New Office: Ladder Shelves

In June, AQ moved out of our hillside repurposed apartment into a new office in Nishi-Azabu, our third office in less than 5 years.

Two months after moving day, we’re still short a few chairs, but I finally found one to sit in long enough to share a few of the weekend projects (more coming). Most of these ideas are within reach of a small team who knows which end of the paint brush is for holding.

Let’s start at the end and work backwards, starting with our new ladder bookshelves.


While shopping for bookshelves, we stopped at Conran Shop in Otemachi. We couldn’t afford anything they were selling, but a display rack made from 2 ladders and a few planks caught our eye. The shop staff had no idea where it came from, but after a bit of searching, we realized it was a DIY job.

Why it works:

  • A lot of offices (like a lot of websites) suffer from rectanglitis, as people try to maximize the usable space of the room, which is in most cases a rectangle. The shape of the ladders breaks this up nicely.
  • The height gives the door-facing desks a little privacy, without the heavy appearance of a solid wall.
  • A uniform-width beam within the expanding-width step creates a playful optical illusion, making the top-most shelf look sturdy and the bottom-most shelf look airy.
  • White accents on the plank ends tie together the shelves, work table (foreground), walls and desks, without any one piece matching the other too exactly. We borrowed this idea from Japanese shrine architecture, in which the cut-end of beams are painted white to protect against the elements and add a contrasting accent to the otherwise unfinished wood.


  • Ladders: After hours spent searching online, we could only find ladders of the same steel-pipe construction on Alibaba, minimum order 500. Then one day, Paul rode by a mom-n-pop hardware shop and saw them leaning against a wall, priced at ¥3200 each ($38), in bright orange.
  • White pine planks: Viva Homes hardware store in Toyosu, also around ¥3000 ($38) each.
  • Finishes: Small can of white acrylic paint, a few pieces of fine sandpaper and some leftover stain might add up to another ¥5000 ($60).

Total cost: ¥17,200 ($200)


  1. Ask the hardware store to cut the planks for you. We cut ours to 220 cm (7’2”), but truthfully, 240cm (7’10”) would have made a more dramatic piece.
  2. Sand the top and sides of each board lightly with fine-grained sandpaper.
  3. Paint the ladders with white acrylic. It’ll need a few coats if you’re starting from a dark color.
  4. While you’re at it, paint the ends of the planks.
  5. After the paint dries, coat the planks with water-based urethane gloss, followed by a coat of urethane matte. Follow the directions on the can. It’ll stay matte.
  1. Wait a day or two for the varnish to dry completely (just because the planks aren’t tacky doesn’t mean they’re dry), then assemble.

And you’re done!

Shrine photo courtesy of chessyau.

September 6, 2010