“Did you restore it?” asked a friend, on hearing my name in connection with the desk standing beside her. We’d just run into each other for the first time in several years. I had not restored the desk; I’d designed and built it. Some woodworkers might have resented her question, but I took it as a compliment: evidence that my work had fit right into place.
Part 1: Design
The project began in the fall of 2010. When a full-time security guard was added to the staff of Bloomington’s Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center, it became apparent that the lobby would need a larger reception desk. Paul Daily, the center’s Artistic Director, hoped to find a desk that would fit the period architectural character of the lobby in the 1915 building, originally constructed as City Hall.
In addition to this aesthetic directive, there were a few other requirements.
- The desk would need to occupy a minimum of space, since the floor of the lobby is relatively short and narrow, with staircases at each end.
- Its finish would have to be durable, since the center hosts frequent receptions.
- The desk would have to be constructed in such a way that it could be disassembled and moved out of the lobby if necessary.
- It would also have to comply with various ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements.
Since the desk was for an educational institution, I decided to view it as a project that could educate members of the public about using locally produced and repurposed lumber, along with other aspects of the contemporary artisanal furniture business.
Elizabeth Schlemmer, Genealogy Library Manager at the Monroe County History Center, searched for records of the lobby’s original appearance. Although she could not find images, her volunteer assistants, Lee Ehman and Randi Richardson, discovered an article in the Bloomington Daily World from 1915 that includes a general description of the space.
Elizabeth also searched for images of reception desks in other local municipal buildings of similar vintage but found none.
Lacking a local model, I searched online for “1915 reception desk” and came across a site specializing in pictures of early 20th-century offices. I printed out a variety of images from 1915 to 1917. To my eye, only one was right for the Ivy Tech John Waldron lobby, the original use of which, as City Hall, would have called for restrained dignity rather than humble functionality or pretentious display. At a meeting with Ivy Tech staff members Paul Daily, Julie Anne Roberts, Trina Sterling, and Eric Reynolds, there was consensus (even before I voiced my preference) that the desk at the left side of this French image had just the right aesthetic:
Of course, this new desk would require a few changes to make it practical for 21st-century use–a pair of gates to keep out curious children; angled ends to ease the flow of between-class traffic in the lobby’s limited space; and some type of structural element at the outside corners to signal the counter’s protrusion to visually impaired individuals who rely on a walking stick for guidance.
Coming next: The Lumber