Avoid home office pitfalls

Don't get her wrong: In theory, Julie Marsh loves her work arrangement. The policy researcher has an enviable schedule that permits her to split the week between Rand Corp. in Santa Monica and her three-bedroom house in the Rancho Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. That's where the mother of two converted a walk-in closet into a home office outfitted with everything she needs.

The fact that her work space is cloistered within the recesses of her master bedroom is what allows her to concentrate for long hours. But it's also what cuts her off from the world at large.

"I love the fact that I get to be closer to my kids with this arrangement," Marsh says. "But the hard part is when I really need to keep working, I also need lunch or I need to run an errand. When the kids are at home with the nanny, the minute they see me, it can turn a 15-minute break into something much longer."

The fantasy of many cubicle dwellers -- the 20-step commute -- can seriously suffer in translation, as Marsh can attest. Seemingly innocuous realities such as an ill-chosen wall color or a barking dog can become daily aggravations, turning the home we love into the office we loathe 24/7. With companies shedding employees and more people calling a laptop and dining table their de facto cubicle, the solutions are approaching the surreal.

Marsh stockpiles PowerBars, bottled water and diet soda in her office, and her husband, composer Steve Mayer, says there's been some semi-serious talk of adding a ladder to the master bathroom window so his wife can get in and out of her office without running the gantlet of mommy-hungry toddlers.

For Point Loma-based ghostwriter and editor Vicki St. George, who turned a sitting room into her work area, big windows and natural light come with a price.

"I freeze in the winter," St. George says. "There's no central heat back here, just a wall heater."


The things that can be pleasing in a home often turn into problems when the space is used for work, says Lisa Kanarek, author of "Home Office Solutions: Creating the Space That Works for You" and the new website, which is geared for those "who suddenly are finding themselves stripped of the corporate environment."

In Kanarek's home, wood floors were beautiful but made her voice sound as if she were talking into a tin can during business calls. She wanted a desk flooded with sunlight but ended up closing the blinds just so she could read her laptop. (Her solutions: area rugs on the floor and a new location for her desk. "It may seem insignificant," she says, "but having natural light made a huge difference in how I felt about my office.")

Interior designers Rafael Kalichstein and Joshua Rose also encourage clients to search for the best light -- and the best room in the house -- when setting up a work space.

"A lot of people are looking for that throwaway space at home," Rose says. "But instead of trying to force yourself into some tiny space under the stairs, we really work with people to create a space that's going to honor the work that they're doing."

The two designers are firm believers in office furniture that "doesn't apologize for what it is," Rose says. They installed a pair of midcentury steel desks found on Craigslist and in a thrift store and later refinished in Earl Scheib automotive paint.

The fly in the ointment? "There's about an hour and a half in the morning when I can't work at my desk because of the sun, since we refuse to put up window treatments," Rose says. "We love the light and clean lines of the windows too much."

Kanarek advises clients to consider larger areas in the home -- formal dining and living rooms -- instead of tiny nooks. And don't, she says, set up your office in the same room where you sleep.

"That is absolutely my No. 1 no-no," she says. "That's when you truly can't get away from your work, and so many people end up sending an e-mail at 3 a.m. or whatever, and then you really dissolve that critical boundary between office and home."

Ronni Kass' home office recently migrated from her bedroom to the living room. The graphic designer, who works full time from her Culver City rental, moved her MacBook Pro, 21-inch monitor, scanner and large-format printer to the front of the house.

"I started to feel like my whole life was being run in 5 square feet, and it ended up being isolating," Kass says.

Now, with her desk placed next to two walls with windows, Kass can see the street and feel a "better connect with the outside world."

The downside: The decorative wrought-iron bars she thought were pretty now seem constraining when she just wants to look out the windows for a mental break. "It's like they prevent me from really being able to relax for a minute," she says.


Relaxation is something that evaporated for Lindsey Dann when she converted her second bedroom into a home office last year. The interior designer recently launched Former Furniture, an online marketplace for previously owned furniture and showroom pieces, and she now rarely leaves her Westwood condo.

She doesn't have to pay for an off-site office, but now that she's home all day, every bit of decor lives under the decorator's microscope.

"If I had an office job, I really don't think I'd notice the kind of things that I've started focusing on now," Dann says. "Now, I'm constantly changing things in my house. I've swapped out rugs that really didn't need replacing, and I've started reupholstering chairs that aren't even that worn. It's just that I see fabric all day, and then I'll fall in love with something else.

"It's gotten to the point where every time I'm sitting in my dining room, I'll start staring at my living room. My fiancé says, 'Stop redesigning the living room!' I can't help it."

Janine Rubinfier isn't sure what annoyances her home office may hold. The ad agency creative director recently was laid off, and she has spent the last few weeks converting her daughter's playroom into a work area. She's keeping the walls the same chocolate brown and installing a desk. Her daughter is in preschool a few days a week, and as for the toys? Rubinfier says some have moved into the living room, but not all of them.

"I'm not really sure how that's going to work," Rubinfier says. "A giant stuffed giraffe in the corner of my office? A play kitchen in the same room where I'm meeting with clients? We'll see."