Some can afford to spare entire rooms for their home offices while others make most of small workspaces.
BY HANNAH LEE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN MICHAEL SIMPSON
Companies of all sizes scrambled to get their employees adjusted to working from home when the pandemic caused shutdowns last March. The kitchen table became a permanent desk. The bed, once coveted for naps, now covered in paperwork. More than a year later, some employees are encouraged to return to the office, though many have no desire to go back. One in four Americans said they’re working remotely in 2021, according to Upwork’s “Future of Workforce Pulse Report” released in December 2020. That same report estimated that 36.2 million Americans will continue to work remotely by 2025, an 86.5% increase from prepandemic stats. We asked four Durhamites to show us their work-from-home setup and how they’ve adjusted to the lifestyle.
Rachel Rivers has mastered the art of prop amalgamation. Home goods accumulated over her years as an interior/prop stylist line every inch of available wall space in a narrow storage room that’s been converted into an office. When her petite 5-foot 2-inch frame needs to grab a prop off the shelf for a photo shoot, she easily climbs onto her repurposed 60-inch school desk she found on Facebook Marketplace and reimagines the space in a matter of minutes.
What’s truly masterful about the makeshift office is the way she maximizes the space in the 60-square-foot room (if you can even call it a room). Rivers and her husband, Charles Rivers, moved into the Craftsmanstyle house downtown a year and a half ago; the home’s previous owners used the room for overflow, and the walls were painted a neon green. “It was awful,” Rivers said. “I immediately painted it white.” She followed that by adding a $60 antique secretary desk from a local thrift store, but that wasn’t enough to hold all her rattan baskets, paintings, books, pottery and trinkets. When the pandemic hit, Rivers invested more time into making the semi-storage/“sort of” office more practical for stay-at-home work. The addition of a few IKEA shelves did the trick.
“My husband calls it an orderly hoarder’s paradise,” Rivers said of her “little museum.”
“I don’t even know how to describe my style because my work and Instagram are full of bright colors, but my home has a lot of neutrals. I try to stay curious and notice whatever catches my eye.”
Allison Urban is a loyal customer of Pine State Flowers – step into her office, and you can tell. Her Anthurium, zebra haworthia and rattlesnake plants are just a few species you’ll come across.
“In pre-pandemic days, I used to go to Pine State every other day,” Urban said. “If I had a stressful day at work, I would just walk over there. At one point, I had even more plants than this.”
Urban moved to Durham from Atlanta four years ago when her partner, Johnathan Lyon, got a job as a visiting researcher at Duke University. So she went remote from her six-year office job at MailChimp. That meant finding a home with a suitable workspace. The upstairs room in their Tuscaloosa-Lakewood house settled that matter right away, and the natural lighting provided a perfect habitat for her green friends.
An in-house designer at MailChimp helped furnish the space with some pieces from Room & Board, but it wasn’t until early 2020 that Urban decided to wrap up the final touches – organizing. Cue professional organizer Perri Kersh.
“It was just piles of stuff everywhere,” Urban said. “I was really overwhelmed to go through it all. So Perri helped me sort through everything, organize it and get the bookshelf set up. She helped me prime the space, and then it was the fun stuff of ordering the couch and painting.”
Her color choice for the walls came as no surprise: green. “I know, it’s a lot, but I love it,” Urban laughs. Now that her office is full-grown, Urban uses the space for more than her new 10 a.m.-6 p.m. coding gig at Netflix. She also writes fiction in her free time – hence, the typewriter.
“I originally made [the office] because I wanted a place to write,” she said. “I thought it would be an encouraging space to do that. I liked it so much, I ended up working here, too.”
A LAWYER’S SANCTUARY
Vernetta Alston used her home office a couple days a week in pre-pandemic times. But this room at the back of her house in Hope Valley became not only a space for quiet productivity, but also respite after a busy day of balancing work with parenting a restless infant and demanding toddler.
Rep. Alston, who was named to represent NC House District 29 in April 2020, usually works long hours. Her custom-built shelves and Carolina blue walls became a permanent backdrop for countless Zoom meetings over the course of the past year. The legislator personalized the rows with stacks of nonfiction books and memorabilia including her personal favorite, a photo of her grandparents kissing on a rooftop in Durham. If you look closely, you’ll see a tri-fold poster board in the corner beside her desk. Its sole purpose is to block the sight of children running past the room’s French doors. But there’s nothing disguising the sight of a more recent purchase: a sleek black and red Peloton bike.
“Due to the grace and generosity of my wife, Courtney Alston, it’s a space that I can manage and keep kid-free for the most part,” Rep. Alston said, “which helps me work. It helps me relax.”
It also helps that her office doubles as a den to watch sports on the weekend. And on the occasion she does work extra hours on sunny, warm days, another pair of doors opens to the backyard for the occasional breath of fresh air, and, more importantly, to watch her beloved kids, Reese, 4, and Davis, 6 months.
“I can just leave the door open, and I feel like I’m still a part of [their playtime],” Rep. Alston said, “which is nice. I really, really enjoy that.”
Steven McLelland didn’t think he’d ever need a home office, but here we are in his bourbon room complete with a desk and giant monitor squarely in front of the windows. He and his wife, Liz McLelland, moved into the Duke Forest home in March 2019. Rather than create an office space, the Duke Pratt School of Engineering executive in residence decided on a room dedicated to his collection of more than 20 whiskeys.
“We wanted a room where we could drink bourbon and whiskey after we have dinner parties,” Liz said. “We wanted to make it club-like and have that feel of an English pub.”
With that in mind, the couple hired Design Bank owner Craven Miller to turn that vision into a reality. He added texture and depth to the room with wood veneer wallpaper, custom leather chairs and built-in shelves – the perfect home for Steven and Liz’s books from his days on the MIT blackjack team and from her time studying gender and sexuality at San Francisco State University.
The couple isn’t hosting parties like they used to, of course, and Duke postponed in-person classes and meetings indefinitely. Now the room is Steven’s “default thrown-in-here office,” Liz said.
“We didn’t build a home office because I’m so close to campus,” Steven said. “I’m about 1.7 miles from my office, and I can walk the [Al Buehler Cross Country] Trail. I was always like, ‘If I need to do work, I’ll just go to the office. I could be there in a few minutes.’ There was just no reason to have a crazy setup here, especially with laptops.”
“It’s been an amazing office,” he added, “but I’ll be glad to get rid of it.”
Though this wasn’t the original plan for the space, Steven jokes it’s the best Zoom background he could ask for. “And if it’s a bad day, I can get to the whiskey,” he said.