The CityLab 2020 Gift Guide

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Having more stuff can’t really make up for this year’s hellishness. But some kinds of stuff can make it easier.

After nine months of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve emerged with a new perspective on the kinds of tools, toys, gadgets and gear that can improve Covid-era living. For both essential workers and the homebound masses they kept alive, 2020 has been a year of extraordinary stressors and unexpected sacrifices; we might now crave travel adventures and party dresses, but what we really want is to stay housed, healthy and sane while wewait our turn in line for a vaccine — the only gift this season that really matters. Here’s Bloomberg CityLab’s wish list of useful, indulgent, goofy or much-coveted quarantine accessories, for a range of budgets. (Plus some fun maps, because it wouldn’t be complete without it.)

For the work-from-home-forever crowd

After going full-time remote, a lot of us discovered an acute need for office furniture upgrades, starting from the bottom — the desk chair.

If someone in your life is becoming gnarled and hunched from hours of slouching in front of a screen, sometimes from the couch or bed, may we suggest a gaming chair? These pieces of furniture are not exactly beautiful, but they’re extremely lumbar- and neck-supportive, meant for hours of clicking and shooting — or in this era, typing and Zooming. “When socializing means logging into Discord, or Twitch, or Counter-Strike, why not get comfortable as you face the screen?” Alexandra Lange wrote in Curbed. “To invest in what you are actually doing — where you are actually sitting — might seem like capitulation but is also self-care.” 

Iconic office supplier Herman Miller teamed up with Logitech for the sleek $1,500 model above; for a cheaper make that screams “NOT NOW, I’M GAMING,” try an on-sale GTRacing seat, or a cushiony leather DXRacer. 

To avoid alife-shortening all-sedentary existence, adding an adjustable standing desk to the home-office mix is wise. But most cost a few hundred dollars and can eat up precious floor space. Here’s a cheaper standing desk alternative that also comes in handy for the person who also happens to belearning a musical instrument as their quarantine hobby — a music stand. This CAHAYA model, tilted perpendicular to the floor, is easily adjustable, space efficient, and sturdy enough to hold a Macbook Air. When the workday ends, it reverts back to its primary role as a stand for your sheet music and a cell phone during virtual band practice. It also comes with a music note folder, which, it turns out, you can also use for printed-out soup recipes. We’re all about day-to-night! 

The worst part about standing desks: all the stupid standing! Working upright for hours on end is murder on feet and knees — but not if you have a squishy mat to stand on. This one, by Topo, claims to have “nature-inspired peaks and valleys to keep your body engaged and your posture in peaceful alignment.” It also doubles as a foot massager. Sign me up. 

This MetroCard-themed mousepad is also a therapeutically squishy mat, but for your wrist. 

This was the year of the pod. People stopped eating Tide Pods, and started podding up. The people you lived with?Your pandemic pod. The people you wanted to keep hanging out with from a distance? Pod plus-ones. Schools closed? Toss the kids in alearning pod. Why not get a loved one a pod of their own?

Think of the Zenbooth Solo as a pair of noise-canceling headphones that you can sit inside. The miniature workspace was designed to give open-office-dwellers a semblance of personal privacy during the workday, but intrepid WFH-ers with multiple roommates or screaming children are also finding them useful as personal isolation booths. For little more than theaverage one-month’s rent in a coastal metro, you can install one in a garage or living room and bring the WeWork vibes home, forever.

TheOri Pocket Office is the kind of insane all-in-one robo-gadget that could only be born of desperate times. Think Murphy bed, but for work: During leisure hours the set-up masquerades as a modernist media center, but when it’s time to clock in it can be popped out to become a micro workspace, complete with a pull-out desk and bookshelves. It’s not quite as exciting as a trick bookcase that opens up into a safe room, but it’s a nifty way of carving out out a proper office inside a living space. And once it’s closed up again, you can ignore your untouched workspace over the weekend.

Perhaps the ultimate work-from-home luxury item of the pandemic year isthe home office shed — a backyard workspace blessedly isolated from the unruly family home. Several firms offer small pre-fab structures that are insulated, wired, and can be swiftly assembled on-site in a few days without special building permits in most cities, and sales have taken off since the pandemic arrived. The sleek Studio Shed andModern Shed offerings share a similar modernist aesthetic; expect to pay roughly $20,000 and up for a 120-square-foot personal retreat that would be the envy of everyone else in the 9 a.m. Zoom meeting.   

For the reluctant home fitness enthusiast

Fitness buffs have been snapping up Peleton bikes since gyms closed — sales of the Wi-Fi-equipped indoor exercise machineswere up 232% this fall, in spite of (or thanks to?) the founder’s much-maligned habit of chugging water from the palms of his hands each morning until he’s close to puking in the name of hydration.

