The Well-Appointed Office

The Well-Appointed Office

Gentleman’s Gazette has already touched on this subject here, but we wanted to give our readers another view and approach to one of the last gentleman’s strongholds – his office. And organize it so that you don’t have to agree with this infamous – but anonymous – quote: “Sometimes the best part of my job is that my chair swivels”…

If you, like me, are a professional, it probably means that you spend more waking time at your office than at any other place. To help you make this time more productive and comfortable, we will check the essential items a well-appointed office should have according to two different views: the home office and the external office.

The Home Office

Steve Jobs in his office

Steve Jobs in his office

The home office is usually the place where you organize your affairs, think, plan, do your business, and relax. It is your refuge, and it should reflect your style. The home office is the place for family photos, mementos from travels, cherished books, and personal papers and documents.

It may be tidy or messy, depending on your temperament and time of the year (think tax time), whatever makes you feel comfortable. But as a good reminder of the best layout, we might have to consider Laurence J. Peter. He was the author of The Peter Principle  that says, in essence, that “anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails”, and one of his quotes is usually attributed to Einstein: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Einstein's office

Einstein’s office

Talking about Einstein, this picture of his studio and its bookshelves in Princeton University, which reflect both his brain’s hemispheres, the left/rational and the right/creative.

Ernest Hemingway in shorts at his standing desk

Ernest Hemingway at his standing writing desk on the balcony of Bill Davis’s home near Malaga where he wrote The Dangerous Summer. (Photo by Loomis Dean//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The Basics: A Desk & Chair

If your office space is limited, then you should focus on its basic components: a desk and a chair, and perhaps bookshelves. Some people simply forgo the chair and work standing up, like Hemingway, Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, and even Da Vinci: right now, the standing desk is booming.

Hermann Miller Embody desk chair

Hermann Miller Embody desk chair

Personally, I’d stay with a chair such as the Embody Chair or the Aeron, both by Hermann Miller and designed with ergonomy – not “power office status” – in mind. These chairs have excellent lumbar and back support, as well as a variety of controls to let you adjust everything, from aarmrestto height, inclinations, etc. If you don’t plan to spend much time in your chair, you can choose one for looks rather than function.

The desk should be the central piece of your office, both at home or external. It is there that you will write, read and – in a word – work. I like the mixture of old and new, of antique and contemporary: my desk is an English oak measuring 33 x 58 inches, over a hundred years old, that I bought at a local antique furniture shop. It has two drawers that hold all my office essentials – erasers, personal documents, wallet, coin tray, a flashlight, stapler, check books and other items.

Henry Van de Velde desk

Henry Van de Velde antique desk, c. 1898

A nice book on offices is The Office, by Élisabeth Pélegrin-Genel. It shows my dream desk, designed by Henry Van de Velde in 1898 and included in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum at Nuremberg.

Eero Saarinen oval table

Eero Saarinen oval table

If your budget is limited, think of Ikea‘s (or similar) desks, or shop around in old furniture stores, antique fairs, or garage sales. Another idea is to get a beautiful designer table, such as the famous Saarinen oval table with marble top.  The old Chic Simple books have one on Desks with dozens of interesting suggestions.

Desk Accessories

Paper Shredder

A paper shredder will protect your discarded documents from opportunistic thieves

Your desk is merely a surface for the myriad accessories needed to work effectively, which are all pretty standard. I find two particular accessories worth noting. First, a vintage brass lamp provides a classic look while adding a downward source of task lighting that won’t reflect off your screens. Second, a paper shredder under the desk helps me keep my privacy: I never dispose of an envelope or financial document with my name on it, so I periodically shred these statements.

A vintage brass desk lamp

A vintage brass desk lamp


The Bookshelf

A modern bookshelf is both attractive and functional

A modern bookshelf is both attractive and functional

On my bookshelves, I keep a small pen collection in a display case with drawers, my collection of display-worthy books, ink bottles for the fountain pens, a leather organizer with business cards, stick notes and paper clips. The shelves also have a coffee mug filled with letter openers; family photos; travel mementos; old telephone sets and a monthly calendar to help me keep track of time. One of the shelves is higher and allows me to put bigger books (art and encyclopedias), files with diplomas, larger documents, and memorabilia.

There is also a small wood drawer file that I designed and fitted in one of the bookshelves to store supplies such as personalized stationery and cards, mechanical pencil leads, printer paper, envelopes, etc.

