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4 tips for turning your WFH space from utilitarian to design-oriented

Easy style hacks for the home office

A bright home office with a modern desk on the right, a blue rug in the center, and a chair on the left Credit: Getty Images / KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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With more people working and staying working from home now, the home office is a hot topic. Remote employment and learning spaces are intended to be practical and utilitarian, but they can be decorative as well.

New York City-based author James Huniford says, “Everyone wants to figure out how to work at home and what room to work in. Not everyone’s space and needs are the same.”

In his 2020-published At Home book, Huniford brings to focus his philosophy on interior design. He writes, “My sensibility is that a room needs to have flow, comfort, and a function rather than theatricality.”

This philosophy aptly encompasses working/schooling spaces. Huniford says, “[Work spaces] are a very interesting subject affecting everyone, especially since last year. And, I like clients to feel like they’re in their home and not in a corporate environment. Being practical and functional doesn’t mean it has to look commercial.”

1. Use color to boost the mood

Person working at desk in colorful office space.
Credit: Getty Images / Timbicus

Incorporating vibrant colors has a major potential to make your space more inviting and possibly more productive too.

New York City-based interior designer Katie Ridder, who is also author of Rooms, often suggests color and distinct items to enliven a space. For example, for a writer’s office, she once used a desk in bold robin’s-egg blue to coordinate with a row of vibrant raspberry-lacquered cabinets.

Though functional in every way for the writer, the space was a visual delight. “It can be highly functioning and still be decorated,” Ridder says. “It should be an inspiring place where one wants to spend most of their day, especially since working from home has become so prevalent.”

Both Huniford and Ridder have checklists of main elements that are “musts” in a home working space, furnishings that are meant to make work spaces work, but also accentuate the décor beautifully.

Ridder insists on “good lighting, a comfortable chair, and lots of bookshelves.”

Huniford agrees that lighting is important both practically and for the right look. He also suggests “a desk or table that is not a traditional office desk.”

2. Follow the flow from other rooms

Modern office space with computer monitor on top of desk.
Credit: Getty Images / imaginima

The surrounding rooms in your home should flow easily into your office space to allow for a more orderly and unified work environment.

Huniford and Ridder both believe a home work space should be treated as just another room in the home in terms of the decorative flow, instead of as a space that looks and feels solely like a home office or classroom.

Colors and finishes can help with aesthetic congruence. Ridder says, “We like to have all the rooms flow into one another, so those colors are picked up in the surrounding areas.”

Huniford adds, “I’m a big believer in hinges—having a flow and not being too jumpy. Muted colors accomplish flow from one space to another, and they help people think and are calming.”

Huniford’s book shares details on the layering of materials and textures, as well as the art of mixing one-of-a-kind luxuries with more approachable furnishings and accents selected for both function and comfort, which every room deserves, work spaces included.

Even in a work space, area rugs and wall art, or perhaps a full-wall, adhesive photography mural, solidify a home work space’s ambiance and connection to the rest of the home’s chosen interior style.

3. Stray from “typical” work furnishings

Vintage desk chairs and lamp in front of blue and cream background.
Credit: Reviewed / Jasper Morrison / Early Electrics / Darby Home Co

Retro furniture isn't just reserved for Old Hollywood films–add in vintage pieces for a fun twist.

“There’s no rule that says an office must be brown wood,” Ridder asserts. She is a proponent of various finishes, paint colors, and more when it comes to wood pieces in a work space. There are the standard dark mahogany or cherry woods, of course, but also lighter wood species, such as birch, ash, or white oak. Wood can also be distressed or pickled, for instance, to provide interest and contrast.

Huniford agrees, “The wood [for a desk or table] can be warmed with a finish or a painted surface.”

Mixing wood tones in a work space is preferred, thus avoiding the matchy-matchy look. The more distinct the furniture styles the better. “It’s interesting to actually find an old table from an industrial space and use that as a desk instead of just using a traditional home office desk,” says Huniford.

He also recommends clients use other types of tables instead of a traditional desk with a file cabinet attached. “Use built-ins for filing away papers and books, or put filing cabinets in a closet. And, it’s okay to have items in baskets or boxes on the desk instead of always in drawers.”

If your bedroom is currently doubling as your home office, a custom wall of shelving, desk space, and storage still leaves room for your bed. If this space is small, you can also install a pull-down Murphy bed to open up floor space when the room is in use for work or schooling.

The office chair is often the one element in a decorated work space that is commercial in design. To remedy this, Huniford suggests seeking vintage or antique chairs. “Old bankers chairs made out of oak—strip them, paint them, make them look interesting. They can be very comfortable as well.”

You can also buy new versions of chairs from different eras and antique replicas that offer personality.

Besides a desk surface and adequate chair, lighting is essential to the work space. Huniford insists, “A lamp on your desk is needed, instead of just overhead lighting. I love to add some character to a home office by using an interesting desk lamp. A work space should also get as much natural light as possible. Especially [when using] Zoom for the reflective light.”

4. Get creative—this is a home, too

On left, red side table shaped like a shipping container. On right, small cream-colored couch shaped chair.
Credit: 17 Stories / West Elm

Work is allowed to be boring, but your home office shouldn't be.

While too many furnishing styles married in one room may not work, surprises add interest. For example, a red leather-topped or all-acrylic side table next to a comfy chair may break up the monotony of woods in a work space.

Ridder says, “With the necessity for ‘good’ Zoom backgrounds, people are always looking into each other’s offices and so many people are having to put more thought into the design/decoration of these spaces.”

Clever arrangements and selections lead to a more interesting environment. Huniford suggests placing a small sofa or settee in the work space. “That way, those who are working in the space are not always having to sit at a desk. They can sit on a sofa with a laptop, or another person or child can sit on the sofa or settee, while the other one can be at the desk.”

Huniford also notes that traditional dining rooms make ideal work spaces since so many people eat in their kitchens, breakfast rooms, or keeping rooms. To ensure a traditional dining room table’s surface is not damaged or scratched by laptops, books, etc., he suggests topping it with felt cloth, which can be stored when the table needs to be used for large gatherings.

In a schooling space that is just for children, ones who may be homeschooled or enrolled in a virtual program, Huniford is a supporter of chalk-painted walls “so you can write on the wall something playful or even schedules or notes.”

Finally, Ridder advocates using items in unique ways, such as a chest or upholstered storage bench or ottoman for files, supplies, and books.

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