- - Thursday, May 10, 2012

Traditional home offices tend to have cherry-paneled walls, a solid wood desk with a computer and perhaps a portrait of George Washington on the wall. Times have changed.

Now that all you need to work or check email are a comfortable corner and perhaps an outlet for recharging your iPad or laptop, the home office can become a private retreat for a variety of activities. And that portrait on the wall is more likely to be of your favorite rock star rather than our first president.

“Your home office used to be the place where your technology was, when people were substantially deskbound,” said Bill Millholland, executive vice president of Case Design/Remodeling in Bethesda. “Now that your office can be the front porch, the back porch or any place in between, the draw to a home office is that it’s one place where you can close the door and focus without any distractions.”

Lorna Gross, principal designer and owner of Savant Interior Design in Bethesda, said there are several types of home offices, each with its own design challenge.

“Some people need to accommodate one to three employees and need a conference space, perhaps with a private entrance, where they can meet clients,” Ms. Gross said. “Other people just want a reclusive, private space where they can relax. In some households, a two-person office is required so that each spouse can have a personal desk.”

One big trend is that home offices are becoming part of multifunctional rooms so people can do their work yet be part of family life.

“Our work lives have intruded on our personal lives, not necessarily by choice, and people don’t want to be separated from their families,” said Daniel Proctor, principal of Kirk Designs in Baltimore. “The idea is to make a work surface or work niche accessible while still allowing someone to spend time with the family.”

Ms. Gross said furniture designers are beginning to make pieces that camouflage their function, such as a buffet in a dining room that hides file drawers or a desk floating behind a sofa in the living room, with storage space for paying bills. Both of those items can be multipurpose and work well as serving tables when entertaining.

“People are no longer sequestered to do their work while they are at home,” Mr. Proctor said. “Bedrooms, libraries, family rooms and kitchens all have work spaces now.”

Mr. Proctor designed a family room at the 2012 DC Design House with a Parsons-table desk set up in front of the window in its own niche to enable someone to work while staying part of the family conversation.

“I recently saw an end table with a pull-out drawer with a mat in it that allows you to store and charge all your devices wirelessly,” he said. “That’s a perfect solution for someone who wants the devices out of sight and yet easily accessible for a quick email check.”

The traditional home office has not disappeared, but design elements within a study have changed.

“The new home office is typically a reclusive space that people use for private relaxation, so they want a comfortable sofa or a reclining chair,” Ms. Gross said. “They want a place where they can read or listen to music, but they often also want a large work surface for papers.”

An important element of a home office is storage for items that people prefer to keep hidden, such as a printer, a fax machine and paperwork.

“Most people don’t like clutter,” Mr. Millholland said. “We build in cabinets and closet space to hide the clutter so people at least give the perception of being organized, especially in a first-floor office. If someone is using a spare bedroom as an office, they’re more likely to want furniture that functions in the same way rather than built-ins.”

Mr. Millholland said that while homeowners in the Washington area are moving to a more transitional style, they still are fairly traditional.

“Homeowners don’t want to mess up their resale value, so even when they lean toward a contemporary look, they use it in a traditional way,” Mr. Millholland said. “For example, they will have built-in cabinetry in the home office, but they will choose to have a less fussy, cleaner finish, such as a flat-panel front, that’s not overly elaborate.”

Ms. Gross said traditional home offices used to have lots of sturdy bookcases and heavy furniture, but some people today have fewer books because of the prevalence of e-readers.

“Some people like the look of books as a decorative item, but others prefer very clear, clean spaces with just a desk, a small file cabinet and a sofa,” Ms. Gross said. “Most people want a space for hanging files, but now you can get a cabinet or even a box that looks decorative in place of a traditional file cabinet.”

Mr. Proctor said there are subtle differences even for homeowners who want a traditional home office.

“Wood still means power to a lot of people, so we still see a lot of walnut or cherry cabinetry mixed with leather furniture, but in a hipper way, with the leather having a vintage feel and a Mick Jagger photo on the wall,” Mr. Proctor said. “People who really use their offices also want them to be comfortable, so they’ll add a false armoire that hides a refrigerator or a wine cooler for bottled water. I had one client who loved frozen pudding pops, so we added a freezer drawer to the office.”

Personalization of the office space is especially important if you are using the room for unpleasant tasks such as paying bills, Ms. Gross said.

“The trend is away from office-looking furniture toward having something in the shape of a desk but with a special finish or unusual hardware,” she said. “Even if you use an office-looking desk, it’s best to mix it with other pieces rather than have a matched set of a credenza, a desk and bookcases.”

Ms. Gross designed a study for the 2012 DC Design House with paintings, a small soft sofa, a lush rug with a lot of texture, and soft drapery. While the room has a large desk for paperwork, the pops of color and the soft textures make this space a pleasant private retreat.