Sunday, February 8, 2009

Slumdog office makeover

John Thain, the morally clueless former Merrill Lynch CEO, famously spent $1.2 million to redecorate his office last year. He shelled out $800,000 for a celebrity designer, $87,000 for an area rug, $28,000 for window curtains, $87,000 for a pair of guest chairs, $25,000 for a mahogany pedestal table, $68,000 for a 19th century credenza, $16,000 for a coffee table, and $1,400 for a parchment wastebasket -- among other things.

Let them eat cake, eh?

Now let me show you, Mr. Thain, how it's done in the grimy realms of lower-middle-class retiree spendthriftiness. I have just thrown around staggering (to me, anyway) sums, and expended many hours of labor, to turn my little home office into the geezer ex-journo version of a plutocratic palace.

It's not exactly boardroom huge, measuring just eight cubits by ten, whatever those are (some people call them "feet"), and it hadn't been redone for 30 years. It took three days of Augean labor to gut it of accumulated crap. Some of it was thrown out but most was consigned to our sumptuous Public Storage warehouse for later sifting and disposal. (Maybe some university somewhere wants to buy my papers? Hello? Anyone?)

Pulling up the worn old carpet was easy enough (although I had to go to the doctor for a tetanus shot owing to a hostile carpet anchor spike) and so was removing the ancient, yellowed fabric-backed wallcovering. Scrubbing off the wallcovering paste cost nothing but buckets of water and hours of sweat.

The three-and-a-half-bedroom suburban mansion containing my home office turned a century old this year. You know what 100 years of foundation settling does to lath-and-plaster walls, and how difficult it is to fix them without their looking like scale models depicting World War I trench warfare.

I should have hired a plasterer, but I did not want to spend more than Mr. Thain did, so performed the task myself, with lots of fiberglass tape, a large bucket of patching plaster and a few dozen sheets of sandpaper. It took a week and a lot of swearing and coughing and itching, but the walls now look as if they had been restored by an expensive Swiss master craftsman, although with the help of a few swigs of schnapps.

At least the walls were smooth enough so that I didn't have to hire another pro to hang new wallcovering that would hide shell craters. That would have added up to at least a thousand bucks. (I'm too old and arthritic to do it myself.)

The plaster job was followed by two coats of primer on the ceiling, walls and me. Next came a quart of white Valspar semigloss latex ($12) on the woodwork (mostly), followed by two applications of Home Depot's most decadently luxurious Behr flat latex ($20 the gallon, but just one gallon) in a light yellow hue called Lemon Souffle.

Then came the wall-to-wall carpet, a sumptuous commercial tweed from the neighborhood Armenian rugman, $550 installed, including shipping. (The pad and the anchor strips were good enough to be reused. Thrift, thrift, thrift.)

This was topped off with a new window shade, a fancy gossamer top-down, bottom-up affair that cost $320 but looks worth half that.

Finally, new furniture: A Craftsman-style oak veneer desk for $500 and a matching six-drawer filing cabinet (I have to store much of that crap where I can get at it) for $600. They came completely unassembled and I had to put them together.

And now for the piece de resistance: An elegant but workmanlike Bed, Bath & Beyond wicker wastebasket, $10.39 after a 20 per cent off coupon.

My labor: 20 hours at a not-quite-master-craftsman $40 per hour, or $800.

The Lady Friend's designer acumen (I have no color sense): priceless.

In all, $2,314.20. (Not including labor.) Henry Thoreau would have been proud.

Let Thain and his fellow banksters eat Twinkies!

And now you know what I have been doing instead of working on Hang Fire.


  1. 8x10? In one of my previous lives, that was the size of the larger cubes (exempt employees) at the corporate employer. Or it was one of the small office for those that just barely rated an office. As a former facility manager in that life, it is amazing what you can do with an 8x10 space.

    So how about some pictures on the other blog of your efforts?

  2. Actually, I lied. It's 7 feet 6 inches by 9 feet 6 inches. I didn't want the plutocrats to feel superior.

  3. It would be great to see a photo - you make me very jealous as we Brits couldn't contemplate spending that kind of money on a home office. Any chance?

  4. When I get the photo frames from Wal-Mart for the pictures above my desk, I'll try taking a few shots -- but an 8x10 room is awfully small for that unless one has a fisheye wide-angle lens, which I don't. I'll give it a try, though.

    Some think the new furniture and carpet an unnecessary expense, but let me tell you, the old desks were too shabby for the Salvation Army and the old carpet looked like the bottom of a cat litter box.

    In any case, the makeover is my one extravagance for the year. It's expensable, too.

  5. Sorry, Henry, if I sounded critical. Far from it I was merely envious as it sounds really great.

  6. Stephen, I didn't take it as critical -- I was trying to justify the cost to myself.

    At first I planned to do the makeover for US$500. Then I realized the carpet would double that figure. Then the old desks looked SO crummy . . . These things always get out of hand and cost four times what one planned. It is an immutable natural law.