Call it ingenuity, or better yet, creative distancing: As much of the country’s workforce has shifted operations to the home front, designers are mining their own havens for the best places to set up their home offices — and relearning what is vital for tapping into their best ideas.
It turns out that natural light is as essential as connectivity and coffee, comfort is king, and no single environment (home, city, or elsewhere) holds the key to their magic. “We are agile and can be creative anywhere we need to be,” says Atlanta-based designer Susan Ferrier. “Isn’t that part of the definition? People always find a way.”
Here, she and five more of the country’s top decorators and architects share a glimpse into their provisional hubs, their musts for their new environments, and the hidden rewards of this seismic shift to a slower pace.
“This workspace has been my salvation during this work-from-home lockdown,” says Baltimore-based designer Patrick Sutton, whose five-story townhouse offers something of a micro-commute. “Each morning I grab my cup of coffee, kiss my wife, and travel two stories up to my office while she works from the kitchen,” he says. “Traveling floor to floor makes each experience feel like I am not stuck in one big room. I work until 12:30 and then ‘meet’ her for a lunch date back in the kitchen.”
Another creative must for this era of isolation: surrounding himself with deeply meaningful collections, from architectural remnants to favorite artwork, “all of which make me happy and comfortable.”
The gallery in his office includes a triptych by Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi, a portrait of his great-aunt Stella from 1934, and a drawing of the show My Fair Lady by New York Times illustrator Al Hirschfeld. “My mother was in the original Broadway production, and my wife surprised me with the drawing as a birthday gift,” he says.
“I find I’m so much more productive and less scattered without having to travel all the time. It’s a hidden benefit,” notes architectural and interior designer Gil Schafer, who is working from his Greek Revival–style home in the Hudson Valley.
His desk du jour is a big Parsons table (formerly covered in books) in his combined library/dining room, part of a double parlor abundant in natural light — his creative essential.
“The windows go to the floor on one wall facing out to the front of the house, and there are also French doors opening to a big screened-in porch,” he notes. “I’ve been surprised at how easily it’s been to work remotely from this room, this house. It’s shown me I can be very productive here.”
The table is draped with a wool flannel felt by Rogers + Goffigon. “I pulled most of the books off of it and stacked them in great big piles along the edges of the room so I could have plenty of clear work space on the table.”
Yet as classically beautiful as his post is, he’s really thinking of it more as a waiting room for the real temp office: the porch. “That will be my refuge when it warms up.”
Susan Ferrier is quick to second Schafer’s sentiments on travel. “I think our ability to concentrate is greatly aided when we can be inspired without distraction and can just follow where it leads us,” says the decorator, who also credits the halt in travel for the ensuing shift in her Atlanta home’s hub.
“The kitchen has become the center of my house again. Being on the go all the time, my closet used be where I spent most of my time. Now, my packing skills have transferred from my suitcase to my freezer.”
She has both down to an art and has meanwhile set up shop at her cozy kitchen banquette. “This corner of the house gets wonderful light, and the banquette is so comfortable and functional.” It’s upholstered in a dark chocolate chenille and wraps a steel table she found on a shopping trip in Belgium; behind her, a collection of antique bookplates.
“There’s a new type of renaissance happening on Zoom, what with the daily design interviews, home tours, cooking lessons, flower arranging classes…I love it!” says West Coast designer Leah O’Connell, whose quarantine-era adjustment wasn’t a matter of acclimating to domestic digs — her office is in her Marin County, California, home.
Instead, she’s had to adapt to her new “coworkers,” daughters Harper (left) and Gracie. “I now have these two lovely assistants at my big work table, which now doubles as a massive headband-making operation,” she says.
Behind them, an antique English hutch holds samples and reference books.
Gary Brewer of Robert A.M. Stern Architects admits he has a perfectly lovely home office but learned early on it couldn’t compete with the cozy storybook scene in his living room.
“It was a pretty quick decision to set up in here instead,” says the architect, who is working from his 1906 American Foursquare house north of Manhattan. “The sofa is comfortable, and it’s close to the fireplace, my dog — Billie loves to lay in here — and big windows. I can spread out drawings while I watch for spring’s arrival through the glass.”
His “conference room” is an adjacent porch with a vintage wicker settee. “I use it for calls with our team, clients, and contractors,” he says. “It’s been a nice change of pace, and we’ve been able to develop house designs through online meetings with surprising ease.”
“I never imagined that this tiny alcove would become the temporary control center for my entire business,” says Charleston-based interior designer Tammy Connor. The nook was originally designed as a storage and organization hub for family activities, events, schoolwork, and “paperwork for the business of life,” she says.
Though the alcove is small and projects have taken over both the dining room and breakfast rooms, it’s balanced by an appreciable expansion into the outdoors. “The connection to nature throughout the day has sustained my creativity,” says Connor. “Open windows and doors bring the sound of Canada geese flying overhead, the moss swaying in the oak trees from the breeze, the agapanthus, jasmine and hydrangeas all springing to life, all manna to keep designing! And the lunchtime bike rides around the neighborhood are the icing on the cake.”
At his drafting table in Maplewood, New Jersey, Stephen Chrisman of Ferguson & Shamamian Architects is adjusting to an entirely new brand of office chatter. “The window overlooks giant overgrown euonymus shrubs, where I’ve been watching cardinals and blue jays building nests,” says the architect. The 1920s home is “modest, with Arts and Crafts influences,” he adds, noting that while the routine has made him realize how much he misses working side by side with colleagues and teammates, “I’ve been surprisingly productive and it is certainly quiet…except for the birds.”