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Office Furniture You Can Live and Work With

By Gary Heller

The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association is projecting that this country will produce almost $10 billion of office furniture this year. Another $1.9 billion of furniture will be imported from foreign countries, some as close in as Canada, while others could be as far away as China. With that much furniture being consumed this year alone, you'd think that the buying public would be well educated, skillfully navigating their way to the right office desk, office chair, or file cabinet. Well, if you know that you're not one of those skillful navigators, stay with us a little longer. While we won't be able to teach you everything there is to know about office furniture (there are other things in life that are more fun), we can relate a few important concepts to consider when you are in the market.

Office Desks

Start your shopping with a few questions:

1. How large is the room?
2. How many desks will occupy this space?
3. Application of work, i.e. executive, clerical, temp?
4. Steel, wood laminate, wood veneer, solid wood?
5. Front office appearance or back office utility?
6. Budget?

Perhaps the first question you should ask yourself is the last question on this list. Knowing how much you can spend will narrow the field of choices, thus making your shopping easier. Steel and laminate desks are typically in the low-cost range and solid wood desks in the upper range. Don't be too quick to spend more than you have to, though; there are many good desks to be found at all price levels.

Room size will dictate how large a desk you should purchase. The typical manager’s desktop is 72" wide by 36" deep, and will have a working height of about 29". In a standard office, this desk will need to share space with a desk chair, perhaps two or more guest chairs, filing and other storage, and maybe a business machine or two. Often, a manager's office will also have a small conference room table in it, and so space quickly becomes a limiting factor.

Another popular desk size that usually fits well in smaller rooms is 60" wide by 30" deep. And it's still large enough to have both right and left drawer pedestals, so you won't have to sacrifice needed storage space. Consider as well that if you can afford the space and your application of work requires it, the larger L or U shaped desk may be more appropriate.

L-shaped desks used to be referred to as "secretarials," but that term is slowly disappearing from the language. On these desks, the return side of the desk used to be 26" high, proper height for your typewriter. Today's L-shaped desk comes with a 29" high return, so it's flush with the desktop. If you're going to need the return for computer applications, a keyboard drawer option is usually available, putting it at the appropriate height. Finally, determine on which side of the desk you need that return to be situated.

U-shaped desks are really a luxury. You’ll often find them topped off with an attached credenza (sometimes with a matching hutch on top), and myriad filing options under the desktop. Depending upon the final size, you might enjoy over 32 square feet of workspace on this kind of desk. Contrast that with the 26 sq. ft. for an L-shaped desk and only 18 sq. ft for the typical manager's size desk. And like the L-shaped desk, decide how you want the surfaces laid out. Every U-shaped desk has the main desk, the bridge, and the credenza. Decide if you want the bridge to start on the right or left side of the main desk.


Shopping for this office product can be the most daunting of all. At any one time, there are thousands of different office chairs available, starting on one end with prices below $100, and on the other end, priced in the thousands. As with desks, begin with setting a reasonable budget, and then consider these four basic questions:

1. What is the work being done; computer, conference, executive?
2. For upholstered chairs, what covering; fabric, vinyl, leather?
3. What's the shape of the body using the chair?
4. Typical office use or extended 24-hour requirements?
How the chair is going to be used will dictate what kind you'll need. Computer chairs, usually referred to as task chairs, will give you a range of adjustments that can be made to find your most comfortable position. You'll also see the term "ergonomic" used to describe chairs in this category. Ergonomics is an important subject given the serious consequences to one’s long-term health of ignoring your posture and work angle. For an in-depth review of this subject as it relates to office chairs, visit this website: http://office-ergo.com/ergonomic_seating.htm. While the best appointed task chair will have all the movements, consider which ones are most important to you. Buying only the adjustability that you need will save you money:

1. Seat height
2. Seat tilt lock
3. Seat angle
4. Seat depth
5. Back height
6. Back angle
7. Adjustable back support
8. Tilt tension
9. Knee tilt
10. Armrest height
11. Armrest width

A common mistake many people make is in purchasing a chair with arms and then discovering that it won't fit under the office desk, computer desk, or conference room table. Some chairs designed with a shortened armrest will still give you the elbow support you desire but will not conflict with your desktop.

Selection of the upholstery covering comes next. Choosing between fabric, vinyl and leather is often a matter of personal taste. Sometimes the application determines the right choice, where the easy-clean nature of vinyl supersedes the soft appeal of fabric and the expensive look of leather. An interesting combination of leather facing on seat and back with a matching vinyl cover on the back will save you money and, at the same time, give you the real feel of leather.

We're hearing more and more that the average American is gaining weight. Chair manufacturers are definitely aware of that fact and have reacted to it by increasing the choices for chairs built for the "big man." These chairs are characterized by having larger frames to accommodate a wider and deeper seat, and have mechanisms that are beefed up to take the heavier weight. Upholstery coverings and foam densities are also adjusted to be appropriate for this application. Here to, beefed-up mechanisms and denser foams are just two of the enhancements that you'll find on the average

File Cabinets

I bet that none of us can remember a time when there was no such thing as a file cabinet. Even in the age of high-tech computer information storage, the need for paper records remains strong. While most of us have walked past rows of cabinets somewhere at one time or another, we probably never considered paper storage to be a science. Yet, purchasing a cabinet solely on price is a big mistake when there are so many other details to consider:

1. Vertical, lateral, high-density, open or combination?
2. Letter or legal size?
3. Storing media?
4. Fireproof requirements?

The vertical file cabinet is probably the oldest method of paper filing. And today, they continue to be popular, especially for smaller offices with fewer records to store. They were once considered better than other types of files because they made better use of vertical space. That was true until the advent of the 5 drawer lateral file, which will house more linear feet of storage than an equal width of vertical cabinets. Lateral files normally come either as 36" wide or 48" wide. The 5–drawer models will typically have a flipper door at the top file so you can see more of the paperwork hanging on the open frame.

All filing cabinets should come with an anti-tip mechanism. Imagine the danger of opening the top two drawers of a large file cabinet only to have it start to fall toward you with all its accumulated weight. The anti-tip mechanism is designed to prevent opening more than one drawer at a time.

Consider file cabinets with what are know as "high sides." This simply means that the drawer sides provide the support for resting Pendaflex type folders on the rims without having to install old-fashioned rods. Not only will this feature save you money from the start, but you also won’t have to fuss with an accessory item that will rob you of needed filing space. And, cabinets without the "high sides" feature often denote lower quality, budget cabinets.

You might also want to avoid cabinets with substandard side glide suspensions. The better quality built drawers will pull smoothly, and fairy quietly, to a fully extended position, enabling you to reach the files toward the back of the drawer. If the cabinet you're looking at forces you to reach inside even after the drawer is fully open, then skip that model and keep looking. And while we're on the subject of drawers, look at how the locking system works. Budget cabinets may only lock a single drawer, while the better designed cabinets will lock all drawers simultaneously.

More on Files

For the smartest way to store very important papers and digital magnetic media, look into the latest crop of fireproof file cabinets. Many new ones come with drawer inserts specifically designed to protect media from damage by humidity, heat, and even impact from a multi-story fall that might occur if a fire causes the collapse of floors within a building. These cabinets are extremely heavy due to the fact that they incorporate insulating materials like Gypsum ™ and other ceramics that reduce the transmission of heat to the contents. Look for cabinets with at least a C fire rating, meaning that they were tested at a temperature of 1700 degrees for one hour.

Once you have looked at your budget, space, body requirements, and materials, you are ready to start shopping. With those basic needs considered, you can now concentrate on the last task: choosing furniture that pleases you visually!

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