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Commentary: Modernizing your office within your means

I can’t tune into HGTV for any length of time because I get too bored, nor can I watch “Extreme Home Makeover” because it makes me cry. I just didn’t get the decorating gene.

But I can and do appreciate appealing surroundings.

At the recent Solo & Small Firm Conference, more than one speaker emphasized the need for an eye-catching, professional-looking office as part of your marketing and branding. People do judge books by their covers, like it or not.

At that same conference I met Nancy Brochhausen, an account executive/interior designer with Creative Business Interiors in Milwaukee and Madison. Her firm has consulted with and helped implement décor and furniture choices for many Wisconsin law firms, from countless one- and two-lawyer firms to Davis & Kuelthau s.c., one of the 10 biggest firms in the state.

Big or small, Brochhausen says all firms are cost-conscious these days, for obvious reasons. But even in a strong economy, professional services firms walk a fine line between wanting to look successful without looking opulent. Clients don’t like to pay for your excess marble and mahogany.

Here are more of Brochhausen’s tips:

Hire a consultant to create a plan only. This is for people like me, who enjoy executing a plan but could never make one themselves.

You’ll benefit from an expert eye, creating a plan with your firm’s branding in mind. For example, Brochhausen’s business card is bright green on the back side. Sure enough, her building’s exterior is adorned with a bold stripe of the same shade.

The plan should be for the long term, for you to follow as time and money allow. By sticking to a plan, you won’t waste money by replacing items that you bought on a whim.

Re-paint. Color is a dramatic way to change the look and feel of an interior. It’s also very inexpensive.

Some of the popular colors these days are green, orange, yellow and brown. If this is triggering nasty flashbacks from the ‘70s, Brochhausen says it should – popular color schemes are in fact cyclical, but they are always re-invented when they re-emerge. For example, “Avocado” has now become “Guacamole.”

Speaking of the disco era, remember that hideous fake wooden paneling?

If you’re still plagued with it, Brochhausen cautions against trying to remove it because you risk ruining the drywall beneath, since it’s probably bonded with industrial-strength adhesive. Moreover, you can’t just paper over it. Like a horror movie, those fake knotty eyes will re-appear.

You can paint over it, but you need to prep the wall first with primer. Or consider highly-textured vinyl wall covering.

Another extremely dated look – this one from the Flock of Seagulls years – is wallpaper borders. They must come down, now.

“Accent walls” have been very popular for several years now, according to Brochhausen. They make the most impact when located on the wall opposite the doorway, so when someone enters your private office, they’re greeted by a warm, inviting splash of color.

Go with carpet tiles, rather than broadloom carpeting. Carpeting is typically sold off huge rolls, cut to fit the room dimensions. This is in contrast with carpet tiles, sold in squares, sometimes 12” by 12”, 18” by 18”, etc.

The attractive feature of tiles is that when they wear out in the high-traffic areas, they can be popped out and replaced with new tiles, Brochhausen says.

The idea is to buy extras and store them until needed. Carpet tiles tend to be well made, and are available at a number of price points. Be advised that they might cost more than broadloom, but over the long haul they’re a better value.

De-clutter. It’s free, and it communicates a great deal to clients about your level of organization. Brochhausen suggests investing in cabinet-style shelving to hide any paper piles.

When furnishing, look for a “signature piece.” This is one piece that stands out from the rest because it is unique, well-made and/or beautiful. Consider this the investment piece; the collateral pieces simply need to look good next to it, and they’re where you can cut corners.

Antiques are great if they accord well with your plan. Hit the consignment stores and estate sales, or send a trusted staff member on that mission.

On that note, it’s a smart idea to keep staff involved in your efforts. Perhaps someone’s hobby is refinishing furniture. Work out some type of deal to tap into their talents.

At one Madison professional services firm, for example, an employee’s hobby is photography. Brochhausen says the firm blew up a number of his photos of the city to decorate the walls. It was inexpensive; its creator is constantly reinforced with compliments; and it demonstrates the firm’s commitment to the community.

Everyone’s favorite place within that office is the “Badger football” room, she notes.

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