Extreme Office Makeover 

Public defender’s office gets an eco-friendly redesign.

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When the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center opened in 1981, the building that housed the jail, courts, and police services was so state-of-the-art, it was dubbed the "Glamour Slammer."

But 30 years of wear and tear have robbed the glitz from 201 Poplar. That's why the Shelby County Public Defender's Office sought the services of a local artist to help redesign the space inside the criminal-justice complex using free, gently used office furniture.

"Cramped, crowded, and getting worse, 30 years of trying to keep pace with the exponential growth of the criminal-justice system had taken a toll," said Shelby County chief public defender Stephen Bush. "Boxes were stacked everywhere, and people were working in space that was uncomfortable and inefficient."

But Bush didn't want to spend taxpayer dollars on the redesign, so he turned to Carol DeForest, a local artist who specializes in helping people remake homes and offices without breaking the bank.

"It's about trying to be greener by reusing things that are still quite good," DeForest said. "Furniture may only need to be recovered or a room may simply need different curtains. It may be as simple as reframing the art or pulling out [decorative] stuff they have stashed."

For the public defender's office makeover, DeForest scoured the county's surplus warehouse, where discarded government office equipment is stored for auctions.

DeForest was able to choose any furniture in the warehouse for no charge since she was reusing it in a county government office. Among the finds there were a set of wooden, captain-style chairs for the law library, some desks, a steel table, and a 1960s settee.

"With guidance from Ms. DeForest, we have streamlined the entire office without spending a nickel on new stuff," Bush said.

Besides replacing furniture, DeForest also helped the staff reorganize and file paperwork. Before the makeover, boxes of old case files lined hallways, cramping the already-small quarters in the public defender's office. But now those files have either been discarded or placed into filing cabinets recovered from the warehouse.

"When I first got here, it looked like the war of social justice had been waged," DeForest said. "The spaces had been so used that the clients weren't certain this was a real law office."

The walls also got a fresh coat of off-white paint, which covered the retro bright orange 1980s paint job. Bush said attorneys and support staff came in on their nights off and weekends to paint the office.

Besides remaking the office's common areas, DeForest also redid the offices of four attorneys who were nominated by their peers for individual office makeovers.

One of those nominated was assistant public defender Eric Elms. "I had files coming out of my ears," Elms said. "I really hadn't had time to focus on design or appearance. But we hung my framed diplomas and downsized my desk. It's not cramped anymore."

Bush said the entire office makeover has boosted staff morale, and some attorneys have begun organizing their personal offices on their own. "It impressed me how the staff has become very enthused with the process," Bush said. "You know those TV shows where people get makeovers in their home? That's taken root within the office."

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