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Balancing act: crafting authentic deskscapes

My grandpa was a truck driver for 40 years, and in that time he used two thermoses. I own them both, and the smaller of the two, which was clearly used on hundreds of runs, has a scratched and faded line of text below the label that reads “Thermal Efficiency guaranteed 5 years.” It might as well have said “105 years” because it works as well today as the day he bought it. That thermos is incredibly well designed, well made, and I assume it will work for another 50 years unless something drastic happens to it.
You’ll often hear people say “they don’t make things like they used to” and in my experience, that’s largely true. Products in the past were often made with longevity in mind, and to be honest, it was easier to build them so sturdy back then. Tools weren’t computerized, the parts weren’t as tiny, and the types of metal and plastic they were made from were costly and often machined with a human involved in the process. I adore technology and surround my desktop space with tech-y gadgets on a regular basis. Headphone amps, charging stations, lighting and speakers all have a place in my deskscape. But alongside those modern wonders are a collection of decades-old gadgets, awkward gizmos, old coins and cards, paperweights, plants and more. Creating a space that is uniquely you is a result of careful curation of interesting “pieces” that, like artwork, define your aesthetic and bring you joy. That’s why the “battlestations” you see here on DROP’s website are so diverse. Some inspire massive envy in me, and others barely slow my scroll. It’s all about individuality, and that’s the subject of today’s guide: “Balancing act: crafting authentic deskscapes.”

Personality crisis Maybe your deskscape is an organic space with succulents, vines, and big leafy plants surrounding a curved monitor and a sleek little laptop. Maybe you rock a western motif, with a cowboy statue on a leather deskmat, surrounded by rusty tools and spurs, all contrasted with a shiny steel pair of high end speakers and a powerful desktop. I’ve seen space themed battlestations, rgb powerhouses that put Vegas to shame, ecosystems modeled after anime, manga, comics, movies… The point is, there’s no limit to what your deskscape can be. Maybe your workspace is like mine. A chaotic blend of much loved items. Right now I have a plastic yellow underwater film camera by Minolta that dates back to the 1980’s, a tiny replica of the Auguste Rodin sculpture “the kiss”, and an authentic Peruvian alpaca toy named “potato” made from real Peruvian alpaca wool… these and many other items are strewn across my 150 year old architecture table. They perfectly accent my milky white Qwertykeys QK75 equipped with Mito’s Life Aquatic-inspired GMK Belafonte keycap set and two amazing artisan keycaps. On the other side of my computer is my German bullet-style pencil sharpener, a pack of Jean-Michel Basquiat playing cards, a 1960’s fishing reel… You get the idea. I surround myself with creative “pieces” that make me more creative and pay tribute to things or activities l love. 

A place for everyone As I listen to Kenji Endo’s beautiful “Ameagari no Birugai” in my (stellar) sub-$20 Koss KSC75 headphones, I’m reminded that one of the things I love most about this hobby is that excellent gear doesn’t have to come with an expensive price tag. Someone with very limited resources can save up for a well-made but affordable keyboard, find excellent switches, a decent set of keycaps, and be a full-fledged member of our community. On the Discord, Facebook and Insta groups I belong to, very modest deskscapes are always met with enthusiasm and respect from members that have $1000 boards, ultra-rare artisans and bleeding-edge tech. Positivity like that from leaders in the community encourages young and new hobbyists, giving everyone a chance to “show off” their setups.  One of the key reasons that’s possible is that we are ALL searching for the same thing when it comes to our creative spaces. Authenticity. Realness. The sense that this one place in our lives that we spend so much time in and exert a modicum of control over, reflects us. Our deskscape should mirror who we are and what we care about. Do you love nature? Make your space an organic forest paradise. Are you obsessed with outer space? Buy a dollar-store set of alien toys and set them up around your desk. I promise that you’ll be met with likes, comments and support! On the other side of the equation, if you adore master-class workmanship holding to the highest standards in quality, longevity and design… there’s a place for you! If you find yourself imagining your deskscape exhibited in the Museum of Modern art someday, you can build a temple to brands like Bang & Olufsen, Bowers & Wilkins, Eames, Knoll Saarinen right in your office. And why not? If you have access to those types of brands, you can create a pristine refuge from the world, a monument to good taste. What makes up a deskscape? With few exceptions, the most important deskscape elements are necessities. Keyboards, mice, trackpads, lighting, perhaps even speakers. But even those key elements, boring as they may seem, do not need to adhere to a specific standard. We may all focus on keyboards, but the other peripherals can say just as much about your sense of style. A friend of mine uses 30 year old beige Roland MA-12C computer speakers that look so out of place in a modern setup they seem ridiculous… until you hear them! They’re an absolute gem and sound amazing. His sense of humor and commitment to what he likes regardless of appearance is immediately obvious when you see those speakers. One of my quirks is that I use Apple’s Magic Trackpad instead of a mouse or trackball. It’s a clean design that has never taken center stage, but always prompts questions when it is noticed. To me, it’s an efficient, design-centered workhorse that goes well with whatever keyboard I’m using. 

