A pair of beady red eyes glare at George Batek as he works at his desk at the Boone County Public Defenders office. They belong to a black plastic rat he calls “State’s Witness,” a squeaky old friend once used as a prop in the courtroom.
Nearby, not far from books with titles such as “The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers” and “Murder in the Heartland” is a bobble-head doll, The Enforcer from the movie “Lilo and Stitch.”
While the objects adorning Batek’s workspace might seem unrelated, each one brings a smile to his face and a story to mind. And that, he said, is the point.
“Lots of things I have in here bring fond memories,” Batek said. “They all have stories.” As an attorney, it’s not surprising that Batek has books like the ones in his office. Of The Enforcer, he said: “I just think he’s cool.”
From quirky mugs and tongue-in-cheek posters to pictures of family, office decorations can bring a bit of humor or a sense of home to the workplace. But how people personalize their offices can also say a lot about them.
“The nonverbal messages associated with the way an office is arranged, the way it is personalized and so forth help to produce some impression of the occupant,” said Michael Kramer, an MU communications professor. “It is a way to communicate something about yourself and your personality to other people.”
Visitors to Batek’s office can’t miss traces of Bolivia, where he grew up and lived for several years. In addition to a map of the country and its national flags, he displays a small statue of Ekekho, the god of prosperity for the country’s indigenous Quechua people.
“You’re supposed to put Ekekho in a prominent place in your kitchen, but I want to prosper here in my employment, too,” Batek said.
While office decorations are often inspiring, some reflect certain realities. But could the woman in the next cubicle really be “down to her last nerve,” as the poster on the wall suggests? Probably not, Kramer said, although she might not be entirely happy either.
“I imagine people who put these posters up think they are funny but also feel like they’re in a stressful situation and feel that people don’t always treat them the way they would like,” Kramer said. “People can be pretty demanding and unreasonable in their requests of office staff, for example. Such posters could be a response to it.”
Kramer breaks the beige-toned monotony of his university office with green plants and pictures of lighthouses, oceanscapes and his family. A Kemper Award and a marathon poster tell visitors about his successes; and a cross speaks of his religious faith. While statues of Snow White’s seven dwarves reveal a bit of his silly side, Kramer said most of his office furnishings tell others that he means business.
“My office is mostly functional — books and journals, computers and so forth,” Kramer said. “That tells you something about me.”
Call her a minimalist, but don’t ever question Linda Calvert’s love for rock ’n’ roll. Calvert, an administrative support supervisor who has worked at the Columbia Police Department for 28 years, said her office is fairly sparse, except for a few framed albums of rock greats like The Beatles and the Blues Brothers.
“That’s The Beatles’ first album, which a lot of people think is cool,” Calvert said. “But the Blues Brothers are my favorite, so that’s why they get top billing.”
Calvert said her office furnishings, which include plants, family portraits and pictures of the ocean, bring her a comforting sense of home. But, she said, a little goes a long way when it comes to decorations.
“I like things in moderation, just a little reminder here or there,” Calvert said. “I guess that’s just my personality.”
Near her computer, Calvert keeps two small Beanie Babies — one is green, for good luck, and the other is clad in stars and stripes. A child of a Navy midshipman who served in World War II, Calvert said the bears are part of her personal statement of support for the United States during a time of conflict.
“My dad is a very patriotic man, and I guess some of that patriotism wore off on me,” Calvert said. “Plus, we have four or five guys from the (police) department serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a way to keep them in my thoughts.”
Symbolic bears and the Blues Brothers aside, Calvert said she is not sure what message her furnishings could be sending to others. Motioning to her full bookcase, she said: “I guess people can assume I must do something with all those.”
Posters. Coasters. Candy boxes. Even a TV Guide. When it comes to decorating her office, Cyndi Frisby, an assistant professor in advertising at MU, said that if Elvis is involved, anything goes.
“When I grew up in the ’60s, (Elvis) was the big movie star. There’s something about the man and his music that can relate to all ages,” Frisby said. “What I like is people saying, ‘Wow, you don’t have the typical professor’s office’ because I’m not the typical professor.”
Frisby’s collection of memorabilia began to take shape in her graduate school cubicle at the University of Florida. After a co-worker spotted a selection of Elvis movies on one of her shelves, Frisby said, he decided to contribute some Elvis magnets. Now, she said about 90 percent of her sizable collection is made up of gifts from students, and friends.
But why display her treasures at work instead of home? That, she said, was her husband’s idea.
“Some people say I have psychotic tendencies, but the dean (of the School of Journalism) even contributed some things,” Frisby said. “What I like is that I can look all around this room at things and tell you that, at some point in time, someone was thinking about me.”
Frisby said her office, which she occupies about 30 hours a week, is best described as organized chaos. Her Elvis collection has grown so much that it has spilled onto her storage shelves, obstructing quick access to books she needs while teaching.
“That is an irritating pain,” Frisby said. “I have to pull everything down and put it all back up again.”
One wall in Frisby’s office is eerily bare, save for framed degrees in business administration, psychology, mass communication and philosophy. Does she — gasp — sometimes grow tired of looking at The King?
“Oh, no,” Frisby said, “I just promised I’d leave one wall professional, in case anyone ever asked to take a picture of my serious side.”