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Notes on Working from Home

Jonathan Olivares

Having spent the last two years working from home, designer Jonathan Olivares shares his notes on the process of developing a home office, the historical examples that informed him, and the habits that make it work.

After closing my physical office and spending a year working from everywhere, my preferred work environment gradually became my home. Having never practised design from home before, I had little idea of how it would work: would I live in an office, or work from a home? I was concerned that I would lose my mind being in the same space every day. And I had no idea what new routines and etiquettes I needed to stay productive. I lacked a domestic space that could foster work, and also a regimen and a protocol that would keep me productive.

I first entertained the idea of working from home while interviewing the late Richard Sapper, who had created best-selling products for Alessi, Artemide and IBM from the comfort of his houses in Milan, Lake Como and Los Angeles. Over the course of our fifty plus hours of interviews, which all took place in his homes, it became evident that his work was inextricable from the everyday phenomena – morning coffee, pasta and parmigiano for lunch, a little ‘fire water’ in the evenings – that he and his wife Dorit had cultivated in the company of their three children. Richard often worked on the sofa with his sketches spread out on the coffee table, but he also kept a room dedicated to work, with a desk that was buried in correspondence, tools and models. His walls were covered in pinned up drawings, artworks, posters, and more tools, hanging. Richard’s projects began with a ‘kiss from the muse’, which he often conjured watching the birds from his window. Where my past office had the organisation and schedule of a laboratory, Richard’s home office provided me with a model that allows for some creative mess and some inspired breaks.

Living in California, with most of my collaborators living east of the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean, I often start the day with an early morning video call. The earliest of these so far was at 4am Pacific Standard Time, where I had to present to a jury in London for a design competition. A routine has formed around these calls. Waking up before sunrise, I first prepare a hot beverage. I don’t dress up, but I also don’t do these calls in anything less than a shirt and pants. As the light changes dramatically during the early morning hours, I sit in a place that’s dim enough for me to see my screen and bright enough for my face to be lit. I feed my dog. The call begins and I enter the virtual space we are all so familiar with – a space that would be the envy of past generations that had to send telegraphs, take cross-continental boat rides, and pay for long distance phone calls. By the time the call is over my partner is awake, and we transition into making breakfast.

If the kitchen is the centre of the home, then it must also be the centre of the home office. Looking at photography and reading about the homes of Alexander and Louisa Calder – in Roxbury, Connecticut, and Saché, France – it is evident that everything revolved around the kitchen table. While Alexander would disappear to his home studio all day, he would inevitably return to the kitchen table, which sat on a field of hooked rugs designed by Louisa. Here the couple would spend time with their children, entertain guests, read, draw, drink Alexander’s favourite red wines, and eat Louisa’s freshly baked bread. With the Calder’s residence as a model, I found the closer I brought my work to the kitchen, the more productive, energetic and enjoyable my days became. Like crop rotation, working, a short break to make a coffee, working more, and then preparing and cooking a meal, each clear my mind and allow me to begin the next activity with greater focus.

Artists and designers who have practised at home abound, as do companies founded from homes – Disney, Nike, Apple – but my favourite home-born entity has to be the Wu-Tang Clan. In Staten Island, working from various apartments, the RZA recorded the demos for Enter the 36 Chambers and Method Man’s Tical. Then, setting up a recording studio in his basement, he produced, recorded and mixed Old Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, and the GZA’s first albums. The RZA describes the basement as a ‘dojo’ and a ‘space for gathering, training, spiritual growth’ (The Rza, The Tao of Wu, London (Penguin Books Ltd.) 2009, p. 113).

In his philosophical work The Tao of Wu the RZA writes:

‘Don’t have a lot of people around. Be alone and quiet. You’ll start to hear yourself, feel yourself. You’ll hear from the you that’s not the you your family, society or history have created. You’ll hear from the you that’s beneath that, the one that’s always there with you – the one that contains the God particle.’

(The Rza, The Tao of Wu, London (Penguin Books Ltd.) 2009, p. 97).

Perhaps the best advantage to working at home is the freedom to carve out sections of the day with out any distractions at all. That being said, distractions can be highly productive because they offer the mind a rest, and there is an art to finding good distractions. Describing his Monte Blanc Diplomat model pen, George Nelson writes:

‘Anyone with a writing chore and a deadline is always looking for some legitimate way to goof off from time to time, and refueling the pen, in this respect, was ideal. Not only did the reservoir and nib have to be washed out in water each time but when the pen was finally filled it had to be wiped carefully with tissue, or your fingers would be semipermanently stained. All this took at least five minutes, and with a little practice I was able to stretch it to ten.’

(George Nelson, On Design, New York (Whitney Library of Design) 1979, p. 121).

I am perhaps less disciplined than Nelson, as I count a record player, a stockpile of various Japanese incenses, a wood burning fireplace, and the resistance bands and weights I keep in a basket among my many ‘work’ tools. It just took me ten minutes to find and play Dyin’ to be Dancin’ by Empress; incense lights quickly but is critical to reset the atmosphere at the start of a major task; a fire can take a good five minutes to get going, but requires some maintenance every fifteen minutes while it’s on; and a training session easily takes up half an hour.

Some tools are more critical than others, and if there is one tool that my home office could not do without, it is the internet modem. An unmemorable grey box, the Arris TM1602 – which I keep in the bottom drawer (facing a wall) of my Joe Colombo Boby 3 Portable Storage System – is the life-blood of my home office. I was able to convince the internet provider to give me business capacity internet speeds even though I am in a residential neighbourhood. This is not only critical because the Hollywood Hills have notoriously weak mobile phone signal, but also because very little of my work is actually in the house – it is all stored in a Dropbox folder. In the 2014 publication SQM, edited by Space Caviar, Joseph Grima writes:

‘If data is the new oil, then the home is the new Texas. The contemporary home is indeed a machine, not in the Jacques-Tati-esque sense of an assembly of moving parts, but as a factory of data where every activity of its inhabitants is quantified and broadcast, to the tune of one gigabyte per week.’

(Joseph Grima, SQM: The Quantified Home, Zurich (Lars Muller Publishers), p. 25). When it comes to data, and most things, I embrace the phrase go big or go home.

Like any home or office, a home office is a work in progress, assembled object by object, room by room, and habit by habit. My latest interest is a coffee table that is high enough that I can pull it up to my daybed and work from it. Georgia O’Keeffe had a table like this in the sitting room of her Abiquiu House. She had it made after returning a Mies van der Rohe table she had bought that wasn’t quite right. Her new table had brass legs (instead of steel) and was wider and taller so that guests could extend their feet underneath it. This process encapsulates the spirit of a home office: you introduce a new object or new habit, you try it out, and it either fails or sticks, until all is just so.


Publication date: 03.04.2020
Author: Jonathan Olivares
Images: © Sam Frost; Domestic Contours: Ramak Fazel; The Estate of Pedro E. Guerrero; Ralph Looney, Courtesy, The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, gift of the Estate of Ralph and Clarabelle Looney