Friday, June 13, 2014

Quickie office redo

NOTE: Whoops! I just came across this old post that I'd scheduled to be published on March 9, and for some reason, it never showed up on the blog. So here it is three months after the fact. Next time I'll remember to check and make sure my scheduled posts to make sure they actually post.

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I was going to make today's post all about the delicious ways we've learned lately to cook Brussels sprouts, but I'm going to put that off, because I'm much more excited about the changes we've made this weekend in our office.

Our office, up until this weekend, had a couple of problems, both aesthetic and functional. One that fit into both categories was Brian's desk, a massive old hand-me-down from my folks. It was in their house all throughout my childhood and came with me when I moved into my first apartment 18 years ago, and it's followed me from home to home ever since. It's bowed in the middle from all the weight it's held over the years, and this year it actually began to disintegrate—to the point that Brian put a piece of clear tape over the top edge so he wouldn't get splinters from it. It was at that point we decided that it was really time to send this old trooper to a well-deserved retirement.

The other problem was with our filing cabinets—two of them. The first was a nice wooden one, shown at the center of the photo, which we got as a gift from my mom. It looked really nice, but sadly, its function didn't match its form. For one thing, it was so lightweight that with both the drawers fully loaded, it tended to tip over when you pulled out the top drawer. There was a little plate on the bottom edge of the drawer that was supposed to prevent this problem by automatically pulling out the bottom drawer whenever you opened the top one, but it kept coming loose. We'd re-tighten it and it would work for a week or two and then come loose again—and it was starting to wear off the wood veneer from the top edge of the bottom drawer from scraping against it all the time. Also, the bottom drawer didn't stay closed very well. Maybe the floor in our office just isn't quite level, but for whatever reason, the bottom drawer had a tendency to pop out and sit half-open. We put a couple of pieces of Velcro on the edges of the drawer to hold it in place once it was shut, and they worked most of the time, but it was still annoying us.

The other filing cabinet was your basic, two-drawer metal filing cabinet, as seen in cubicles everywhere. We picked it up at a yard sale at some point, and it's the opposite of the wooden one: sturdy and functional, but not too attractive. Since it didn't match the wooden one (different size, as well as different finish), we separated the two and stuck the less attractive metal one in a back corner, just barely visible in the photo above. This made it really awkward to get to, because whenever Brian was sitting at his desk, his chair blocked my route to the file cabinet. I kept having to ask him to get up and let me in so I could stick the auto insurance bill or whatever in there. The layout just wasn't working for us at all.

When we started thinking about replacing Brian's desk, we thought we might have just the thing to replace it: a square wooden table that we got as a wedding gift from my in-laws. They got it from a local artisan who makes them in his shop, so it's a really nice piece, made of solid cherry with beautifully turned legs. In our old apartment, we used it as a sort of L extension on my desk, which used to extend along the full length of one wall—but in our new house, the two pieces of the desk have been turned into an L, which didn't really leave a good place for the table. For the past six years, it's been just tucked away in our little spare bedroom, being used only on an ad hoc basis to wrap presents or, even more rarely, support our tabletop ironing board. Lately, it's become a catch-all spot for books that haven't been shelved yet or have recently been culled from the shelves. It certainly wasn't being displayed or used to its full advantage.

Replacing the desk with the table would mean sacrificing a bit of surface area, but that wasn't really a problem, because Brian recently got rid of his big old desktop computer and now uses only a petite laptop. Having less space around the computer would just mean he wouldn't be able to pile as much junk there. But we'd also be losing all the storage space in the desk drawers, which were all crammed to the max. We could clean them out a bit, but we'd definitely need to add some sort of additional drawer storage to go with the table. So we thought perhaps we could kill two birds with one stone and also replace the wooden filing cabinet with something small enough to fit under my desk, so we could keep all our files together in one central spot.

Unfortunately, IKEA, our usual go-to site for furnishings of any kind, let us down on this one. We couldn't find any kind of office storage in their catalogue or on their website that looked suitable for our needs. So we checked Staples and spotted these little beauties. Each one had two 18-inch-deep file drawers, so two of them would hold all the contents of our existing 18-inch wooden file cabinet, plus our partially full metal one. In addition, they had two smaller drawers on top that could hold a good chunk of the contents of the desk drawers. At 27 and 1/8 inch high, they could just squeeze in under my desk. And while most of the filing cabinets at Staples were startlingly expensive—$150 or more for a basic two-drawer unit—these were just $90 each, currently on sale for $80. Plus, according to the site, they were made from 30 percent post-consumer recycled materials.

