As we talked about in this post, Nate and I decided to leave the expensive, crowded Washington D.C. “bubble,” in late 2014 and head south to the beautiful Charlotte/Lake Norman area of North Carolina. Both of us have rewarding and stimulating jobs and were blessed with employers that embraced the idea of allowing us to keep our jobs but work from home instead. The only requirement, especially for Nate, was that he needed a dedicated office space away from the daily
craziness activities of having a toddler at home for part of the day too. During our N.C. house hunt that Autumn, we fell in love with literally the first house we toured. The house was great for a variety of reasons, but a big one was the massive bonus room over the garage. With 400+ square feet and lots of natural light, both of us immediately envisioned the space as a multi-purpose room – a shared office at one end and a TV/loft/ kids play area at the other end. Before we even made it back to Virginia, I was excitedly tagging and pinning photos, anxiously designing the space in my head. I couldn’t wait to close on the house in December so I could get working on my plans!
These are photos of our spec house from 4G Design Build – the bonus room above the garage (above), and an exterior view of the room’s dormer windows, (below). 4G builds beautiful homes all around the northern end of Lake Norman. 4G’s quality craftsmanship and attention to details made it easy to fall in love with a house that we couldn’t design ourselves.
We closed on our house on December 15th, a mere 10 days before Christmas (crazy, right?!). Instead of thinking about our dream office, I was just trying to get some boxes unpacked and out of the way so Santa wouldn’t bump into them on the big day! Until you’re in the midst of moving, unpacking, and trying to go about your daily business of work and family stuff, it’s easy to underestimate the time and patience it takes to feel settled and at home, let alone have each room look like the galleries on Domino. Needless to say, it was a good month before we could really put any time or effort into the office…and poor Nate was stuck at this teeny desk! (Shh, don’t tell his bosses!)
The blue desk may have been tiny and a pain to work at for a few months, but it was actually our inspiration for the custom two-person desk along the back wall. This little desk has been through a lot. A real vintage piece with great mid-century lines, it started out with my mom back in the 1950’s as part of her childhood bedroom furniture suit. After I was born, it took up residence in my bedroom, housing classic 80s artifacts and was the site of many a rainy day “let’s play school” with my brother and sister. After college, I gladly accepted all the free furniture I could get and took it with me to my first apartment, where I painted it an awful shade of lime/charteuse green (not really sure what I was thinking…). It may have been an eyesore, but because of it’s history and sentimental value, there was no way I could ever dump it. So it lived in our attic in Virginia until we came across this project in Young House Love’s first book (so many great ideas in this book!) and thought it was a neat way to bring new life to this mid-century piece.
Here you can see the desk during it’s makeover. First it needed a good sanding to get rid of that awful, cheap green paint. Then we mimicked Young House Love’s main desk color with Benjamin Moore’s Hale Navy, but created the basket weave pattern with Benjamin Moore’s Hidden Oaks. To make it a little more usable and maintain the paint finish, we sprang for a piece of custom-fitted glass for the desktop. The desk’s drawer pulls are really unique and I was having trouble finding new pulls to fit, so I just spray-painted them in a copper color that would match the hardware on the new cabinets (more on those in a bit!).
A sneak peak of the finished office space with our inspiration piece.
Once most of our boxes were unpacked and we were fairly settled in our new home, it was time for the real fun to begin! We decided to utilize the back wall of the bonus room by creating a large, two-person desktop. Naturally, I consulted Pinterest for some design inspiration. Here were a few of my favorite pins. This first image was a good example for an expansive wall-to-wall desktop that could easily fit two people, a few computers, and general daily work stuff. The open shelves with books and picture frames are visually appealing but come on, is this realistic? To do real work, real offices are going to look like a Staples unless work essentials like papers, binders, pens, etc., are hidden in drawers or cabinets. Plus, I don’t even want to think about dusting all of those vignettes!
I liked how this wall was similar to our knee wall and slanted ceiling and how the space was maximized by the built-ins, but we weren’t really prepared to take on creating custom bookshelves at this point when the focus needed to be on the desktop.
This image was by far my favorite and a great example of how both Nate and I could have a good-looking and functional work area. The desktop was clean but still realistic with room for office supplies, while the cabinets provided a must-needed hidden storage area.
