Now we know. What worked in co-working spaces works even better in the home. Gone are the days of the forgotten guest bedroom and dusty study. The home office is no longer a single room, but one setting in a day filled with interactions, multi-tasking and recharging.
Founder Alda Ly and designer Tania Chau from Alda Ly Architecture created some of the first co-working spaces that blended home and office life. Nationally renowned and named among the top 50 interior architecture firms of 2020 by Architects’ Newspaper, they designed the first locations for The Wing, the first all-women’s co-working space. They have since expanded into healthcare and wellness.
“The focus of our projects is ‘how do we make people feel comfortable, safe and secure?’,” said Ly over a Zoom call in New York City. “We use different strategies like biophilic design, which we bring into almost every project, and the psychology of space, and what it can do for people in a positive way.”
Thanks to their foresight, a legitimate “office” became more than an open floor plan with cluttered workstations and cubicles. The stunning spaces attracted attention because finally, a beautiful alcove, a comfy chair and a custom bookshelf able to hold a laptop seemed suitable and professional enough for work. As the color palate, layout and furniture of traditional office life changed, so did the sense of calm productivity.
The Escape Home’s Abigail Napp speaks with Ly and Chau to get their recommendations for designing an empowering and calming home office, with tips from The Wing and other projects.
Tell me a bit about your interior design practice? What sets you apart from others?
Ly: We are commercial interior designers and architects. We work with a lot of entrepreneurs and start-ups and even more established organizations. They’re all excited to do something new and [that has] never been done before. What we do really well is to listen to them to figure out who their users are, who will use the space– whether it’s day-to-day staff, executives, visitors, or operations folks running the business. For most of our projects we do a fact-finding, due-diligence process, where we speak to as many people as possible in and out of the organization to get a glimpse of their daily lives to learn what they want out of the space and how they’ll use it. The magic happens when we think about what to design for our clients.
In general, what are the values you believe a space should have?
Chau: We want every space to reflect the needs of the client. How they need the space to function and be experienced. To some degree every space is going to be somewhat different and espouse different values depending on who will use it. We look at all dimensions, not just what you can see visually with color and materials, but especially all the senses. What does it smell like in the space? How does it sound? The auditory qualities are as important as the materials.
Ly: In addition to The Wing, a lot of our work has been in health and wellness. The focus of those projects is how do we make people feel comfortable, safe and secure. We use different strategies like biophilic design, which we try to bring into almost every project, and thinking about the psychology of space, and what it can do for people in a positive way.
Chau: It’s about problem solving — thinking about the challenges and issues of a place and solving for it in a beautiful and functional way.
An interior by Alda Ly Architecture.
Let’s talk more about biophilic design. What is it?
Ly: Biophilic design is about connecting people back to nature and how that plays with all of your senses. It’s not just having plants nearby and seeing plants. There are so many other things about it. Above all it’s a way to promote calmness and reduce stress. So if you take into account the sound of water, or fresh air, like opening a window next to you. Or having a curtain blow in the wind a little bit and having a wall covered with dappled sunlight created by the leaves of a tree near your window.
How do we work in biophilic design with a home office?
Chau: With biophilic design, plants and greenery are a part of it, but it’s not the only thing. There’s a set of 14 principles and we look at what we can apply. There’s a lot of different ways this could work. Having access to greenery is definitely one part.
At home, one quality to think about is light and how it comes into the space. Also, audio quality and the sound of water, because you can bring in and introduce multiple sensory elements.
Ly: We also like to style a room by using patterns found in nature. This can bring calmness. That could be wallpaper, tile pattern, a rug, or a chair.
In reality, many of us still start with the desk. Does this still make sense when designing a home office?
Chau: I think that depends. The office is a place where you’re doing things, and you’re working. A desk might be the way that the majority of people work, but not how everyone wants to work. Think about if you need to work with a computer or a surface, or if you’re aging. How will you incorporate other forms of work while offering different kinds of seating positions? We need to think of the different ways our home can become an office.
Ly: It’s funny you ask about the desk. I just got rid of a gigantic desk that was way too big for what I did with it, so I got rid of it. Now, I just have my monitor and laptop on one of the shelves, so it’s become a wall of storage and a work surface. I can walk away from my new “desk,” sit on the couch and take phone calls or Zoom calls. That works better for me.
For many of us, Zoom has become like a kind of storefront. For those working from home, whatever they communicate on Zoom needs to communicate their company culture. What kinds of risks do you recommend they take and what should they avoid putting in the frame?
Ly: I don’t think it’s necessary to include your logo, like ‘this is my company and this is what we do,’ but it is about setting a vibe with a background. What you see with colors, objects and composition represents who you are and your brand.
Chau: I watch YouTube videos because a lot of people create content from their home and it’s not the same as Zooming from home with these staged home sets. That can feel pretentious. And knowing it’s not really how someone would live.
Ly: Yes, when it doesn’t look too staged that gives off a sense of honesty.
The DUMBO location of The Wing, designed by Alda Ly Architecture.
What are five design elements from The Wing that homeowners can use in setting up an empowering work space?
1. Create a variety of seat and table configurations. Some examples include the standard table and chairs, a sofa with a C-table, as well as a counter with stools. We also like floor seating with a coffee table.
2. Make sure to create work areas next to a window. Not only will daylight keep you alert and energized throughout the day, it looks great on your face for Zoom calls!
3. Think about rugs and other soft surfaces to absorb sound.
4. Imagine a variety of ambiances with changes in color and textures throughout the space.
5. Study biophilic design. For a deep dive into biophilic design and its 14 properties, check out Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainability consulting firm that created a reference guide.
How about designing a home office in a second home. What are some best practices that could be adopted for planning an inspiring yet calming space?
Soothing colors. We like to think about the colors found in nature. A monochromatic palette where you work with one color in light to dark variations is a great way to create a calming, cohesive space.
Select a spot near a window for the view and also the source of natural light. Add a task lamp for additional lighting and choose something you love so it can be a design statement on your work surface.
Make room for storage, so things can be put away and clutter can be removed.
Add art, decorative objects or personal items that can spark joy and creativity, especially where you can see it in front of you and not just behind you as a Zoom background.
Add plants! Greenery can connect you back to nature.
Redecorating a home office —where should homeowners begin?
Measure, measure, measure.
Understand what you have to work with. Will you need to maximize the space for Zoom? Do you need to conceal areas to avoid showing clutter? If you don’t use a Zoom background, furniture like a bookshelf can be easily ordered and is a personal reflection of you, and you don’t need to control it by tidying it up on a daily basis.
Lighting, especially for Zoom calls. Avoid back lit scenarios.
Ask yourself again, how much time will you spend there? Will this be to casually work a bit and move around or do you need privacy and peace and quiet? Those different considerations will affect the environment you create.
Think about multi-use. What else will you use the space for aside from working? Will guests sleep in there? Will you have exercise equipment there?
Give yourself flexibility and think beyond the four walls of your office. You can create nicely lit areas and stage spaces throughout your home.