It is early morning. Waves of sunlight ripple across the walls. Outside the window, dry leaves rustle in a light breeze. The only other sounds are the chirping of songbirds, the whirring of your iBook, the soft tap of your stylus as you check the day's appointments on the screen of your Palm V. Casually, thoughtfully, you look over yesterday's e-mail and begin to answer it. You hear doors slamming shut, cars groaning into gear next door and across the street -- your bleary-eyed neighbors rushing away to work. But you don't have to run out the door and join them, because you are already at work. That is, you are at home.
Fifty years ago, or even 20, such a scene would have been nothing more than a fantasy. But today, a functional work space can be carved out of a garage or basement, a spare bedroom, even that private haven that 1950s patriarchs called the "den." With the help of little more than a laptop and a cell phone, anywhere in the house -- or even the back yard -- will do. The boundaries between home and business can be all but erased. Though this may sound like paradise, the trouble is (and there is always trouble, even in paradise), once you've erased all those boundaries, you may find it hard to get your bearings. If you're icing a cake with one hand and cutting a deal with the other, how do you tell where work life ends and domestic life begins?
"Place a large, attractive desk in the living room and what do you have?" muses a recent catalogue from Ikea. "A chance to enjoy a little time with a family member and polish off some work while you're at it. It's a unique way to make more use of one of the loveliest and coziest rooms in the house." This is certainly a new approach to quality time with the family. It's also an expression of the modern-day ideal of working at home, a place where professional and personal life are smoothly integrated -- where work can be made family-friendly, and family can be made work-friendly, too.
Or consider another mailing, from Crate & Barrel, offering furniture that promises to "enhance the creature comforts, productivity and beauty of the spaces where you live, work and relax." When, exactly, did the place where you work become the place where you live, and even relax? How did productivity get linked with creature comforts and beauty? Values once associated with domestic life (physical loveliness, coziness) are now associated with professional life, while values once associated with professional life (productivity, efficiency) are now associated with domestic life. The workplace has in some sense become a home, while the home has become a workplace.
It might be argued that this modern conflation of work ethic and pleasure principle is less an innovation than a return to traditional American values, forged at a time when the homestead literally was the workplace. Frontier women were efficiency experts, adept at keeping the butter churned, the socks darned, the sheep shorn, the wool spun, the husband and children (who were the primary and secondary work force) clothed and fed. The little house on the prairie was a little business, too.
Individuality and entrepreneurship are time-tested American values; so is devotion to family life. It seems only natural that the office should be domesticated, just as the home is being professionalized. Following the frontier model, the mythical, idealized home office is a place where the business of daily life, like the day-to-day operation of business, is conducted with economy, ingenuity and that most American of attributes, common sense.
In reality, though, working at home is fraught with ambiguity, and the lines between personal and professional, labor and leisure, often become blurred. The expression "home office" is, after all, an oxymoron. Throughout the 20th century, the office has been a place for doing business, more or less formally and routinely. The home has been a place for meeting personal needs -- for security, comfort and relaxation.
An office embedded in a home is like a pearl embedded in an oyster: a treasure, but also an irritant. Its very presence in the house creates a need for boundaries. The pooch, the toddler, Cousin Ida just in from Missouri, must all be kept at bay, a difficult feat when the "office" is actually a modular work space in the corner of the living room. If work occupies a room of its own, separating it from home life may be easier -- that is, until the plumbing leaks, or the babysitter cancels, or the cat starts choking on a fur ball. A delicate telephone negotiation can be imperiled by the sound of small fists hammering on the office door, or by the endless chiming of the Good Humor truck just outside the open window.
It isn't surprising, really, that the demands of labor and leisure are often mutually exclusive; the surprise is that anyone ever thought to bring them together in the first place. From a design point of view, the office first started to drift into the home in the 1920s, when modernist architects began adapting industrial design to domestic use. By the 1940s and '50s, living rooms furnished with streamlined chairs and tables by Eames or Saarinen often closely resembled corporate boardrooms.
