Campus Cribs: Ornate offices warm up the workplace

It’s an undeniably great feeling when the lights on Mission key pads blink green or the keys to Currier dorms jingle in their locks and students can slip, if only for a few moments, into their dorm room: their home away from home.

Ralph Bradburd (left) and philosophy professor Alan White (right) adorn their offices with cultural memorabilia. Photo by Emily Calkins, photo editor.

These rooms are our sometimes-untidy escapes, our always-personalized havens.

Though Campus Cribs is typically a feature on the room of a student who has taken especial care to adorn his or her magpie nest, this week we took a different route. Opting instead to look at professors’ offices, I navigated my way through the maze of Schapiro Hall in search of some insights from Ralph Bradburd, professor of political economy, and Alan White, professor of philosophy. And after hearing their stories, it seems that maybe offices are just right for the Campus Cribs concept after all.

When I walked into Schapiro 207, I found Bradburd ensconced in work and puddled in sunlight. In teaching here at the College for over 35 years, Bradburd has had a wealth of office spaces, including ones he found much more charming than his palatial abode on the second floor of this new-age academic building. “This is the first time in many years that my office has not had a fireplace,” Bradburdsaid. “I’m honestly more accustomed to the old Victorian style houses that used to be around campus.” Bradburd is willing to concede that his new locale offers some advantages, though. Prioritizing neighbors over hearths, he noted, “It’s extremely nice that all of my colleagues are now in one place.”

Though 207 isn’t the office of Bradburd’s dreams, exactly, he’s made an effort to transform it into a stage for a most unique hobby: collecting ancient tribal rugs. “I collect these rugs and I have for decades now.” Bradburd said of the pieces in his office. “These are just a few of the ones that I have.” Defying the traditional notion that rugs belong on the floor, Bradburd opts instead to hang them proudly from the walls, operating by the policy: “No rugs on the floor, all rugs on the walls.”

So there hang the five ruby red rugs, the manifestations of a nearly life-long interest. “I actually bought my first rug in Morocco when I was 19 and still in college,” Bradburd recounted. “It wasn’t until my wife and I discovered a beautiful piece at a Vermont estate sale many years later that the interest was reinvigorated.” When Bradburd went on leave from his home in the nation’s capital, his passion followed him, leading him to uncover one of the premier rug stores in the country down the street from their house. “It was after my time in D.C. that I really began to learn about it, to buy books and do research on the rugs.” And so, by incorporating these rugs into his office, Bradburd has allowed himself to weave his personal interests seamlessly into his professional workspace.

White has also been able to navigate the balance between aesthetic and academic, creating an office space that is entirely decorated but manages not to seem overdone. My feeble knock on the door of Schapiro 107 was, it seemed, White’s cue for what proved to be an engaging and theatrical tour of his corner of campus. His approach (“I just took a lot of my favorite stuff and hung it up”) has worked well for the space, as each of his walls is either ribbed with bookshelves or plastered in plastic sleeves of postcards.

The postcards, as I later learned, are all from the same sender: a retired professor of art at Western Michigan University named Earl Nitschke. Soon after White published his book Within Nietzsche’s Labyrinth in 1990, he received his first contact from Nitschke. “I got a letter from Early saying he was looking forward to reading [the book] as soon as he’d finished another one on Nietzsche,” White told me. “Not too longer after that, he started sending me Nietzsche-inspired art of all sorts.” This collection is comprised of the two postcards per month White has received from Nitschke since 1995. To date, this amounts to over 650 cards. But, quizzically enough, this snail-mail relationship is predominantly one-way. “We don’t really talk, to be honest,” White confesses. “He just keeps sending me these postcards.”

But if you think that’s the most unique accoutrement in White’s office décor, think again. “This is unusual, I think you’ll find,” White said mischievously, pointing to a framed letter near the door. Grinning from ear to ear, White waited as I read the letter and discovered, with jubilant awe, that it was from none other than J.R.R. Tolkien himself. White had heard of Tolkien’s series, The Lord of the Rings, long before it was popular from a friend whose father got to know the Tolkien manuscripts during his time at Oxford. “So that’s what I asked for for my 13th birthday,” White said, recounting the memory fondly. “And by the end of the volume, I’d figured out how to write in Dwarfish Runes, so I wrote Tolkien a letter in Runes, and he wrote me this back.” Years after receiving the letter, White learned something about it that increased its value – sentimental and otherwise. After consulting with a Tolkien signature specialist, White was told that this was the only letter in which Tolkein signed the Rune translation of his name. Maybe it was the brilliant view of Hopkins Hall, the quirky postcards or the one-of-a-kind signature; maybe it was all three. All I know is that I left White’s office feeling as though we’d been friends for years.

Between the two of them, Bradburd and White have mounted both moose heads and ancient tribal rugs, framed family photos and celebrity signatures, showcasing everything from Nietschian postcards to Chinese dream stones. And in the end, it’s indisputable that White and Bradburd are, just like us, building a home away from home.

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