So off we hustled to the nearest Staples and, after a quick examination to make sure the cabinets were of an acceptable quality, we brought home two of them. The weight of the boxes gave us a hint to why they were so cheap: they were so light that even I could lift one without assistance. In the store, they were marked as suitable for "home and home office use" only, rather than full-scale office use. But they won't see terribly heavy use in our office, and their lightness made them easier to haul home. We ran into a bit of a snag when we opened the first box and discovered that only one of the three drawer handles was inside, so we had to schlep that one back to the store and exchange it. But within a couple of hours, we had the two new filing cabinets assembled and tucked in place under my desk, at which point we ran up against the second snag: the height that I'd measured at 27 1/2 inches wasn't quite that much, or at least not uniformly (as I said, the floor may not be quite level). So the left edge of the desk extension ended up being slightly raised from its previous position and no longer exactly level with the other half of the desk. Eh, nothing a little shim wouldn't fix.

At that point, it was time to start filling up the drawers. All the files from both filing cabinets got transferred to the two new filing cabinets, so they're now all together in a nice, central spot that we can both reach. (I can actually open one of the drawers without even getting up from my desk.) One of the top drawers got filled with an assortment of stationery and mailing supplies from the desk: notecards, envelopes, mailing labels and so on. The other, after a bit of shuffling, took in all the office supplies from the old desk's middle drawer.

That left the contents of the two other drawers to deal with. We still had the old metal filing cabinet, which we planned to keep for a while since, if nothing else, it makes a nice stand for the fax machine. But those two deep drawers were a lot bigger than the old desk drawers, so they wouldn't work well without some additional organization. Fortunately, I happened to remember that we had a bunch of wooden clementine boxes downstairs, which we'd been holding onto because they have so many possible uses that we figured they were bound to come in handy some day. And now...that day had come. A little experimentation showed that the drawers of the filing cabinet were exactly deep enough to hold two stacked clementine boxes. One, as you see here, holds all our art supplies (colored pencils, crayons, stamps and ink, etc.); the other holds various small gadgets that we like to have accessible, like our camera, a pair of binoculars, and our Kill A Watt meter. The boxes underneath hold our assortment of batteries and binder clips, which we don't need to access as often. The bottom drawer of the cabinet currently has some scrap paper in the back, and the rest of the space is free for additional stuff of Brian's. He's thinking about moving his drawing supplies in there to make them more accessible, which would free up some space in our currently overstuffed office closet.

With the old filing cabinet out of the back room and the smaller, leggier table in place of the big, heavy desk, the room looked much brighter and more open. We tidied it up still more by moving the futon, which we'd had to shove over a bit to one side of the room, to a spot where it's centered under the window, and by wrangling all of Brian's computer cords into one coherent bundle with some pipe insulation, like he did with mine four years ago. Then, since there was a bit of extra space in the back corner behind the new table/desk, we brought up a pharmacy lamp we had downstairs that we'd inherited from Brian's grandfather and never really used. Angled up against the back wall, it can shed extra light in that corner as needed.

So here's the finished result: a room makeover in under a day and under $200. With minimal changes to the actual layout, and with nothing new purchased except the two filing cabinets and a $1.64 length of pipe insulation, we've made the room more attractive and more functional at the same time. The old wooden filing cabinet is currently listed on Freecycle, along with a couple of items we pulled out of the desk drawers (a film camera and an old Walkman clone).

I can still think of a couple more changes I might consider making to the new space. Right now, for instance, the near end of my desk is being supported by a little end table we picked up at a yard sale for something like $3. We're far too proud of this bargain to ever get rid of it, and it's also very functional for holding all our printing supplies (paper, envelopes, and labels on the open shelves and refill ink in the top drawer). However, it's in a raw, light-toned wood that isn't quite the same as the desktop, so perhaps somewhere down the line we'll take it out and stain and finish it to match. (We can temporarily move one of the new filing cabinets to hold up that end of the desk in the meantime.) This should improve its looks, and perhaps we could also add some sort of open-backed bins (like these letter trays) to keep the assorted paper and supplies on the shelves more organized. (We could also turn the bins around to face the other way, adding a knob on the front to pull them out, which would give the shelves a more cohesive look from the front.)

The other thing I might still want to add is a vertical file organizer for the folders I have piled on my desk now. You can get pretty cheap ones at Staples, like this, but I'm thinking perhaps we could make something nicer looking out of scrap wood. This page shows a really nice one DIYed out of architectural wood korbels, but since those cost $12 each and you can buy an entire organizer ready-made for less than that, it's clearly not a money-saver. I'm sure we can come up with something creative that will look nice for a lot less. Maybe those clementine boxes can be modified once again...

EDIT: We've come up with a temporary fix for organizing the contents of the end table that supports my desk. I happened to have a couple of office paper boxes stashed away in our gift-wrapping collection, so I pulled them out to hold our collection of printer paper: one box for the one-side used paper, and one for the clean paper. They wouldn't both fit on the shelves at their full size, so Brian helped me cut one box and lid down to the right size to hold a ream of paper, and I left the other one open. Here's the reorganized desk: not exactly elegant, but definitely tidier than it was. I think we'll still want to refinish it eventually and maybe find (or make) some nicer boxes for the paper, but for now, this will help keep everything neatly stacked.
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