Once we figured out the basic design, we set out to find the perfect cabinets. We wanted three cabinets – one on each end, near the wall, and one centering the desktop. There are many options for filing cabinets like the one shown in the image above, but most are several hundred dollars a piece and would be awkward for housing daily office supplies. Even office cabinets from Ikea are $200 a pop and they’re not even made from real wood, just a veneer. We searched high and low for the right cabinets and until we stumbled upon these unfinished kitchen/bathroom cabinets at the unlikeliest of places – our local Habitat for Humanity Restore! Our local Restores (located in Cornelius and Mooreseville) are great places to find unique new and used merchandise. New cabinets like this are extremely popular and one of their best-sellers. We were actually put on a 4-week wait list because of the high demand! With a height of 27″ these cabinets would make our work area higher than a typical desk height, but we loved that they were made from real wood (maple) and had a upper pull-out drawer for pens, paper clips, and notepads. That price couldn’t be beat either. We’d be able to get three real-wood cabinets for the price of one veneered Ikea cabinet and since proceeds from all Restore purchases go towards building affordable housing for local families, we would be supporting our community in the process!
Since the cabinets’ front surface were a maple wood, we could easily paint them to match our existing desk. (The cabinets’ sides are made from a simple particle board because they’d typically not be seen in a bathroom or kitchen). Ours would be exposed, so we primed and painted (using Benjamin Moore’s Hale Navy) both the fronts and sides of each cabinet.
We considered several different options for our desktop. The choice was probably the most important part of the project. We investigated some purely DIY options like using lumber, and also priced traditional countertops from Lowes and Home Depot. Given that we wanted to the desk to be “built-in” and perfectly fit our space, we had to go with a custom built option. We found a local woodworking shop – The Moulding Source – that specializes in custom mouldings and furniture. (Rick at The Moulding Source also made these amazing shelves for our son’s room.) The desk had to look good but also be functional, durable, and not break the bank. The Moulding Source had many options – including oak, cherry, maple, ash, and more exotic, decorative grains like Sepele. We chose ash for our desk because it is very hard (many baseball bats are made from ash) and can be stained easily. Our desk was made by bonding five wood planks together to make a total width of 25 1/4 inches. After bonding, the surfaces were sanded flush to create a nice, flat top (no seams!) and cut to length ( a little over 11 feet). Before the desk left The Moulding Source we had to decide which side we wanted exposed (we chose the side with the most grains). This way the edge that would be closest to us could be rounded/beveled so it wouldn’t be uncomfortable to lean on.
After bringing the desk home, we found it wasn’t quite smooth enough. The saw marks were gone, but we wanted a perfect finish for working and writing on (It is a desk, after all!). Nate sanded it by hand, using course-grit paper first, then finishing with finer 220 grit paper.
The next step was staining. We used one coat of Minwax pre-stain, followed immediately by Minwax wood finish in Special Walnut. The stain was spread as evenly as possible with a coarse brush, and excess was removed with a cloth. It took three coats of the stain until we got just the right color. In order to provide some protection (and shine), we finished with a couple coats of clear satin polyurethane, lightly sanding between coats.
The first step for the office installation was to remove the baseboard from the back and side walls. Make sure to use a utility blade to cut the caulking between the baseboard and the wall in order to minimize any paint damage that has to be repaired later. Next, we positioned the cabinets along the wall and noted the locations of the wall studs for securing each cabinet. We did not anchor the cabinets yet, in case they needed to be “tweaked” after laying the desk on top. The cabinets are resting on top of the carpet; we didn’t have any issues getting them to be level. And luckily, we didn’t have to move any existing electrical outlets out of the way either. The next step was hauling the desktop up a flight of stairs and some awkward turns to get it into the room (definitely a two person job!). The length was made to fit the space without much of a gap on the ends, and it was a tight squeeze maneuvering that monstrosity into position without ruining our walls: We laid one end of the desk into place on the cabinet top first, with the other end sticking up to create an angle. Using a rubber mallet, the end was tapped down into place (Did I mention it was a tight squeeze?). We were very fortunate that the side walls were built very parallel, and the back wall very square to them (Thank you 4G!). If planning to create a similar top, you may want to check this first and adjust the dimensions of the desktop to make sure it will fit. Any angles or “‘waviness” in the wall that creates gaps can be hidden later with some decorative moulding. After getting the desk into position, we had to make some subtle adjustments to make sure the desk was flush against all three cabinet tops and level at the same time. The end cabinets had to be shimmed, as the weight of the desk tended to pull them away from the side walls. We used wooden shims as needed between the bottom of the cabinets and the floor, making sure the ends of the shims were hidden in the carpet. After we were satisfied with the alignment (and after sitting on the desk to make sure everything was “settled”), we secured the cabinets into the studs on the back wall using 3″ cabinet screws. Finally, we attached the desk top to the cabinets. The desk is about 1 1/8″ thick – we used 1″ self-tapping wood screws at all four corners of each cabinet for a secure installation. To finish up, we trimmed the baseboard to fit along the side wall and between the new cabinets under the desk.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the desk installation because I was busy trying to hold an 80lb desk still and level while Nate wedged and jimmied it into position. This video pretty much sums up our experience though: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2u0sN9stbA&feature=youtu.be
In the end, it was all worth it, because…TA-DA!!! Look at the final result!
