Office surplus

"My favorite desk, a grey Steelcase table, I found in that warehouse"


“Where did you get this desk?” I asked a friend. It was a sturdy Steelcase desk, vintage, in very good condition. 

“The state surplus store,” she said. This was 15 years ago in Austin, Texas, the capital of the state, which was - and is - filled with vast acres of bureaucratic offices. The surplus store turned out to be a warehouse near the railroad tracks, roofed with corrugated metal, dark inside like a tomb. 

All of the mutant species of office chairs were there, dying in rows. So many desks they had to be stacked three high, some of them huge oak desks that would probably keep you safe from falling bombs. Clocks, printers, lamps. Globes, actual globes. Coat racks, umbrella stands. The surplus store was sort of like a museum, more like a junkyard.

Once I found a coffee table pitted with wedge-shaped holes where some bureaucrat had dropped their pocket knife blade, thousands of times. Customized by their boredom. 

My favorite desk, a grey Steelcase table, I found in that warehouse. 

Some of the furniture in that Texas kringloop came from ordinary office renovation. Most of it was wreckage from the digital revolution, which made obsolete everything necessary for containing and organizing piles of paper. Stacks of filing cabinets, boxes of calculators, staplers, paper punches. You could even buy leftover paper, reams of thick creamy stationery. (I have some of that somewhere too.) 

My wife and I recently had to spend an hour in an office, an actual office, to sign some papers in person, and I’d forgotten how much office furniture, no matter how stylish, looks like it already belongs in a second-hand warehouse, especially after 14 pandemic months of working at home. In that time, I’ve been in exactly five offices, three of them medical providers, this last one a notary office, where we signed papers to buy a house - in which I will have a room to work in, finally, not an office but a room for living that will never be obsolete. 

Michael Erard, data science funding specialist and grant writer at the Institute of Data Science

Office surplus
columnist Michael Erard