Décor Wars

Confronted with elections, an extortion scandal, and financial fiascoes, Minneapolis's leadership redecorates

Merry Keefe, the city clerk, stands in the entryway of the Minneapolis City Council offices, on the third floor of city hall, describing what she believes to be the official color scheme of the City of Minneapolis--or of the halls of government, at least: "Plum with blue," she says, nodding first toward the carpet, and then toward the walls. "Not a white, but a nice taupe on the walls. Neutral colors."

The carpet is indeed lovely, and the walls a tasteful ecru, but otherwise it's chaos in the innermost sanctum of Minneapolis's elected bigwigs. Full boxes are piled precariously on tables, and framed photos are stacked on the floor, leaning against the walls. Because of a massive renovation project, city council members just spent six months conducting business on the mezzanine level of the hulking old stone fortress. They were able to move back into their digs on the third floor last week, but piecing their offices back together is slow going.

Initially the renovation was to upgrade inefficient heating and air conditioning systems and remove some asbestos. The edifice's turn-of-the-century design had been masked by renovations in 1950s, and there had been few improvements since then. But somewhere along the line, as the health hazards were ferreted out, "amenities" have cropped up: the new carpeting, new paint on the walls, and new putty-colored cubicles.

With that came proposed "Standards for Council Offices," in the form of a memo drawn up at the behest of council president Jackie Cherryhomes and vice president Joe Biernat outlining how council members should decorate and furnish their offices. And with the memo came the kind of intra-office spat that caused executives everywhere to put Who Moved My Cheese? on the best-seller list.

"It's a drive toward needless uniformity, and that doesn't appeal to me," says 13th Ward representative Barret Lane, an independent and the self-described owner of "deeply unstandard furniture." "I don't really know why we are doing this, other than, presumably, we don't have much else to deal with."

Lisa Goodman, who represents the Seventh Ward, is similarly distressed that she might lose her interior-design privileges. "I believe individuality is important in an institutional environment," she protests, noting that when she bought the gray sleeper sofa that's in her office, she was trying to harmonize with her city-issued office furniture. "People should have personal photos, or stuffed animals, or a mouse pad that they like. It's a general philosophy that people should have individuality to be happy at work."

A brief tour of the offices with Keefe proves that there truly is no accounting for taste. Doré Mead's office is cluttered with porcelain horses and elephants, oriental fans, and silk flowers, as well as a mahogany-colored desk. Overall, it looks a little like a tchotchke display at Levitz--"a very unique style," says Keefe, herself a white-walls-and-beige-furniture aesthete.

Jim Niland's small corner office is Spartan, its walls dotted with yellow Post-it notes bearing single letters, like K and G. Cherryhomes has yet to complete the move back into her spacious office; large boxes overflowing with paperwork are stacked on the floor and a couch. The office of former Eighth Ward council member Brian Herron, who resigned in July, is being used as a storage space.

Lisa McDonald says she has always had the same city-issued furniture, which she had re-covered when she took office in 1993. "I inherited my furniture from [former council member] Barbara Carlson," says the Tenth Ward representative. "I had to have it reupholstered because of all the cigarette burns."

All of which is fine, according to Keefe, except that implied standards regarding office décor had grown lax over time. "No one council member's taste is the same," she says. "Some say, 'Give me a phone and I'm happy,' and others say, 'This is where my life is now, and I want things to reflect who I am.'" Keefe says that all she and the council's leaders are looking for is "a little consistency in taste."

Under the proposed guidelines, council members "may hang anything on the walls of their personal offices," but their staffers' office space should "reflect a professional appearance that is consistent with building standards." The policy-in-progress goes on to say that "deviations" will "only be considered for...ergonomic reasons." Keefe insists that the guidelines are not inflexible, and that some furniture will be "grandfathered in."

With four council seats open, she continues, new politicians are guaranteed to be moving in after the upcoming elections. Each will be assigned an office stocked with city-issue Naugahyde and Formica furniture, including desks, chairs, credenzas, and couches. Most of the furniture is 20 years old and has been passed from council member to council member over the years. (According to assistant city clerk Steve Ristuben, Minneapolis does not budget for office furniture annually, but rather will buy some when needed, provided there's extra money in the city coffers. Every few years, he says, some of the furniture gets reupholstered by inmates at the state penitentiary in Stillwater.)

It's not the prettiest furniture, Keefe concedes--"It is very heavy," she says--but it's there. And if council members don't use it, there's nowhere to store it. "The expansion of the 911 offices, for instance, took storage space," she says. "There's nowhere in city hall to store anymore."

Biernat, who represents the Third Ward and proudly notes that he uses only city-issue furniture, says that the impetus for the proposed policy was to clarify what type of décor would be acceptable. Things like posters outside of offices had become commonplace, he gripes. "It was an issue that was not addressed for too long," Biernat says. "We want to convey a professional work environment."

Eventually, the guidelines, which were drafted by Keefe, must make it through the council's Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Joan Campbell, and then through a meeting of the council as a whole. The rules aren't expected to appear on either agenda anytime soon, though.

Goodman, who bought herself a couch that appears to be made of some suede-denim hybrid when she was elected in 1997, seems resigned to the idea that the policy might pass. "Well, I probably can't keep it now," she says with a sigh. "It will look lovely at my house, too, I suppose."

Lane, however, vows that he won't be moved. "They can put the city-issued furniture in my basement if they want," he insists. "That's where my good furniture would be anyway." He, too, picked up his stuff on his own dime--at a Room and Board in Edina, he's quick to add. The kidney-shaped desk and cherry-stained oak credenza used to grace his law office at the Calhoun Beach Club.

Does he plan to keep it? "Absolutely," he says firmly, adding confidently that the proposal will not garner enough votes to become policy. "Are they going to come in here with the sheriff and take this away? Honest to Pete, who cares what I have in my office?"

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