With 11 feet of space, the desk is roomy enough for both of our computers and work stuff without feeling like we’re encroaching on each other’s space. Nate usually has another big monitor and laptop at his desk too and he still has plenty of room!
Here you can see the beautiful hardware we chose for the cabinets. I absolutely LOVE that brass and copper are trending interior design metals and think they look stunning against our blue-gray whole-house color palette. In an effort to replace like 100 (Ok, not 100, it was more like 15, but it felt like 100) contractor-grade “boob” lights from EVERY room in our house, I started with bare bulb flush-mount copper ceiling lights in our hallways. These lights are simple but striking and were under $50 each on Etsy, but sadly the Etsy shop suddenly closed last year. (Here’s a similar light from another Etsy shop to compare.) Thankfully, I ordered enough to have a uniform look in my hallways before they shut down, but I had also planned on going with three similar copper flush-mounts for the office. Also before the Etsy shop closed, I found these awesome copper knobs and drawer pulls from Schoolhouse Electric, thinking they’d tie in with copper lights. I wasn’t able to get matching ceiling fixtures, but am so happy I went with the copper hardware. They have a glam masculinity feel (Is that even a thing? If it is, let’s keep it to interior design!) and literally transformed the look of the cabinets – you’d never know they were stock cabinets for a kitchen or bathroom!
Schoolhouse Electric’s collection of copper hardware. Check out their entire collection of hardware, housewares, and unique Made-in-the-USA light fixtures here.
And here’s a shot of the beautiful grain in the ash wood. This desk really is a beast and still looks as good as it did when we moved it in about a year ago!
We also drilled 3/4″ diameter holes near the back of the desk top for running power cords for our computers.
These last three images show the scale of our wall desk compared to the rest of the room. It’s been about a full year since we completed the project and are extremely happy with the results. It truly is a livable, usable workspace! In these shots, you can also see the new light fixtures. After that Etsy light shop closed, I contemplated going with this copper pendant or these cool factory pendants for a more industrial look (both from Schoolhouse Electric) but I was trying to keep each office light under $100 each and these lights didn’t fit that budget. I loved the look of the industrial pendant and found this great blog post on making over a cheap home improvement store pendant and decided to try it. I found the exact same pendants for $30, spray-painted the outside black, the inside copper, and ended up with three really cool ceiling fixtures without spending over $100 total! Those chairs are not desk chairs but West Elm’s Saddle Counter Stools. Remember, the desk is higher because our cabinets were originally intended for a kitchen or bath. Luckily, we had recently purchased four of these stools for our kitchen island (the same height!) but I think they were secretly made for this room! Don’t those mid-century stool legs and upholstered seats go perfect with the desk? We still have our other two stools at the kitchen island and that seems to be fine for our daily needs. When we have people over, we just move the stools downstairs. A note about the stools – West Elm recently recalled this particular stool saying that the legs may be weak and could break. We are able to return the stools for a refund or another stool in their collection, but we just can’t part with them. I haven’t found anything that is as comfortable and good looking as these babies. And after sitting in them at the desk for 8-10 hours/ day they seem pretty durable. So for now, we’re going to hold on to them and we promise we won’t sue you, West Elm, if they fall out from underneath us!