Life Audit

Warming Trends

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David l. Pinsel has never been happy with the way his office looks.

Last year, he felt the space was overcrowded, cluttered and disorganized. So he expanded into the adjoining suite. The bigger space cured the clutter issues, but now Pinsel says his office suffers from a new problem: It’s cold, unfriendly and devoid of personality.

Pinsel will be the first to admit it’s not the kind of environment he wants for his clients or himself. A divorce and real estate lawyer, Pinsel describes his clientele as affluent but cost-conscious. He wants his office to feel warm and sophisticated, but not to be so overdone that the decor calls attention to itself. “When a client walks into my office, they will be here for at least an hour the first time, and they’ll be back many more times,” he says. “I want them to be comfortable.”

A Tension Getter

When Pinsel first moved into a suburban Chicago midrise office building four years ago, a client gave him a none-too-subtle hint about the need for a more comforting environment. At the time, Pinsel’s formal reception area was filled with business magazines, and the client told him that these selections just added to his stress about meeting a lawyer.

Pinsel has since stocked his reception area with a better mix of periodicals, but even those creature comforts can’t quite dispel the office’s austere feel.

Pinsel shares the office suite with a two person accounting firm. After hiring an associate last fall, he acquired the adjacent office suite and broke through the walls to connect the spaces. The landlord repainted the walls a drab, pale yellow. A nubby beige carpet covers most of the floor space. A smattering of framed, mismatched art covers some of the walls, while a few silk plants and trees stand lifelessly against the others.

The size and layout of Pinsel’s office does little to disguise the lack of color, warmth and personality. He says he’s toyed with a variety of ways to help decorate his office, but none have taken root. Instead, he’s taken the easy route and done nothing.

Like Pinsel, Life Audit design expert Nina Cowen recognizes that something must be done to this office space, for both the well being of the firm’s staff and the comfort of the firm’s clients. Fortunately, Cowen says, adding warmth and sophistication to an otherwise drab suburban office can be a lot easier than Pinsel suspects.

The best place to begin is in Pinsel’s personal office. Because there is no dedicated conference room or private meeting space in the office suite, most client meet­ings take place here. And the space could not be less comfortable.

Cowen is most concerned with the seating arrangement. Right now, clients have only one option: unremarkable chairs parked in front of Pinsel’s giant, L-shaped desk. Cowen wants to create an additional seating area and infuse it with comfort as well as warmth. Although the space looks filled up by Pinsel’s desk, chairs, a large credenza and a small, low bookcase, Cowen is confident she can accommodate two upholstered chairs and a table with some easy rearranging.

First, she moves Pinsel’s desk closer to a wall of windows. It had been plopped in the center of the room, which created zones of dead space around it. The credenza and bookcase stay put for now, but Cowen encourages Pinsel to buy another bookcase in a finish that matches the first so he can stack one on top of the other and put them next to the credenza. This will create more space for the chairs and a table, she says, and the height of the newly created bookshelf will add visual interest.

Now on to Pinsel’s new chairs. Cowen discourages him from picking up any old pair of inexpensive upholstered chairs. Not only will they not last, but they also won’t convey the sophisticated impression that Pinsel wants.

Instead, she advises him to hit a good quality furniture store such as Crate and Barrel or Room & Board and find a style that meshes with his contemporary, blond-wood furniture. She recommends looking for chairs covered with fabric that blends in with the wall color and the bluish green pile carpet in his office. Rich earth tones with a hint of texture will work better than bold patterns or plaids, which are too loud for the look he’s trying to achieve, she says.

Cowen would also like Pinsel to add a coffee table, but she suggests he wait to buy it until he’s placed the chairs in his office. Once he determines the best spot for the chairs, he can better determine the right size and shape for the coffee table.

Using Art Effectively

When it comes to warming up Pinsel’s freshly painted office walls, Cowen immediately thinks of adding artwork. She says she envisions three to five large pieces that, when combined with the new upholstered furniture, will add to the feeling of so­phistication.

But, because his office walls are so large, Pinsel must purchase wisely. Ideally, Cowen says, the art should coordinate but not match. It also must be appropriately sized to fill the generous wall space without overwhelming it.

Finding the right size and style of art is a tall order—and one best left to a professional, Cowen says. She suggests that Pinsel find a local gallery or high end print and poster shop where he sees art he likes; then he should ask the staff there to consult. If Pinsel brings in the layout and measurements of his office, the gallery will help him make the most aesthetically pleasing choices, plus they’ll often help him hang it.

And, while he’s at it, Pinsel should keep photos of friends and family pared down—three in one place is plenty—and updated. “You don’t need the 10-year-old photo of your child as a newborn,” she says.

Lastly, Cowen suggests adding a vase of fresh flowers or some plants, adding a finishing touch of real life to Pinsel’s rejuvenated office space.


Vital Statistics

David L. Pinsel Position Partner, Law Offices of David L. Pinsel in Rolling Meadows, Ill.
Age 46 Goal To infuse his office space with warmth and sophistication

Our Expert Nina Cowen is the founder of Chicago-based Organizational Design Services. She works with individuals at home and in their offices to create organized spaces that can be easily maintained.

Life Audit Hot Tip: Tray Chic David Pinsel works best when he can see what needs to be done. That means his desk often is loaded with stacks of papers awaiting his attention. But since Pinsel’s office doubles as his conference room, the stacks pose potential confidentiality issues. Lift the papers off the desk with a horizontal file sorter, says Life Audit design expert Nina Cowen. The open design still allows you to see the work but keeps it hidden from prying eyes. Sorters can be found in various office supply or organizational stores for as little as $20.

Creating a Comfort Zone

Add furniture. Large offices can absorb more furniture. Add an additional seating area consisting of two upholstered chairs and a coffee table.

Add color. Dress up dreary walls with art. Work with a consultant to purchase several large pieces to fill the wall.

Add greens. Fresh flowers or flowering plants lend an air of sophistication. Caring for them appropriately helps maintain the upscale look.

WE NEED YOU! Got some room to improve? Get free advice from the experts on health and fitness, finance, work life balance, entertaining, travel and wardrobe—plus your mug in this mag—with Life Audit, the Journal’s monthly lifestyle feature. It’s fun, fast and free. If you would like to participate in a future Life Audit, please e mail Jill Schachner Chanen at [email protected].

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