Build an organized home office without permanently modifying the room

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If you live in an apartment where you can’t make permanent changes or in a 60-year-old house with 4″-thick plaster-and-lathe walls that make finding the wall studs impossible like I do, you may have thought a wall organizer unit and desk like the one in the photo was impossible for you.  Usually this type of setup requires you to screw the metal uprights into the wall studs, but elfa solves the problems I have with their free-standing line.  I was looking at The Container Store‘s online site when I found the elfa shelving catalog.  You could design a wall-mounted unit or free-standing unit online, but I decided to let someone at the nearby Container Store location do the dirty work for me.

I knew how I wanted my desk to look, so I took my rough sketch to the Raleigh store, and Anissa helped me fine-tune my ideas.  For example, while a 20″-deep shelf works well for the desktop, the shelves above should be only about 12″-deep to allow headroom and light for working at the desk.  Anissa handled designing the unit after we had finalized all the details, let me approve the design, and then sent us out for lunch while she pulled all the parts.  An hour later, we went back to the store, and someone brought everything out and helped us load up the car.  All the shelves, the metal uprights, and the feet for the unit were either in boxes or wrapped in plastic to protect them until they were installed.  The hardware and other smaller pieces were stored in a couple of re-usable non-woven bags with the elfa logo.

Construction of the unit took about 15 minutes; it was greatly simplified by the personalized instruction booklet that was printed out just for my design.  There are also some instructional videos online; I found the one for installing the stabilization crossbars to be “worth a thousand words.”  The only tools required were a mallet to hammer the top supports in and the tiny, included aluminum wrench to adjust the levelers on the feet.  Everything else just clicked together by hand, and the hardest part was making sure we put the shelf supports at the same position on each upright.  (We just counted positions on each post.)  It was a two-person job, not because the parts were all that heavy or because it was difficult, but simply because you needed someone to hold the uprights… well, upright… while the top support was hammered in.

My original unit included only the center section with the drawers and the desk section seen on the right.  After we got it installed, my husband started pining for a desk of his own.  I simply used the parts list to go online and order the parts I needed to add the left desk section.  I could have had them shipped to my house, but I instead had the Raleigh store pull everything for me.  It’s a 1.5 hour drive, so everything was ready for me when I got there.  It took only a few minutes to add the second desk to the already assembled unit.

After using everything for a few days, I placed another order (that I did have shipped to me) with another set of integrated bookends, a few back stop bars to prevent things from falling off the back of the shelves, and a couple of plastic storage boxes to organize pens, markers, and similar small things in the mesh drawers.  I’ve tried every method possible for purchasing elfa products from The Container Store now.

The entire desk unit wasn’t cheap, but I feel it was very reasonably priced.  The original two-section unit with one desk and the drawer unit was about $620.  I added the second desk unit and an extra 8″-deep shelf for the knee space under my desk for $175.  All the back stop bars, bookends, and three plastic storage boxes added another $35 to the cost of the unit.  The quality of the components make me think I’ll be using this unit for many, many years to come.  The unit looks nice in my mid-century modern-style room, and it certainly cost less than an original George Nelson wall unit would have, assuming I could have even found one for sale.

The only thing I’d change about the unit would be a small tweak to the mesh drawers.  You can see in the picture that the drawers don’t hide the contents, and you can see that my “junk” doesn’t lend itself to neat arrangements in the drawers.  I wish you could add a wood or metal front to the drawers to disguise the mess inside.

I have added some other organizational items to the shelves, some I already had and some I purchased.  You’ll also see I’ve added some decorative items and even some Orb Audio speakers to my upper shelves.  The top drawer has an expanding acrylic organizer for pencils and the like, and I used some 3M Command cable guides on backs of the uprights and shelves to keep all the cables and power cords organized.  The two desk chairs are the Flat Bungee Office Chair with Arms, also from the Container Store.

I love the look of the elfa desk unit I built, and can’t imagine how it could be better suited for my needs.

UPDATE (Jan 2015):  I still use and love my elfa desk.  I’m working at it right now, and it still looks and functions as well today as it did when I wrote this post.  I love it so much that I’ve gone a little overboard with elfa systems in my new house.  I also have a giant elfa bookcase in the office with my desk; it also functions as a stand for my husband’s 88-key electronic piano.  We also have an elfa desk in our daughter’s room and another in the kitchen for use as storage and a workspace, elfa shelving systems in two closets, elfa over-the-door racks on our pantry and utility room doors, and two shelving systems in the kitchen.  They aren’t cheap, but they are worth every penny.

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8 thoughts on “Build an organized home office without permanently modifying the room”

  1. Gadgeteer Comment Policy - Please read before commenting
  2. Janet Cloninger

    Thanks, Julie! Yes, the chairs are very comfy. I was afraid the bungees would have too much “give”, and it would be like sitting in a hammock. It’s not like that at all. It’s like sitting in a normal chair, and it’s very supportive for my back. The only time I noticed it wasn’t a normal chair was when I was sick recently. Coughing fits made the seat start bouncing. 🙂

  3. The Elfa system is great – I’ve used it several places around the house. As a note: The same system can be mounted on the wall, for those of us who are allowed to do such things. They also have some great hangers for garage/sports items as well, that integrate with the system. (I also like their behind-the-door racks – those are non-permanent as well.)

    Oh, and as a sidenote: The Container Store usually puts the Elfa system on sale every February, so if you are planning long-term…

  4. @Janet – I saw those bungee chairs at The Container Store as well. Was deciding to get one but wasn’t sure if the bungee will stretch out over time. How long have you used those for?

  5. Janet Cloninger

    @Jackie I’ve only had mine a couple of month, but the bungees seem to be as tight as when I first got it. I assumed that they’d eventually start to stretch out over time, too, but they haven’t started yet. I can tell no difference between mine and my husband’s, which we’ve had only about 2 weeks.

  6. Every January, Elfa is 30% off at the Container Store. Best deal ever. I have the freestanding unit also. Easy to install and very functional!

  7. Bouncing chairs would be too much fun for me. I would spend all day bouncing in them and not get any work done.

  8. @Andrew Baker Bouncing in the chairs did make for a nice break! I found that they were very comfortable for working for 3-4 hours. After that, they caused pressure on one of my hip joints that hurt so bad I wanted to scream. My daughter wanted one of the white bungee chairs for her desk, and my husband and I got those vintage Steelcase chairs in my “what’s on my desk” post.

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