One of the more unusual introductions at last June's NeoCon, the international exposition for office design held in Chicago, was a "pod" that looks like a prop from a sci-fi movie.
Called Computer Space One, the 4-foot-wide, 7-foot-long and 4 1/2 -foot-tall elliptical cocoon is crafted from maple solids and veneers, with an upper part of translucent plastic.
Designed by Douglas Ball for New Space Inc., a division of Gilbert International Inc., it is made to be climbed into as you would a car. The idea is to close the door and shut out distractions. Everything in it, including low-voltage diffused light to eliminate glare from a computer monitor, an air circulation system and a seat that moves back and forth on a track like a rowing machine, is self-contained.
If the pod seems a bit impractical (and costly, at $6,000), it illustrates the scope of a growing problem. Of the 40 million people working at home -- that's 38 percent of U.S. households -- most don't enjoy the luxury of a separate work space.
Finding a happy medium between form and function has been the biggest challenge in designing furniture for the home office.
Designers Tom Newhouse and Don Shepherd, who work out of studios in their own homes, investigated the inherent problems of the home office while visiting about 40 of them from coast to coast as part of a two-year research project.
The designers had experienced the conveniences as well as the hazards of combining work and home first-hand, but they still were flabbergasted at the clash of home and office cultures.
One image was indelible: underwear stacked on a printer.
"The collision of home and office was so literal, so physical -- everything was all jammed in together," Mr. Shepherd said. "The reality may be nurturing a sick child in the same room where you're writing the corporate report. Socks in one drawer, files in the other."
Mr. Newhouse and Mr. Shepherd were commissioned by Herman Miller, a leading manufacturer of office furnishings, to create its first office collection for the home.
Best known for its classic design, Herman Miller was a pioneer of modern residential furniture in the early '30s. Some of its designs -- such as the Eames lounge chair and ottoman and the Noguchi table -- are part of museum collections. In the '70s, Herman Miller was propelled into the Fortune 500 with its invention of office furniture systems.
To take office furniture into the home market, the company ( 646-4400) researched work habits and office requirements, and tested its prototypes in real-life situations. The collection was launched in June at Crate & Barrel stores ( 323-5461). A second collection designed by Jean Berise has just been introduced.
The TD Collection (named for Tom and Don) consists of components that can be combined to fit a variety of spaces. The desks, storage cabinets, bookcases and various accessories VTC such as bins, adjustable keyboard tray and work organizers, are sized, shaped and finished to fit any room or area in the home. This includes guest rooms, master bedrooms or the corners of family or living rooms and, of course, rooms dedicated solely to office use.
What distinguishes this group from others is that it is crafted from solid cherry. The design is characterized by a Shaker-like simplicity that Mr. Newhouse says looks comfortable "sitting next to traditional Duncan Phyfe furniture or very high-tech modern sofas."
The TD Collection has troughs and channels to contain and conceal the tangle of cables that flow from computer, telephone, fax machine, printer, modem, scanner and surge suppressor.
Despite the highly functional nature of the furniture, the collection has an appealing sculptural quality. The desk is only 25 inches deep and the diagonal return (to complete an L-shape) is a little under 20 inches, to accommodate an articulating keyboard. The basic 45-inch-wide, 29-inch-tall desk has optional drop leaves, which more than double the standard width from 42 to 92 inches, and a display, which expands the depth from 25 to 36 inches.
A product guide walks the buyer through the components of the collection, which range from about $200 for a printer shelf to $1,500 for the big desk with drop leaves. The pieces are fully described, and 13 floor plans are suggested for three situations: shared private space, such as a master bedroom; shared common space, such as a living room; or space solely for office use.
Herman Miller isn't the only office furniture manufacturer to jump on the home office bandwagon: "We think it's a really booming market," said Ken Tameling of Turnstone, a subsidiary of Steelcase Inc.
Turnstone, which was launched in May, includes two desk styles in two sizes (30 inches wide by 48 or 60 inches long), stackable storage cabinets (including lateral files with drawers) and a technology cart on casters that has an open back for printers and fax machines and a flip top for easier access to printer papers.