Add a Casual Space

Add some sofa furnishings to your office for an alternate, and less stiff, seating arrangement

Add some soft furnishings to your office for an alternate, and less stiff, seating arrangement

Since a desk chair is all business, the sofa is where I read my books or just relax listening to music. Consider adding a mini fridge and an espresso machine if your office is far from a kitchen.

An old Persian rug that belonged to my grandfather lies under a plastic floor mat that protects it from the chair wheels.

Decorate with Some Good Old Stuff

Hemingway's typewriter

Hemingway’s typewriter

In spite of all the technology (or rather because of it), sometimes I feel that there is a bit of a Luddite inside me. It’s not unusual to be nostalgic for things like a typewriter, a radio, or even a Rolodex. Even though you may not use them, they make for excellent decorations in a classicly-styled office space. As we said in a recent GG article, some things are better the old-fashioned way! Besides, it is nice to mix contemporary and old items.

The External Office

Take a look at this excerpt from Graham and Hugh Greene’s The Spy’s Bedside Book, in which the spymaster Walter Schellenberg (1910-1952), former head of the Foreign Department of the German Secret Service, describes his office:

Entering the room, large, well-furnished and covered with a deep, luxurious carpet, the visitor would be faced by my big mahogany writing-desk. The most precious piece of furniture in the room was a big old-fashioned cupboard containing my personal reference library…

I could go a little further and include the part where he mentions his desk, which, like a small fortress, had two automatic guns pointing at the visitor. However, I’ll spare you from this gruesome detail for, as I hope, that would not be the kind of working space a real gentleman would invest in. The point is to call your attention to the fact that the external office has a more powerful, impressive look than a home one.

JFK's Oval Office

JFK’s Oval Office

The external office should be a more sober and restrained working space than your private workspace. The wall decoration here may include your professional diplomas, one or two prints (or paintings), but few if any, familiar images. Your visitors are not there to admire or comment on your personal life, but to talk to you for professional reasons.

Of course, if you work in a corporation, law office or any company with decoration rules, your control over the design of your workspace will be limited by them. But things have changed a lot since Michael Korda’s famous book Power: How to Get It, How to Use It, published in 1975. Talking about status symbols at the office, he quipped, “The trick is to find out what’s important to the people who are at the top. If the people who make up the inner power circle all use Pica Elite type for their letters, then you can be sure it means something when they take away your secretary’s typewriter and bring back one with Pica Elite.”

JFK's desk arrangement

JFK’s desk arrangement

On desks, he commented that they “… can tell us a great deal about people’s power quotient. The objects most people place on their desks are not there by accident, after all, and usually give some clue to the power status of the occupant. One successful conglomerator was described as having ‘his desk peculiarly arranged—with a window at the back—so that outdoor light all but blinds the visitor while striking two polished glass paperweights on his desk, giving an impression that you have come under the scrutiny of two translucent orbs, that your thoughts are being read and your capabilities assayed in a second or two.”

An open workspace is modern but controversial

An open workspace is modern but controversial

This kind of arrangement could be fine for the Gordon Gekko’s of the 1980s and 1990s, but things have changed since then. The contemporary workspace is more open, friendly and cooperative, with some companies changing the décor to reflect this trend: startups and entrepreneurs have even discovered the advantage of resorting to the coworking setup.

The coffee corner

The coffee corner

Even in a more Spartan workspace, you should not forget amenities.  Keep a coffee corner with hot water for tea, a fridge with bottled water, crackers, juices and some wine – especially sparkling to celebrate reaching a goal, an exceptional achievement or just a colleague’s birthday.

An umbrella stand

An umbrella stand

I would also have an umbrella stand with one or two spare umbrellas for visitors. If your work requires that you use a tie, have a neutral-color one (and a shirt) in a drawer for emergencies (such as a Bolognese sauce spill from lunch).

Combining old and new in one office for a unique but functional look

Combining old and new in one office for a unique but functional look

And remember: your productivity at work will be the reward for creating a convivial and even cozy workspace. But don’t let technology disturb you: as Steven Spielberg said, “Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone“.


How have you decorated your home office? How do you mix new and old in your space?

The Well-Appointed Office
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The Well-Appointed Office
The essential items a well-appointed office should have for a more productive and comfortable time.
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5 replies
  1. Simon says:

    Having read articles telling us that sitting is killing us, I recently read an article that said that always using a standing desk is also bad for you. Seems that you will suffer from the problems that people who work in shops and stand all day have.

    I guess a mix of standing and sitting is the answer….

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