New Dimensions in Home-Office Furniture

Desks · Workstations · Closed Units · Chairs

If you’re sizing up a home-office-furniture purchase, you’ll find that slimmer desks are being marketed to be used with notebook computers. Further, more coffee tables and end tables than ever before transform into work surfaces.

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Bush Furniture

Corporate icons Best Buy and Yahoo ignited controversy when both companies terminated their employee work-at-home programs in 2013. Nevertheless, telecommuting (working from home) remains a reality for some 21.3 million Americans, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics’ June 2012 American Time Use Survey.

Of course, because of an increase in wireless connectivity, a home office doesn’t have to be, well, an office. Consequently, manufacturers are making home-office furniture that fits into a wider variety of living spaces better than it did even 3 years ago. The result is that you have more choices than ever before of how—and where—to furnish your home office.

MAKE A NOTE. Although you still can find plenty of executive desks that typically measure 72 inches wide, manufacturers are marketing more desks than ever before that have notebook computers in mind.

In 2010, we found one desk and six workstations that were labeled as notebook-computer models. Now at least 60 products are being marketed as such. The products themselves aren’t much different from home-computer desks. Notebook-computer-desk features include those that we’ve seen in desks that are intended for home computers, such as cutouts in the back or side for wire management and storage compartments for adapters and cords. The surface on which you might put your notebook computer is similar to a keyboard tray for a home computer, and you access it in the same way—either by sliding it out from underneath the desk surface or by flipping open a central drawer front and then sliding it out.

Seventeen armoires (also known as compact offices, hideaway storage desks or foldaway offices) from 11 manufacturers now are designed specifically for notebook-computer use. Three years ago, we found one such armoire that cost $259. Today’s models start at about $140.

Armoires that are aimed at notebook-computer use are more compact—about 10 inches narrower in width and 24 inches shorter—than are typical armoires. Features have been tweaked, too, such as a shelf for a notebook computer and drawers for adapters and cords, but, like other desk types that are labeled for notebook-computer use, the features that are on notebook-computer armoires are shared by models that are labeled simply computer armoires.

Another trend that we noticed is a continued move away from traditional home-office furniture. For example, you now will find at least 65 coffee tables that have built-in lift-up desks from 25 manufacturers. Three years ago, only a handful of such models existed. Here’s how they work: A section of a table, which is on a hinge, lifts up and toward you, creating a desk-height surface for a notebook computer. When you finish working, you simply lower the top back down to coffee-table height. These models start at $160.

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Sofa end tables also now are being thrown into the mix. In January 2013, Bush Furniture introduced the Buena Vista Laptop Workstation & Charging Station ($130, available fall 2013). The piece looks like a traditional end table but has a surface that slides out from under the front drawer of the table, which provides a place for a notebook computer. Three-fourths of the table’s top lifts up on a hinge and locks into place. Inside is storage space for your computer and cutouts to accommodate cords. You can lift this top without having to remove, say, a lamp or a clock that’s on the other part of the tabletop.

A few manufacturers even are moving to fold-out home-office furniture. We found four legless, wall-mounted flip-down desks that have both storage and work surfaces for notebook computers. These models, which start at $130, are derived from commercial versions that are used, for instance, in hospital nurses’ stations. When they are folded up, flip-down desks resemble cabinets; when you open them, the front of the cabinet serves as a writing surface, and the interior typically is lined with shallow cubbyholes, file compartments and shelves.

Given the rise of tablet computers, we wondered whether desks would continue to evolve (read: get smaller for smaller work devices). Donald Kunz of manufacturer DMI Office Furniture says he believes that “people going mobile” will change the future of computer desks, although he couldn’t predict when that would happen. Short of plugging in a mobile device to charge it, he notes, you don’t need furniture for tablets. Bookcases or nightstands that incorporate charging stations can perform that function, he says. Stay tuned.

TAKE A SEAT. Home-office work surfaces might be getting smaller, but desk chairs are getting larger and sturdier to accommodate larger people better, experts say. For example, a midback manager’s chair that’s rated for 400 pounds has a back that’s 25 inches high and a seat pan that’s 23 inches wide and 20-1/2 inches deep. A similar model from the same manufacturer for a desk chair that’s rated for 250 pounds—the typical top weight—has a back that’s 21 inches high and a seat pan that measures 20-1/4 inches by 19 inches.

Three years ago, six manufacturers had 16 specialty plus-size desk chairs on the market. Of those chairs, six models topped out at 500 pounds. In 2013, at least 197 plus-size models from 41 manufacturers are on the market. Most of the models are rated for 500 pounds, but Casual Male XL has two models that hold up to 1,000 pounds. An armless model starts at $350; a model that includes arms is $400.

You should expect to pay about $200 more for a desk chair that’s designed to hold a 500-pound body than you would for a standard desk chair. Manufacturers tell us that that’s because these chairs require additional materials, such as reinforced steel plates on the chair bottom and back, foam that’s thicker than that on a typical desk chair, reinforced springs, heavy-duty casters and a heavier pneumatic cylinder.

In addition to a wider variety of big desk chairs, you also will notice a vast increase in the number of foam-free mesh desk chairs that are available. Mesh models allow for air to flow naturally through the back and seat of the chair to keep you cooler while you sit in one, compared with fabric, leather or vinyl chairs that don’t allow for that level of ventilation, experts say.

Three years ago, 14 manufacturers made 36 desk chairs that had mesh suspension materials. (Meshes are made from polyester elastomeric materials.) Today, we found 30 manufacturers that make at least one mesh desk chair and a total of 170 models.

Although your choices have expanded, prices still start at about $80 for a mesh chair that will keep you cool no matter how hot the pressure is when you work at home.

Marilyn Zelinsky-Syarto has written about home-office furniture for 30 years for Interiors Magazine and Home Office Computing Magazine, among other publications. She also has written or contributed to five books on the subject.

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