Tech to the max One exciting category of desktop ornamentation is tech gadgets. Macropads, control knobs, sound activated light kits. I include in this group headphone amps, DACs, handheld video games, iPods. The list goes on. Tech gadgets (especially ones that work) are really useful, fun and give your setup a unique appearance and purpose. I have some 1970’s handheld video games on my desk at work. Football, Basketball, Hockey, all in mint condition. While they’re just a small red diode moving around the screen, my staff loves playing them and they make for great conversation starters. One of my favorite tech gadgets is my “Schiit Stack”. Schiit is an excellent audio company, specializing in affordable excellence. The $99 Magni 3 headphone amp and $99 Modi DAC (digital to analog convertor, pictured above) provide tons of power to my small but respectable headphone collection. They amplify my headphones, and give them a clean, crisp sound. At home, I use a solid state amp but at work I use a warmer sounding (and more aesthetically awesome) tube amp with the incredible DROP+Audio Technica Carbon VTA turntable… it’s perfect.

Doesn’t everyone have a He-man action figure on their desk? A seriously over-looked category of deskscape ornamentation is impractical but fun “one-of-a-kind” items. Even the most austere, minimalist setups can benefit from personalized items. Paperweights, action figures, vintage cameras all make for great conversation pieces. I mentioned “Potato”, my Peruvian alpaca toy. Not a lot of folks have one of those … I’ve looked! Original pieces like Potato help set my deskscape apart and bring an air of whimsy to almost any setup. Objects like this and my Grandpa’s thermos allow me to really create a story, not just convey an aesthetic. They are not useless objects, they are tactile reminders of my friend Valerie and of my grandpa.

Keeb up the faith Another fun deskscape element is keyboard related materials. On my desk at work I have a squishy KLARIS keycap lamp Sneakbox that changes color when you touch it (or bump the desk). Another excellent keyboard related object is Novelkeys’ Big Key. What cooler way to introduce others to what a switch is, than a giant switch? Many people keep artisan keycap collections in small containers displayed on their desktop. Not every artisan is going to sync with your keycaps or board. That doesn’t mean it needs to hide in a drawer. Containers of switches, springs and even unused keyboards help advertise that this isn’t a ready-made piece of tech you bought from a store, it’s a hobby that’s important to you, and one that you’re proficient at.

