Debra Prinzing

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Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Recently, I’ve been entranced with a book called Tony Duquette, which is a 2-inch-thick coffee table photo-biography about the design life of the iconic Hollywood interior, costume and set designer by the same name.

Known for his innovative use of materials that others may not value (cast-offs from old movie sets, flea market finds, repurposed and salvaged goods), Tony Duquette embraced the potential and possibility in everything around him. He seemed to see the higher and better use of even the most prosaic object. Case in point was the description of a garage he and his wife Beedle Duquette, a painter, appropriated for entertaining. According to the book’s authors Wendy Goodman and Hutton Wilkinson,

” . . . Tony believed garages to be a useless waste of space and always converted his into sitting rooms.” He was quoted as saying: “When the party is over, just roll up the rug and drive the car in. It’s really the only thing to do in a house as small as this one.”

I’ve long admired this level of practicality combined with architectural artistry. While paging through Alex Johnson’s awesome new book Shedworking, I realized that Duquette’s inventiveness has a modern-day companion – the self-employed individual setting up shop in a garage-as-workspace. It’s an idea as compelling as the 1960s hipster and his garage-turned-party room.

Here's Alex's home-office where it all started

Alex Johnson, a Shedworking evangelist

In Shedworking: The Alternative Workplace Revolution (Frances Lincoln, 160 pages; 150 color photos, $29.95), Alex finds and documents an entire community of people for whom the useful shed is a way of life.

Ever since we first “met” online in 2006, while I was writing and creating my U.S. take on this trend in Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, I’ve been waiting for this book’s arrival – to add to my Shed Inspiration bookshelf.

Like his popular blog, also called “Shedworking,” Alex’s Shedworking is a compilation of the many ways that people can make a living in a nontraditional environment. Alex coined the term “Shedworking” in 2005 and he has been reporting on this not-so-quiet revolution ever since, including with the publication of an online magazine called “The Shed” that addresses the needs of at-home workers.

I love, of course, the structures called “Garden Offices,” which seem to so naturally occupy arboretum-like or city-vegetable patch environments. There are also some amazing cutting-edge architectural examples and mini-profiles of famous “shed owners,” such as Henry Moore. History gets into the pages of Shedworking, with a visit to Walden Pond and a replica of the famous cabin (okay, let’s call it a “shed”) from which Henry David Thoreau issued his own manifesto about living, creating and cohabiting with nature.

“Over the last decade we have seen an evolution of the office workplace,” Alex writes in his introduction. “A small shed which once only housed lawnmowers and pots can now be insulated from the cold, fitted with its own electrics, and can link you to anywhere in the world.”

You can tell that Alex and I are kindred spirits, since I endorse much the same approach to reimagining the garden shed in my own book. While I focus on the design, repurposing and artfulness of the structures (inside and out), Alex puts a big emphasis on the functionality of the sheds he profiles. Yet the designs in his “Best Sheds” chapter totally wow me. There are some cool American-made pre-fabricated structures, including the Kithouse, Modern Cabana and Modern Shed, three structures I reviewed last year for Dwell magazine, and the Nomad Yurt, which I reviewed here when it was first exhibited in Los Angeles in 2008.

But there are countless surprises in style and sustainability. Take a look at TSI (Transportable Space One), a mirrored structure that reflects the garden surroundings, designed by an Australian firm. Or the “Orb,” which is soon to come into production. It is a lightweight oval with four adjustable legs, a modern-day caravan-like structure. Another dazzling “pod” for the contemporary home-worker: The Loftcube, designed by a team in Berlin, is a glass-and-wood combo that can be “helicoptered onto your roof” to create a skyscraping rooftop office.

The contents of Alex’s “Best Sheds” chapter are pretty breathtaking. You can come down to earth a little bit by reading his “Build Your Own” chapter. This section is for DIYs (do-it-yourselfers) or those who have an idea and hire a specialist to help execute it. Alex’s sidebar: “How I set up my own garden office,” is engaging and personal – fun way to get to know this talented writer and fellow shed aficionado. “9 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself before You Start Building Your Own Shed” is another very useful checklist. It was written by John Coupe, civil engineer and owner of

Naomi and James once lived in this structure for six months while constructing their new home.

I’m also pleased to see that Alex published and profiled Naomi Sachs’s office shed in Beacon, New York. Naomi, an expert in therapeutic landscape design, and I corresponded back in 2007 when I was working on my Shed book – and I’m still disappointed that I never got to visit her studio/shed while my collaborator Bill Wright and I were working on the East Coast. It’s nice to see the soulful structure Naomi and her partner James Westwater created show up here. (I’ve added Naomi to my ever-growing list entitled: “The ones that got away” – cool shed environments we wish could have been included in Stylish Sheds). Oh well!

A subsequent chapter covers “At Work in the Shed,” with snapshots of the vocational uses for a shed (including a filmmaker, designer, architect, journalist, web developer, painter, letterpress artist, academic, massage therapist, writer, cheese maker, sculptor, jewelry maker, management consultant and novelist).

“But does shedworking actually work?” Alex asks his readers. “Is it more than an attractive ideal? Can you run a successful business from your back garden? The pleasing answer is yes. . . . many people who are alternative workplace revolutionaries not only enjoy the micro commute to work and the chance to fill up the bird feeder on the way, they also make money.”

“The Green Shedworker” features sustainable building and design ideas, green roofs, tree house sheds, and a sidebar on “Five ways to incorporate your garden office into your garden.” Naturally, I agree with the wonderful tips shared here, including this one: “aim for the studio style to be in keeping with the garden, so for example a modern studio for a modern garden.”

Alex turns his attention to future shed trends as he wraps up Shedworking. These chapters reveal his progressive outlook on the changing work environment. A true visionary, Alex thinks big; he sees the potential where others see the hard-to-achieve. He pushes the envelope when it comes to workplace design and is a shed missionary in the most inspiring sense of the word.

