Larry West is our readers' choice as Best Decorator, so we decided to test his mettle with perhaps the greatest challenge of his 20-year career: re-imagining the Arkansas Times office. If you have never paid a visit to our humble home base, I will briefly paint a picture. The walls veer between drab grey, mustard-beige and off-white — imagine a variety of skin tones of sickly men near death. There are stacks of papers and boxes close to the tipping point at every corner; dozens of unused dilapidated chairs; entire walls unadorned by decoration of any kind; a patchwork of well-stained carpets perhaps older than the Times itself; entire rooms used to store things that no current employee claims; fluorescent lights flickering between those familiar middle-school-classroom ceiling tiles. Everywhere: a faint muskiness.
When told of the idea to get an interior design consult from the Best Decorator winner, Times publisher Alan Leveritt said, "That's like taking a city planner to Berlin in 1945."
Upon arriving at Times HQ, West noted that the office environment seemed to be an odd fit with the spirit of the publication.
"When I think of the Arkansas Times, I think of fun, I think of interesting, I think of out of the box," he said. "When I walk off the elevators, that's not what I get. I feel like I'm maybe at the back office at Home Depot."
West noted that, but for one hallway with framed past issues of the Times (more of that, he suggested), the office had mostly blank walls. Meanwhile, he questioned what actually had been put up. A giant calendar ("boring," he said) was tacked to one wall in the meeting room, but was completely blank. "Do you need that?" he asked. I didn't have a good answer. Meanwhile, in our newsroom, West asked about a 4-by-7-foot white poster board, blank, attached to the wall with a mish-mash of tacks and packing tape. After some investigation, it turns out that Times editor Lindsey Millar put it up a year ago in order to project a power point presentation. It hasn't been used since.
"It's called editing," West said. "That's what we call it just like you would call it. Get all that riff raff out. Use the space that you have."
That also means getting rid of what has affectionately become known around the office as the "furniture graveyard": shabby chairs from various decades, the majority of them broken, most of them without owners.
"It just seems gloomy," West said. "Isn't it gloomy to y'all? You can admit it — it's boring in here. I would want to work in a place that makes me excited."
For the walls, West suggested framed images — classic Times covers, notable photographs from our archives. "I'd have pictures all over the place," he said. "Stuff that's fun. Stuff that's got Arkansas Times written all over it." One staffer's office features a dress that was made out of issues of the Times — West heartily approved.
The whole place would get a paint job, West said. "The color is boring in this whole entire space, that's the first thing I think we should change," he said. West sent over suggestions, a vibrant array of oranges, purples, greens and pastel blues. "Something bright and fun and cheery — not depressing. I feel like I'm going to jump out a window into the river."
West also suggested mid-sized club chairs (cozy and colorful), sleek laptop tables, stylish lamps in lieu of the fluorescent overhead lighting, new carpeting ("something fun") and more attractive commercial insets for the ceiling grids.
"I like the fact that the space is very open," he said. "It just looks junky. This kind of chair, that kind of chair. We just need to clean that up." West said he would aim for "a mix of style: mid-century modern accompanied with a mix of pop art."
Another big one: Shelving mounted to the walls. Anything, West said, to get us out of our current habit of stacking stuff everywhere. Half of our desks (mine included) have assorted stacks of paper. Stacks of overstuffed boxes are everywhere (one set of boxes by my desk is labeled with years from the early 1990s). Two stacks of unread editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspapers in the newsroom form 4-foot-high twin towers.
Again, West suggested going for fun — metal, sleek, brightly colored. "I'd love to see some red shelves in here," he said. "It would look great and you could actually organize and store what you need. If things are in disarray, it makes your perception of what needs to happen off balance."
West's most popular suggestion around the office was one of his simplest. One large room is currently completely unused, cluttered with unoccupied desks, empty boxes, empty shelves and various unwanted knick knacks. Why not convert the space into a lounge, West suggested? It could be a second, more spacious meeting area, plus a place with laptop tables set up for people who want to take a break from the newsroom or their office. Stick an espresso maker in there and you could almost have the vibe of an office coffee shop. Again, said West, it's about "using the space that you have. Here's a blank open space. Right now, there's too much space — shelves, chairs, office space, desks — that are abandoned."
This approach fits with West's design philosophy. "My forte is taking what people have and finding the proper balance and placement," he said.
West has been decorating his whole life. "My mother loves to tell stories of me pushing furniture around when I was like 3 or 4," he said. After a stint working under Little Rock interior decorator Tom Chandler, West struck out on his own in 1995 — West Interiors does both home and commercial projects, predominantly in Arkansas and Texas, but they have done projects in 15 other states as well. Notable projects include all nine of the Dallas-based Campisi's Italian restaurants and major events for the Arkansas Arts Center and the Little Rock Zoo.
West believes that comfort and style lead to more creativity in a work space.
"I think a lot of people don't actually realize it until their space is properly organized and put together," he said. "It really does make a difference. Once they get themselves into an environment where the colors are right, the placement is correct, the organization is where it should be — it just changes people's lives."
Thus far, no word from the bosses on whether we get to put West's plan for the Times office in action. We labor on, our lives unchanged. The broken chairs stare at us, accusingly.