At worst it conjures up a picture of a cramped box room barricaded with battleship grey filing cabinets and perilously wonky towers of plastic in-trays. At best it is a vision of those overscaled hi-tech desk systems that became the ultimate executive power symbols in the Eighties and look complex enough to require a pilot, skeletal chairs with turbo-charged tilt mechanisms marketed with the same fetishistic attention to detail that goes into the launch of a new car - and can cost almost as much.
But the home office is not just a concept. As the nature of employment changes, many people find themselves working from home. Forecasters predict that by the year 2010, as many as 60 per cent of office-based workers could be based at home. If this is even partly true, the home office will soon be as usual a working environment as the office proper, and space to work will constitute an important part of the home of the future.
Apart from employment trends, the real catalyst for this change is the availability of cheaper and and more compact and flexible technology. With lap tops the size of a hardback linked to the Internet, and the new breed of fax, printer, copier and scanner rolled into one smallish box, tele-working is becoming areality.
The future looks even more flexible. A prototype for "a survival computer" by Italian designers Stefano Marzano and Michele De Lucchl aptly called a "magic carpet" contains an electronic diary, a calculator, a mobile phone, a fax, a computer with an ultra flat screen and a CD -Rom drive. They are housed in a series of notebook-sized soft pads that fold together into a squidgy wad. As the whole thing will be operated by infra-red connections, there is no tangle of cables tying you to a desk.
All good news for home workers. Liberated from the bulk of conventional office equipment,they will no longer have to turn an area of their homes into a permanent office. You can balance a lap top pretty much wherever you want - in bed, on the kitchen table, in the garden or in the car. Ironically, the nomadic worker of the late 1990s is not a million miles from the scribe who, with quill and writing box, could set to work wherever his services were required thousands of years before offices existed.
But for all this flexibility, most people who work at home probably spend most of their waking hours marooned at a desk, so it makes sense to work in the lightest, airiest space available. For urbanites confined to small flats and without the space to turn a decent sized room into an office, this probably means making the living room double as work space. But how do you make the double-act work?
Sue Skeen, who lives and works from a loft dazzling in its whiteness and space, with a view racing up the Thames to Tower Bridge, says her number one priority is a big table. "Big enough to do everything from supper for 12 to the year-end accounts." Beside the table she has a bank of three-drawer filing cabinets. "I make them disappear by painting them the same colour as the walls - by hand, not sprayed, so they are the same texture. Everything goes in the drawers at night - receipts, references, cameras, even the laptop."
Hugh Weir, who runs business interests in New Zealand from an apartment in a hyper-fashionable converted industrial building in central London, has taken this out-of-sight out-of-mind approach literally. The area designated as an office in the open-plan living room is a wall about two metres wide housing a set of Vitsoe metal shelves with a beech shelf wide enough to act as a desk, and house fax, phone and computer phones. It can all be shut off behind heavy-duty motorised roller blinds used for garages and shop fronts. "My wife said if we were going to have an office it had to have doors so we could close off the mess," says Mr Weir. "This way you can have all the clutter of an office but if someone rings the doorbell I just have to press the button and by the time I've let them in the office is invisible. You can have dinner here and never know there is an office a few feet away."
Curiously, there is nothing new about this use of space in the home. According to Elisabeth Pelegrin-Genel, author of The Office, (Flammarion, pounds 28) a sumptuously ilustrated new study of the subject, it was only in the 18th century that the division between private and working life came into being and multi-functional rooms began to give way to single-purpose spaces. Along with the arrival of the dining room in the private house came the arrival of the office or study. Just as people expected to be able to eat in a room protected from cooking smells and the rumpus of domestic activities so, too, they wanted a quiet room to work in and the study became commonplace. The revolution in the way we work came in the 19th century, when the office moved out of the home altogether and into the first office buildings. A century later the tide is beginning to turn again. What we can learn from the past is that at home or in an office, it is the quality of the environment that counts.
HOW TO MIX BUSINESS WITH PLEASURE
Bureau (10 Great Newport Street Covent Garden, London WC2H 7JA. 0171 379 7898) is a new stationery shop aiming to cater for the crossover between the home and the office, selling good looking stationery in zingy colours. A4 Filing cabinets (right) are domesticated in scale and not so heavy that they are likely to bore a hole through your house. pounds 59.95 for a two-drawer model.
Habitat reports that although it had stopped bothering with the home office six years ago, customer demand has made it think again. Not that you will find much that looks obviously office-like in its stores. "The home office is important, but people don't want an office in the home," says Gregorio Capra, Habitat's head of design. "They don't want things that look too technical and with the new technology you don't need them. With infra-red connections you don't need desks with channels for cables." People are building big tables that they can work at or eat at. On the Habitat drawing board are multi-functional storage cabinets that could as well be used to store socks or files.
Main picture shows the Vitsoe 606 Universal shelving system, designed by Dieter Rams. This example in beech and metal would cost about pounds 800- 900. Consultation and advice available from Vitsoe (0171-403 5355) for a nominal fee refundable against an order
A refreshingly straightforward desk (above) with a sizeable top and open storage beneath. Prado desk made to order in American oak with casters, pounds 2,070. 1,650 mm wide x 760mm high. Designed by Konstantin Grcic for SCP, 135-139 Curtain Road, London EC2 3BX (0171-739 1869).
At this year's Milan furniture fair, the design world's equivalent of the Paris collections, the hot item was the trolley, a piece of furniture that has hardly been in domestic use since the dream hostess of the Fifties was superannuated. The new trolleys are functional without being too heavy duty, and are made to cross boundaries between home and work, the kitchen or the bathroom. One of the most versatile is the transluscent plastic range (right) designed by Antonio Citerrio for Kartell (pounds 547 on casters, pounds 593 on feet). For distributors phone 0171-258 0600.Reuse content