quite high, but the effect is dramatic,” Gidding notes.
On the other hand, plenty of more modestly priced desks are available in unique finishes, materials and styles. “Stay away from pressboard or laminate—it screams cheap,” cautions Kim Myles, another Design Star winner and host of “Myles of Style.” “Also pass on glass, which always looks filthy.” Miyashoji.com is a good place to start looking.
Vision is critical to executive success, so do your eyes a favor and find the right desk lamp. The most versatile fixtures should provide direct task lighting to illuminate your keyboard or papers, as well as softer, ambient light. Gorder advocates lamps with pewter, antique brass or satin nickel finishes, which convey authority and stability.
The Decor / A note on walls: avoid corporate white. “You don’t need to splash the walls red,” Bromstad says. But using dove grey, sage green, taupe or even pale blue will make your space more comfortable.
Rather than displaying awards and diplomas, find some art that speaks to you. Make it an original work, and resist the temptation to display a portrait of you gladhanding an alderman. Scope out local galleries and antique stores, and try to avoid anything controversial or offensive (nudes or religious figures, for instance). “Artwork and sculpture should inspire,” says Melissa Galt, owner of Melissa Galt Interiors in Atlanta. “As my great-grandfather, Frank Lloyd Wright, said, ‘The space informs the life inside.’”
Meetings / Think about how you want to interact with visitors, and how you’d like to seat them. If you’ll be meeting them primarily at your desk—or you want to maintain your distance—place two or three chairs facing your work space.
The traditional, face-the-teacher setup might maximize authority, but it doesn’t necessarily make your charges more productive, Gidding notes. “Most executives find that a more intimate, secondary seating area is more conducive to creative and collaborative output.” Try a leather couch and a coffee table along with West Elm’s garvey chairs ($719 for a set of four, westelm.com). Or invest in a nice, dark hardwood-topped table and a matching chair set.
Bottom Line / You don’t have to spend mad money to design a more effective work space (though it does help). The trick is to give some real thought to your surroundings.
“Design is one of the most undervalued tools executives can use to help them achieve their business goals,” says Joshua Gould, chairman and CEO of RNL in Denver. The global firm specializes in sustainable, integrated design for clients such as Molson Coors, Lockheed Martin, Google and Qwest. “The power of space to influence our energy, interaction, health and drive to succeed is rarely appreciated as much as it should be.”
Sustainable Office Design
With the national spotlight on green business practices, interior designers are looking for ways make the work environment more eco-friendly. “Transparency, agility and sustainability are part of the new executive image,” says Joshua Gould, chairman and CEO of RNL, a Denver-based architecture and design firm. “Modest-sized offices, sustainable materials like bamboo, cork and recycled carpet, full-height glass that provides visual accessibility along with acoustical privacy, mobile and modular walls, and open-team areas for collaboration send a message of leadership that is increasingly well-respected by staff and shareholders,” he adds. And of course, executives love the public relations benefit of tying the design of their offices to their mission of environmental stewardship.