Technology: Space--The Next Front

Anyone who brings work home at night knows the feeling: dinner is over, the kids are in bed, but you just can't face the messy pit you call your home office. Trevor Hughes knew that phenomenon all too well. His work space was a cluttered, poorly lit corner of a guest room at his home in Maine. "The room was basically dysfunctional," says Hughes, an attorney and privacy expert. So he entered--and won--a contest by Logitech, a computer-peripherals maker. The prize: a $7,000 home-office makeover, including a host of new computer gizmos and some nice design flourishes.

A spiffed-up home office is a luxury that's fast becoming a necessity. The rise of the "free agent" lifestyle in the '90s created a home-office boom, and now cool gadgets are getting cheaper. Consultant Terri Lonier of Working Solo says too many home offices are thrown together without a plan. "You set up a table, put the computer on it and find a chair, but you never step back and say, 'Is this the best way it could be functioning?' "

Start with new technology. Flat-screen computer monitors have dropped below $400 in the United States and free up precious desk space. Wireless keyboard-and-mouse packages go for as little as $69 and eliminate desktop cord tangles. If space is really tight, consider a notebook computer. And trade up to DSL or a cable modem from a dial-up service.

Don't stop there. Paint the walls; move the desk toward a window. Add cheap shelving or cardboard file boxes to a closet. "The only things on the floor should be a chair, furniture and a wastebasket," says Neal Zimmerman, author of "At Work at Home: Design Ideas for Your Home Workplace." But experts say it's worth spending more on two essentials: good lighting and an ergonomic chair. Says Lonier: "You may spend more time on that chair than in your bed." Another tip: in addition to a desk chair, add a comfy chair for reading.

You don't have to break the bank to create a functional, stylish space. Interior designer Laurie Hickson-Smith recently created an office in her Mississippi home for less than $1,000. She painted the walls a warm shade of wheat, added stainless-steel shelving, a hardwood desk, architect lamps and a white enamel drafting table (her big splurge at $400). With her first baby due any day, Hickson-Smith is thinking about how to separate her work and family life. One of her clients actually installed a padlock on her home-office door. "She wanted to make sure the end of the workday was the end of the workday," Hickson-Smith says.

For Hughes's new office, designers brought in a $399 Caper chair from Herman Miller (it's less corporate-looking than the ubiquitous, pricier Aeron), had electricians replace a harsh fluorescent fixture with softer recessed lighting and painted the walls a soothing yellow. Goodbye dial-up service, hello $40-a-month cable Internet access. Hughes rejected some of the designers' ideas--futuristic lighting, wall-mounted storage cubicles--and instead opted for $1,000 worth of simple Mission furniture from the L.L. Bean catalog. He spent $40 on wire shelving for the closet; that space, along with a rolling file cabinet, left his office "organized and uncluttered," Hughes says. The only downside: now there's no excuse for not getting more work done.