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Computer Furniture
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Computers are creating a revolution in home decoration and furnishings, but on a modest scale compared to the advances of the computer itself . Manufacturers of home furnishings are turning to new (and variations on old) ideas to create user friendly computer work stations capable of being converted into beautiful pieces of furniture. At the same time, computer businesses such as CompUSA have bowed away from selling computer furniture. Until about a year ago, when IBM introduced the black IBM Aptiva, computers, came in only one basic color--"putty" says Carol Elfstrom of CompUSA. Today, manufacturers such as Monorail and Compaq turn out black computers, and perhaps a variety of colors will pop up in the future.

As consumers looks for decorative ways to bring their new computers into the home environment, they're turning to the home furnishing industry, which is responding with new designed desks and some new twists on old fashioned furniture. Desks for computers began showing up on floors of home decorating stores about five years ago according to both Dick Lewis, president of Adele Hunt, founded in 1946, and Brad Weirs, general manager of Weirs Furniture, founded in 1948 by Brad's grandfather, now 86 years old. The biggest trend seen by Lewis is a shift in style of office furniture to accommodate the computer primarily by closing and hiding the unit and all its components--monitor, printer, tower, keyboard, and discs--with manufacturers looking first to function and second to eye appeal.

The Computer, the Piano and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

The disturbing fact that computers, like no other tool, requires us to go through the exact same motions over and over again, sometimes for hours at a time, days in a row, means that small imperfections in the placement of the computer monitor and keyboard might lead to strains and injuries we're only just beginning to see, says Todd Stauffer (, co-host of Disk Doctors, which airs on JEC Knowledge TV (33b) on Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., host of Radio Peak (airs on Sundays on Denver's Real Talk 630 KHOW), and author of more than ten books on computing including Easy Ameria On-Line, Creating Your Own Ameria On Line Web Pages and a new book due in July-Using Netscape Composer. The most debilitating problem arising so far is carpal tunnel syndrome, an injury that leaves the hands, wrists and forearms weak and aching. To help correct this condition--a condition plaguing many concert pianists and often necessitating a change in career goals--requires therapy and perhaps surgery.

"Many early attempts at computer work stations began with the incorrect assumption that computers and typewriters were very much alike-meaning it was possible to put a computer in the same space as a typewriter, usually on a return or to the side of a writing desk," said Stauffer. "Other approaches encouraged potentially harmful posture, high keyboard positioning and high monitors. Especially popular in the early stages (and still available) were desks designed to raise monitors to a height that allowed the computer itself or the keyboard to slide under the monitor. Unfortunately, these designs often place the monitor at a level higher than is comfortable for extended use. Many other early attempts took typical writing desks and tried to repurpose them (or dual-purpose them) for computers. Desks designed to position computer monitors off to one side, for instance, encourage poor typing and computer-work habits, as do desks that force you to place the keyboard at writing-table height."


The increasing number of cases of carpal tunnel syndrome brought ergonomics into the computer field about ten years ago. Ergonomics is an applied science of design that relates the human body to the positions of surrounding objects to ensure comfort and safety.

"There is some generally-accepted advice that might help people set up slightly healthier work stations," said Stauffer.

"A monitor should be placed so that the top of the screen is about eye level. Some suggest odd angles for monitors, but a flat table is generally acceptable. When setting up a monitor, it's important to consider all the light sources that could affect it-bright light should come from neither directly in front of the monitor screen (producing glare) or directly behind the screen (forcing the user to look into that light). The monitor should be placed directly in front of the user and the keyboard. Sitting in a slightly-angled position to view a monitor placed to the side might have a profound impact on muscles all over the upper body. Consider how stiff you might feel if you drove your car for four hours while looking out the left side window," says Stauffer.

"It's also suggested that users maintain approximately 90-degree angles in elbow and knee joints. That means a keyboard tray or similar device that allows you to type at a level below the typical writing-table height. Many people make the mistake of using a well-positioned keyboard for typing, then reaching across their desk for the computer's mouse. This could be harmful; a computer mouse should be positioned at the same height as the keyboard, and within reach of the keys. Some people find great success in easing wrist tension by using a mouse with their non-dominant hand (left hand for right-handed people) or devices that require fewer repetitive motions like digital sketch pads or finger-controlled trackpads."

"Feet should reach the floor and the chair should provide good back support," says Stauffer. For best results, he advises frequent breaks for exercise and relaxation.


