Efficient desks, cabinets come in homelike styles


July 07, 1991|By Linda Bennett

Janet Dillon shuts off her buzzing alarm clock at 7 a.m. each day. She gets up, feeds the cat, makes breakfast, showers, dresses, sees her daughter to the school bus and then heads to work.

It's a familiar routine, one that is played out in households all across the country on weekday mornings.

The only difference is that Janet Dillon's "commute" to work is only a half-dozen steps -- the distance between her kitchen and the spare bedroom she's converted to home office space.

A free-lance writer and graphic designer who produces newsletters for non-profit agencies in a Midwestern city, Ms. Dillon is one of an estimated 38.4 million American adults who now earn some or all of their living working at home.

It's a fast-growing category -- the number of "homeworkers" has increased by nearly 30 percent just since 1989, according to LINK Resources Corp., a New York-based research and consulting firm that has been tracking work-at-home trends for the past five years.

By 1995, the firm predicts, the total number of Americans working at home could hit 50 million or more.

This burgeoning segment of the working population is made up of full-time, self-employed workers; moonlighters; company employees who do all or most of their work from home ("telecommuters"); and corporate workers who take home a significant amount of work to finish after hours.

The reasons for working at home are diverse, including corporate layoffs that make temporary or long-term home-based work a necessity for some; budding entrepreneurship; older first-time parents able to negotiate work-at-home deals with their employers, at least while their children are very young; and sophisticated telecommunications systems that link home-based workers electronically with the corporate workplace.

One problem all these workers share is finding space at home where they can work relatively undisturbed. The kitchen table or a card table in the living room is fine for paying the household bills but gets old fast when there's serious work to be done.

Some homeworkers have solved the problem by taking over a seldom-used dining room, screening off a quiet bedroom corner, utilizing dead space under a stairway or in the attic, or -- like Ms. Dillon -- converting a spare bedroom for home office use.

Doors, or at least drawers, that can be locked after work hours ensure that inquiring young hands won't rearrange files or erase computer diskettes.

Although some homeworkers may not need much more to set up their offices than a desk and chair, many require specialized furnishings to house their personal computers, printers, telephones and answering machines, home facsimile devices and other essential gear.

Until fairly recently, though, furniture choices for the home office were pretty much limited to two extremes -- pricey "executive" desks, credenzas and other pieces more appropriate to a corporate setting, and inexpensive ready-to-assemble components available through discounters, catalog showrooms and office superstores.

But now that the furniture industry has recognized the tremendous growth in the work-at-home population, manufacturers are scurrying to bring other options to the marketplace.

Earlier this year Bassett Furniture Industries entered the home office competition, offering a mid-range line of hutches, desks, laser printer carts, locking file cabinets and other components in traditional, country and contemporary styles.

Four home office configurations of components are available, in cherry or oak finishes, with suggested retail prices for each combination of about $2,000.

"The home office is not just a clerical office -- it's a functional, working profit center, contributing to the family income," noted Mike Norris, Bassett's national sales manager.

The company conducted consumer research and surveyed furniture retailers before introducing the home office furnishings, Norris added. Among the functions and features included in the line are built-in electrical plugs with surge protection, heavy-duty glide supports for file drawers, drawers that lock -- all features that office-based workers take for granted and home-based workers told Bassett they wanted.

Consumers hold furniture for a home office to a dual standard, according to William P. Peterson, vice president of sales and marketing for Sligh Furniture Co.

"Whether the furniture is used for a primary occupation or a second office, this customer wants some of the features they're used to at the office, yet wants an adaptable product that blends into the home environment," Mr. Peterson said.

Sligh's home office products are high-style -- mahogany veneers with inlaid leather desktops and 22-karat gold tooling, for example -- and include a clever wire-management channel that hides cumbersome electrical and telephone wires and cables from view. Convenience features include mobile file units, task lighting, add-on document and telephone stands and a handsome printer stand with a slot for continuous-feed paper.

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