Close your eyes and picture the ideal workspace. What do you imagine? Is it a minimalist cell shorn of all distractions, what Hemingway might’ve called “a clean, well-lighted place”? Or is it a cluttered nest: books, papers and other detritus piled in high in a perfectly imperfect system you yourself devised?
Maybe it’s not even a place at all, just a trusted notebook (or smartphone) there to help you realize your ideas.
Whatever workplace you see with your mind’s eye, it’s a rare thing to be able to create it in life. More than likely, you may find yourself making do with what’s available. A “pod” in some company’s open-plan office; a shared studio; a cramped back room or corner of your home.
What’s important is how you set up your space to suit your needs, what chefs call mise en place, or “putting in place.” Think of it as the curation of your area, the perfect selection and placement of tools at your station.
Mise en place goes far beyond making sure you have sharpened pencils nearby, as The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman explained earlier this year. It is, Burkeman noted, “a ritualized alignment of inner and outer environments… an exercise in mindfulness and deepening of concentration.” And it can make the difference between procrastination and productivity, frustration and flow.
What follows is a series of snapshots of some of favorite creative peoples’ workspaces and their explanations for how and why they designed their own mises en place.
I have five stations within this one space. I have a drawing table. A collaborative space. A computer space, a little digital area. And I have a little living room space where I hang out and eat and drink. One other space is super important: I now have space to paint again, where I can do stuff I haven’t imagined yet.
I have a lot of books and magazines and I like to look at them. I have so many damn books! I can’t let them go.
There are these two pictures I’ve always had and brought everywhere with me. They’re both important visual memories that have a lot to do with my sense of purpose. Anyone else who sees them would just think they’re another image on the wall.
I have a certain backpack that I use. I have the same sketch book, 9 x 12. I have hundreds of Micron pens that all halfway used. I’ve used the same set of paints for five years. They’re a total mess, but I keep refilling them. They’re always with me if I travel or I'm in the studio.
It’s definitely a social space when I invite people over, however, I’m an only child: I do not share well. It has to be on my terms.
It’s tough having a studio space in New York: Real estate is so expensive and there’s a lot of compromise involved. I share my studio with two other people and there’s constant negotiations. It takes a lot of collaboration to make the space work right.
I’m a thoughtful person. I’m intuitive and my spaces are set up to work. How can I use it as it is and make the most work possible and the best work possible in this space? I’ve always been interested in constraints: I like using the constraints as they are. I’m definitely in the make-do camp. I do feel lucky at the same time because I think I have more space than a typical person at my level. I can’t say that it’s set up perfectly, but I would say that this set up is a first set up. It’s sort of a learning opportunity for me to figure out what I’d like for the future. It’s making what I have work.
I don’t bring other artwork into the space. I don’t have internet in the studio. I typically listen to NPR or music on my phone. Being alone is an interesting part of it. Before I started doing this on my own, I worked for an artist for a while. There was a team of us and ceramics lends itself to conversation. It’s actually a great activity for conversation. Being alone isn’t a necessity for me, but it’s happening now; sometimes I joke about hiring somebody just to talk to me.
I have this thing I made at another studio. It’s a lump of clay that I hollowed out and fired and lustered. It’s this golden lump of clay. That’s something I’ll always have with me and I’ll never sell. It’s sort of a good luck charm.
I share the space with a crafter and paper artist. We both have tons of stuff. We’re both also collectors. He’s completely organized in white and black boxes that are all labeled. I’m crammed in old wood boxes and wire baskets. I like to look at shit.
I have so many supplies, I’m constantly grabbing for them. As many different types of awls as I can handle, erasers. My tools always tend to take over my desk. I like to have them all spread out. I tried to condense them all to a corner, but it’s too far to reach.
I’ve had a studio for twelve years and I’ve always had that photo of the woman in the swimsuit. I don’t know who she is, but I love her energy. I bought her at a flea market in New York. The frame I got in France 8 or 10 years ago. She used to just be pinned up.
I’m a word person. I love phrases and quotes and singular words. It’s a relief to look up and see what’s been done before or what’s out there. I can bring my eyes up and get lost in this other world. It’s like somebody’s diary.
I don’t use a computer. It’s really distracting. I usually turn my phone on silent. I have my iPod, which I still call my walkman. I listen to the same album from 2008 over and over. I listen to Volcano Choir. I listen to Girl Talk. I love listening to hardcore rap when I’m working, Florence and the Machine, Perfume Genius.
We happen to be in a building that’s 100 years old this year. It was a bank before it was turned into offices. There are artists, moviemakers, sound people, tattoo artists. You can feel all that.
We have five other offices in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Atlanta. (Next is Dallas.) We didn’t need to remodel, we needed to move, so we built-out a space in Playa Vista. It’s the original mail sorting facility for Los Angeles: 70,000 square feet. Our folks have more space here.
Collaboration is one of our core values, one of the things we live and breathe. We were very thoughtful about having one central kitchen so there are places you’d naturally run into people. The impact has been huge. Before we were across four floors and there wasn’t a lot of bumping into people. Now things are much more spontaneous and collaborations happen easier. I now run into folks way more often than I used. A lot more conversations are happening.
Our individual workspaces and everything in the new space was built with sustainability in mind. Plant walls with local plants. A lot of materials that are items you’d naturally see in your house. We didn’t want it to seem too corporate or work-like. A lot of the wood is reclaimed from an old barn. In all our common spaces we have chalk walls for people to draw on.
What’s special about my space is that while most of work is done on computer screens, I’ve held onto my adjustable drafting table. I work better with the tools I learned back in the dark ages. I get frustrated working on the computer: Sometimes you want to zoom back like on the physical drawing.
Although my space is mostly a mess of things I’m supposed to be doing, nothing gets the creative process started like cleaning the drawing board of all the piles and rolling out a fresh piece of paper. Things build up. It’s a good way to clear out the sense of constraints that come with the technical side of buildings.
Quotes based on interviews and emails that have been edited and condensed. Photos sent by interviewees.
OUR WORKSPACES THIS WEEK