All desks manufactured these days accommodate the computer and are probably the best choices for the home office or the serious computer user. Prices begin at $398 for a small desk and go up with desk size and features to $10,000 at Weirs. Adele Hunt also offers a range of desks. Notable is a large formal desk on sale at half price over $2200. Individually priced stackable hutches starting at $198 can be added to the desks to create small or large wall units. Wicks Furniture offers four-piece home office centers from $400 to $1200, and Havertys advertises computer desks and hutches from $600 to $1400. Weirs offers a three-piece wall unit in cherry face veneers and maple solids with an attached two sided desk with ample desk surface. This unit, manufactured by Hooker, designers of bedroom, dining room and entertainment furniture, sells for $2000.

Linen Press Converted to Computer-TV Unit

Debra Foreman at Adele Hunt converted an antique reproduction linen press (historically used for stacking linens) from its designated design as an entertainment center into a dual office-home entertainment center holding both a computer and a TV for a young couple living in an apartment.

"They knew that they would not stay in the apartment very long, and they wanted something really nice that they would continue to use down the line," said Foreman. "This piece accommodated their computer and their TV because nobody was using the computer the same time they were watching TV."


Armoires (historically used for hanging clothes before the use of closets) have been converted to entertainment centers and most recently into computer work stations, according to Weir. But for serious computer users and those people considering a home office, Foreman doesn't recommend the armoire because of the limited desk top space in units with pull out work surfaces and lower storage space that eliminates knee room. Yet for those people without extra home office space but with a spare bedroom, the armoire can be closed off when guests are using the room. And even moderate to serious users, may find the armoire adequate for their needs, especially an armoire with an appealing wood inlaid doors made of cherry and maple solids, leafy heart cherry, swirly mahogany or crotch mahogany and ebony veneers. Hekman Furniture, makers of many different kinds of furniture, manufactures this larger armoire home office work station with a pull out work surface and roll away chair that sells for $2695 at Weirs.

Computer Roll Top Desks

The old fashioned roll top desk with a tambor that pulls down and covers the desk surface is now made bigger and taller to accommodate towers, larger monitors and even printers in what might become a computer user's dream desk equipped with CD ROM and diskette storage, and left and right mouse pads. The desk top surface accommodates a hutch for even more organized storage space. The 54" unit of solid oak and oak veneers manufactured by Winners Only Inc. sells for $1298 at Weirs. Weirs sells these desks to people who are not serious computer users, but serious users might also consider the ample storage space in this unit useful. Winners Only Inc., primarily a desk manufacturing business, is branching into dinettes. And a roll top desk may work well in the dining room. Foreman has been in new homes with a fourth room close to the kitchen- a room additional to the dining room, breakfast area and utility- a room which could accommodate a small home office and perhaps the roll top desk.

Desks with Concealed Monitors

For the past three to five years, Hekman manufactured a desk that conceals the monitor beneath the desk top surface close to the knees. A glass cover flush with the desk surface allows the user to look down onto the monitor, which is positioned at an angle facing up. At a cost of $998, the desks were popular according to Weir. But a dispute over contract patent has recently taken them off the market.

Children and Computers

Children love computers, and Weir sees many families buying computer furniture for the family room or children's room specifically for use by children. Most families buy the smaller, less expensive oak desks, says Weir. And ninety percent of children's bed room furniture sets include a computer desk, i.e., a desk with a large work surface for a screen, terminal, and keyboard.


Choosing a chair is a matter of comfort and creating a pleasant environment around the desk. Whether the user wants a small chair on rollers or a larger chair, perhaps a leather chair, is personal preference. But the chair should have adequate back support, according to Stauffer. Consumer Reports surveyed a number of computer chairs in the September 1996 issue. However, the best advice is to sit in the chair at the store. If the chair is not comfortable, don't buy it because, unlike a shoe that may stretch-even then you shouldn't buy an ill-fitting shoe, an ill-fitting chair will never grow comfortable.

"The decision to purchase a computer is often a gradual one," says Stauffer, one that usually depends on the nature of a person's work and its spill over into the home environment, the presence of children who often force their parents into buying computers, and many other factors. Yet, once purchased, the computer becomes a fascination that grows beyond the basics. And what binds the user to the computer is furniture, also made as a gradual purchase. But because computer furniture functions beyond comfort and can even impact your health, you should purchase carefully.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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