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The Mod Squad

Cumbersome office furniture is a crime--modular to the rescue.

Think of your office space as a canvas in need of painting. You don't have to approach it haphazardly like Jackson Pollack, splattering a hodgepodge of desks and furniture all over the place. However, you also don't have to approach it aesthetically like a "traditional" painter, hiring an interior designer to give it all a sense of cohesion. Simply investing in modular office furniture will give your office a uniform appearance and offer flexibility for future rearrangement or expansion.

Buying components from a modular office furniture line is like picking from a restaurant menu where you know everything will taste good together. The hutch will match and fit the desk; the file cabinet will go snugly alongside; the peninsula will be perfectly proportioned-and you can always move the hutch to another desk or add a peninsula a year down the line when one of your employees needs more space.

With all that in mind, let's now consider your options individually:

Desks: The anchor for any modular setup is the workstation. At its most basic, it's just a desk. Likely, this is where employees will park their computers, peripherals and individual office supplies (as well as themselves). Some workstations come as more complex packages. They may include a CPU cabinet, a file drawer or media storage. If a particular piece doesn't come standard, it's probably available separately. Put several workstations together, and you can construct a homogenous workgroup space. If everybody has the same furniture, there certainly won't be any "desk envy."

Desks are often available in various sizes. In the Sauder Office Works Series 3000, for example, you have your choice of 36-, 48-, 60- or 72-inch desks, with prices ranging from $190 to $370. Some are also designed to fit into a corner. The Bush Mod 4000 collection includes a $149 (all prices street) corner desk.

Components: The main options you'll find to complement your workstation are hutches, peninsulas, file cabinets and storage drawers. You can mix and match on a desk-by-desk basis to make the most efficient use of space. We'll look at the Bush Mod 4000 collection to get an idea of a typical pricing structure.

Hutches offer vertical space without sacrificing desk area. Adding a short hutch to a 40-inch Mod 4000 desk will set you back about $99. Adding a corner hutch to a corner desk costs about $79. A peninsula attached to the main desk is the quickest way to expand working space. One peninsula will get you an ample L-shaped working area. Two peninsulas can create an even larger U-shaped configuration. The Mod 4000 collection expands by attaching desks together with a $49 corner connector.

A three-door Mod 4000 file cabinet costs $140. Like many of the model lines in our chart, it comes with casters and lockable drawers and easily fits beneath the desk. In the miscellaneous storage department, a CPU or printer shelf costs $30.

The more expensive Sauder Office Works Series 3000 offers even more customizable options. The product line includes matching bookcases, storage armoires, keyboard drawers and pencil drawers. Those options are ideal for outfitting well-synchronized executive offices.

Panels: To divide up a large space into smaller working spaces, you'll want to check into panels. They may conjure up images of the dreaded '90s cubicle phenomenon, but they're still the most affordable way to create privacy among multiple work spaces in the same room. The Knoll Equity line offers a flexible panel system that can be paired with a wide range of work surfaces. The Kimball Interworks series is a similar system.

Panel systems are more than just glorified dividers. When you're installing lots of desks in one room, you have to deal with getting power to all the individual computers and peripherals. Running extension cords all over the floor is just asking for trouble. Look for a panel system that's designed to help corral the cables. The Knoll Equity panels, for example, sport built-in raceways for power or communications wiring and come with a lifetime warranty.

Other features to look for include the stackability and acoustical nature of the panels. Stackability involves adding extensions to the top of the panels to vary their height. Acoustical panels will absorb sound to help keep conversations and phone calls from floating all over the room. These are a good ways to increase privacy.

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This article was originally published in the May 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Mod Squad.

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