The current vogue for home offices began in the late 1970s, as baby boomers entered the work force and quickly set out to change it -- just as they had set out to change the rest of American life. Today, millions of workers do part or all of their jobs at home, and at least for some of them there is a kind of status conferred by independence from the tyranny of time clocks and traffic jams.
Still, as the design of typical work spaces in the home makes plain, office life and domestic life don't blend seamlessly. People who have the extra square footage may devote an entire room to work; but it's often the tiniest, darkest room at the back of the house. For those without a room to spare, some new office furniture is cleverly constructed so that the owner can close up shop at night simply by sliding a panel here and a cabinet door there, turning a workplace back into a living room in the blink of an eye. The profusion of such "hideaway" furniture ("Leave the office without leaving the room," says the advertising copy) suggests at least as strong a desire to segregate the office from the home as to meld the two environments into one. Work is, after all, work, and who wouldn't hope to leave it behind at the end of the day?
But this tidy compartmentalization may be yet another unrealizable dream for the home work force. In the real (as opposed to the dream) home, the hideaway armoire usually remains open night and day -- it can't be closed, because six months' worth of unpaid bills and unfiled papers clutter the desktop. The dog has chewed up the mouse and several floppy disks. A Teletubby is wedged behind the keyboard. The workday never ends; there is always one more fax to send, one more e-mail to answer. Home and office have indeed been merged, in the most chaotic way imaginable.
If there is such a thing as a perfect work space, it must be an island of personal calm in a tempestuous sea. Home offices reveal who we are or would most like to be. A work space can be an imaginative construct, meant to mirror its inventor's better self. So a writer of romance novels boasts an office where books (primarily classics) tumble picturesquely across an antique oak desk, on which a fine-nibbed tortoise-shell pen reclines upon a sheet of handmade paper like a socialite upon a divan. Or a self-styled mogul sits in an oversize "executive" chair, at a monolithic desk with nothing on it but a beeping, buzzing, blinking three-line speakerphone, while her husband, the social worker, balances a board across two serviceable filing cabinets and perches on a dilapidated chair exiled from the dining room. For others, power is everything: The person who has assembled just the right computer, with components chosen in the course of intimate late-night conversations with Dell's technicians, may be content to park this high-tech wonder on any reasonably sturdy table top.
Our personal weaknesses are also made visible in the workplace (he will fall asleep unless he sits on a rock-hard straight chair), as are our tiny obsessions (she must have a row of small wire bins to organize everything from paper clips to Post-It tabs). The decor may fend off loneliness (the walls are covered with photos of everyone who has crossed the person's path) or it may salute monkish solitude (the desk is as barren as a windswept plain). Whatever its contents, a home office is invariably a reflection -- whether accurate or wishful -- of the person who put it together, in hopes of finally getting down to work.
Recently, creating the ideal work space has come to mean finding office equipment that looks more like furniture and less like machinery. In some quarters, this is a dream imbued, like so many millennial dreams, with nostalgia: "Before steel became the standard, office furnishings looked like these," writes Pottery Barn of a line of desk accessories, "richly stained wood fitted with bronze hardware." But beyond simple nostalgia, the move toward homier-looking office gear (a computer desk that could serve as a dining table, a file cabinet that looks like a dresser, even a monitor paneled in wood) signals a desire to combine the quality and craftsmanship of the past with the technological wizardry of the present. Hybrid equipment may not be for everyone -- but then beauty and functionality often have had an uneasy relationship.
Home offices that actually function are seldom perfect, of course, and neither are the people who work in them. That may be why the search for a better work environment has become a kind of national pastime at the end of a decade (and a century) obsessed with self-improvement and self-worth.
Anyone who has ever worked at home knows that perfection is elusive. But in a choice between coping with irrational family members bent on interrupting one's work, and irrational bosses bent on dominating one's will, is there any contest? If the alternative is a chilly corporate environment at the wrong end of a long commute, the home office -- even one with that makeshift desk and that borrowed dining room chair -- can begin to look pretty good.
Cathleen Medwick is a contributing editor of House & Garden and the author of the forthcoming biography Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul (Knopf).