“Beyond the Garden Office” is a chapter that looks at futuristic ideas for the workplace, the virtual office and the mobile lifestyle. From retro Air Stream trailers to working environments on canals, by the seaside or in a London Tube train, Alex’s examples dissolve assumptions and say to the reader:

“The truth is that neither size nor location matter when it comes to setting up as a shedworker. . . the future is shedshaped, psychologically, even if not physically.”

A final chapter is even more forward thinking, as it explores the landscape normally occupied by policymakers. The small structure (aka Shed) used for emergency housing, low-carbon-footprint environments and other residential off-grid experiments are ones that fascinates Alex Johnston.

His benediction of sorts is to urge those trapped in an office cubicle to view the Shed-Office as Nirvana:

“. . . for many office workers who can’t remember the last time they had lunch away from their desk or who never see natural light during the day, (the shed) is a beacon of hope.”

Do you have the most stylish shed in the world?

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Uncle Wilco, my UK penpal who presides over We*heart*Sheds and Readershed blogs, has announced his 2009 Shed of the Year Contest.

I encourage anyone who owns a backyard shed to log onto his site and enter. Submit your photographs – we need international participation, folks!

Of course, I am angling to be tapped for the popular competition’s “International Guest Judge” slot, but I may have to butter up Uncle Wilco with chocolate chip cookies (or more likely, a keg of good English ale). I’m not sure what it takes to bribe these Brits, but flattery and admiration should help, right? He shouldn’t forget that I’m the gal who named him the “Bad Boy of Sheds” – a term of endearment, of course.

Here are some details on last year’s winner, a decidedly Man Cave sort of place that is part shed-part pub (pictured above). Very cool – congratulations, Tim!

Here’s Uncle Wilco’s official announcement:

Take Part in Shed of the Year 2009

“Do you have a garden shed that is unique?” asks Uncle Wilco, head sheddie of

“Maybe it’s your own little bolthole away from the trials of life. Maybe you have converted your humble garden building into a pub, or are a treehugger at heart and are building an eco shed, or maybe it’s just a normal wooden building that’s special to you.”

If you as a sheddie are proud of your shed then now’s the time to enter this year’s ‘Shed of the Year’ competition, which takes place during the third National Shed Week commencing July 6th 2009.

Entries are already flooding in for Shed of the Year 2009 and you can add your shed online using this link

This year’s celebrity judges are Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans, shed fancier and property guru Sarah Beeny and shed-based inventor of the windup radio, Trevor Baylis. They will be joined by shedworking expert Alex Johnson from, eco architect Lloyd Alter, and Uncle Wilco, head sheddie from and organiser of National Shed Week.

Together they will be deciding if your shed will make the grade and take the top shed crown.

[Hint to Wilco: What about DEBRA as your guest North American judge?!!!]

Following a public vote starting June 2009 which will produce a shortlist of winners, the judges will pick their “Shed of the Year 2009” during National Shed Week itself.

Last year’s winner was Tim from Suffolk with his amazing octagonal Pub Shed. Sheddies can join Tim – whose shed was featured in national newspapers and on television – and the hundreds of other sheddies by ‘sharing your shed’ on the internet’s favourite shed fan site,

Last year there were more than 800 sheds fighting for the title of Shed of the Year from garden pubs, TARDIS sheds, allotment sheds, ones hand made from English Oak, cabins, summerhouses and even a shed on wheels.

National Shed Week 2008 was mentioned both on-line and off-line by national and international press.

Comments included:

“The excitement! The anticipation! Shed Week 2008 starts on Monday, and we sheddies are in a frabjous state. Shed Week celebrates the importance of the shed, hut or gazebo in our culture as a place of refuge, storage and amusement” – The Times

“I can say that Tim in Suffolk did a wonderful job with his pub shed, with complex framing and difficult trapezoidal skylights” Lloyd Alter – treehugger

“All things shed-like are being celebrated up and down the country.” -Radio 4’s Women’s Hour

“It’s been a while since sheds came into it – and in the interval this splendid blog devoted to sheds and shedmen” – Brian Appleyard

“National shed week was the result of a typical touch of creative thinking from long term enthusiast Uncle Wilco” – The Daily Express

“Shed of the Year is a great excuse to wallow in the gorgeousness of all our sheds – and aren’t they all fine” -Sarah Beeny, judge of Shed of the Year 2007, 2008 and 2009

Tree Houses (Huts? Sheds?) in Manhattan

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Alerted by my British shed-pal Alex Johnson, of,  to news that a village of tree houses had sprung up in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, I was determined to see the spectacle with my own eyes. While in NYC for a brief 48 hour visit last weekend, I added a stop at this midtown Manhattan public exhibit of sheds-in-trees.

My son, Ben, and I spent 2 days in New York, en route home from a not-so-happy occasion (my mother-in-law’s funeral). The exposure to theater and art was a welcome respite. Last Sunday, before departing to take the train out to JFK Airport, we squeezed in a subway ride on the Downtown R train to 23rd Street & Fifth Avenue.

Emerging from underground into the beautiful autumn weather, we crossed the street and entered a verdant, 6.2-acre patch in the heart of urban hustle. Looking up, built around the trunks and suspended amid branches of six or seven tall shade trees, we spied the underneath sides of the Tree Huts. While quite humble, constructed with an apparent lack of precision from 2-by-4s and nails, each little hut seems perfect in its imperfection. The mere essentials of shelter are provided: roof overhead; floor beneath; walls to protect; window or doorway for access and light. All that is missing is a rope ladder or steps made by pieces of lumber nailed up the tree trunks. I was eager to scramble the heights and enter one of these engaging structures!