Now for the best part: Show and Tell. I know YOU have some amazing setups, deskscape elements, and one-of-a-kind treasures… blow us all away. I want to see old tech. I want to see forests of succulents. I want to hear the stories you’ve crafted in the environments you’ve created. This is a deeply personal hobby that encourages its community to be their true and aspirational selves. I can’t wait to see what you have to share. Thanks for reading, until next time, keep finding the stories in everything you do.  Best, James (@Storyboardtech)

Nov 12, 2023
Nice setup! Which keyboard body is the gold one?
jonnyxThe Arc60 by Vertex! The final run of them is still on sale out there! It's a wonderful 60% that comes with two PCB's! A solder and a hotswap! Sounds and looks amazing. Mine is dark gold.
Nov 10, 2023
*Vinyl records, craft beer, and a few other industries are an absolute exception, being made at much higher quality standards than those of the past.
=> Not so sure this is true when it comes to vinyl records. Can't even count the amount of records received fresh off the press already being warped, scuffed, scratched...
magbut28That's incredible! I buy a lot of records and I can't remember the last time I got one that had a flaw, except for a red-vinyl pressing that had specific issues, and the company shipped free black vinyl versions of the album to make up for it. That said, you make a good enough point that I will remove the footnote. Vinyl is too precious a thing to over-generalize.
magbut28Vinyl kind of went through a transformation of its own during the 2010s-to-now resurgence. In the early days of re-gaining popularity, it was really common to find 180 gram vinyl releases and other special editions. Compared to the "commodity" vinyl releases found in existing collections and used record bins, I would argue that the quality was indeed higher on the average. Now that things have progressed further into the mainstream and found their long term footing, the curve seems to have settled into a more normal distribution. Some are high quality, some absolutely are not.
Nov 10, 2023
what keycaps are these?
SuperKrogHey bud. Not sure which ones you're asking about. If you're referencing the black keycaps on the gold keyboard, those are the MT3 White On Black set from DROP with MT3 Fairlane accents. If you mean the artisans, one is a Totoro keycap I got off Etsy from Tatsuhouse. The middle keycap is a Velites artisan from Goldenstar Keycaps in the "Dolly" colorway. The one on the right is the yolk yellow ZMKC Pocket Game Console Artisan Keycap formerly sold on Drop.
Nov 10, 2023
They absolutely do make things like they used to in a lot of cases. Sometimes better if you're willing to look for it and pay for it. The problem is people don't want to pay for a heirloom quality item. They expect heirloom quality at disposable prices. The market for a lifelong purchase has changed to reflect that is exactly that, a lifelong item. As far as a thermos goes, you can buy one with a lifetime warranty for 50 dollars. Desktop design is a great hobby. It's nice to have a nice workspace that you feel comfortable in. I'd argue that the uniqueness of the items sitting on your space is the wrong approach and will not make a statement on its own. Even if the items 'tell a story' it's extremely difficult to tell a story in a practical space. The story is about how you work and some of those items can give insight about you and the types of things you appreciate. There's a danger with too much stuff as coming off the wrong way and looking like an object collector. If I saw any desk with that much stuff on it in the office or while visiting another's person home it screams run away they want to engage you about this space they created and are maybe overly excited about it to an extent that they don't realize. Just like this article describes - "Let me explain you my items one by one they are so cool! (to me)" So the question is how do you design a space that works for you without peacocking and making something that is not so shocking to the eye? The partial and shallow answer that could be dug into much more deeply and with more nuance is to be genuine and vulnerable but that might mean you don't have all that much is interesting to say and that's ok.
llloydEh, some people will talk your ear off about how they don't own a lot of stuff. We all have different preferences, and it's totally fine to be overwhelmed by a busy/full desk. I find the packed desk to be really interesting and in many cases I'll see something that interests me, leading to a quick conversation starter. (More) empty desks can look really nice and I appreciate them for what they are too, FWIW. 🤷‍♀️
Nov 9, 2023
That is the Schiit Vali amp, not the Magni.
DjtalskyYou're right. That image has the Vali, which I now use at work. I'll switch out the pic for a more recent one. Thanks for the catch though.
Nov 9, 2023
Dang, really handy! Been forward to setting up a gaming/desk space but never knew what to do that would make it unique but not messy, so this was nice, thanks!
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