But with the cheapest model priced at $1,895 (not including monthly fees for virtual classes), these high-tech stationary bikes are a major investment. There are cheaper ways to make your own sorta-Peleton out of a regular-old bike. Mount your 10-speed onto a trainer stand and boot up Zwift’s indoor cycling app, which can adjust your trainer’s resistance based on the virtual route you choose. According to my friend Sylvia, who’s taken her biking regimen indoors during the cold Boston winter,  some tried-and-true options are the Kinetic, the Tacx, and Wahoo’sKICKR. 

You could also just get on your bike and ride, wind chill be damned; if you live in a cold climate, CityLab has some guides to doing it like a pro. Don’t forget the one essential piece of winter cycling equipment: the wool balaclava, which has the added virus-curbing benefit of doubling as a mask. 

For the kid you want to tire out, buy thisinflatable blow up suit and let them roll around. This body bubble may look traumatizingly similar to a big blue coronavirus. But if they get too close to other kids, they will achieve social distance — by bouncing right off each other.

For the outdoor socializer

The mantra of the year has been: If you want to socialize with non-household members, do it outside. CityLab’s Linda Poon has plenty of suggestions on how to do that warmly, a lot of which start with changing your attitude towards the cold. But it also helps to layer up. We’re always partial to transit-themed winter apparel, like this cozy London Transport children’s jumper, thisNYC Subway Map baby beanie, and this Amtrak Superliner long-sleever.

For more serious cold-weather lounging, you can’t beat the caterpillian wearable sleeping bag. Wirecutter’s preferred picks will allow your backyard debates over the future of transit funding in the U.S. to extend deep into the winter night. 

If you’ve got the space,backyard fire pits and propane-fueled “fire tables” have become Covid-safe magnets for huddling around. Apartment dwellers don’t have to be left out in the cold, though. City Bonfires, a Maryland-based companystarted by two self-described dads who lost their jobs during the Covid pandemic, makes recycled soy-wax-fueled mini-pits that can turn even a tiny urban balcony into a festive s’more-making scene.  

For stuck-at-home improvements

One of my personal favorite home quarantine hobbies has been… sweeping the kitchen floor. No, seriously. Since I am somehow constantly creating crumbs, there are always crumbs to sweep! Need an outlet for fidgeting on a work call? Put earbuds in and clean the corners. Need to feel like you have done something all weekend? Marvel at the amount of onion peel that has accumulated since you last swept. Yearning for a sense of control? I think you know where this is going.

I have a perfectly serviceable Ikea dustpan but I’ve been coveting more stylish options, like this minimalist goat-hair set from France or these gorgeous — albeit $91 — hangable dustpans. Surprise that special crumb-maker in your life with this rustic-yet-angular “whisk broom” combo. “Who would have thought that a one-hand 12” rice-straw clean-up tool could evoke oohs and aahs”? Who indeed?

If you know a carbonated water addict that has been contributing too aggressively to theoverburdened municipal waste stream in 2020, get them a SodaStream so they can make their own seltzer. It’s not exactly the same level quarantine skill as home sourdough baking, but it still feels like a small step toward self-sufficiency. (At least until the gas canister runs out: A surge in at-home bubbly-water-makingled to a shortage in CO2 refills a few months ago.)

Covid victory gardening was a popular pastime of Covid summer, and indoor growing set-ups like theClick and Grow Smart Garden 9 allow urban tiny-farmers to bring the thrill of arugula cultivation inside for the colder months. It’s equipped with LED grow lights and automatic watering; biodegradable seed-and-soil pods mean to don’t even have to get your hands dirty. 

What green-thumbed YIMBY wouldn’t love this budget-friendly cityscape-slash-planter? Handmade in cement and available in two sizes, the pots house succulents and other houseplants in a properly dense and walkable mixed-use neighborhood. (For bonus points, fill with small cacti sourced from a local hardware store.)

For the civic-minded  

Those fortunate enough to be in a gift-giving position here at the end of 2020 would do well to include local nonprofits and charities in their holiday spending. You could even make a donation in someone’s name. Here are just a few community-oriented options:

  • In October and November,26 million Americans didn’t have enough food to eat, andfood bank lines have stretched to catastrophic lengths. Enter your zip code into Feeding America’s website, find a local food bank near you, and help them out.
  • Bail funds got a lot ofattention this year after activists were jailed for participating in racial justice protests, alerting many to the connections between police violence and mass incarceration. Every year, these local organizations free people being held in pretrial or immigration detention. Check out The Bail Project or the National Bail Fund Network to find your local branches.
  • Interest in supporting Black-owned businesses boomed in 2020 in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. But these businesses also took onmore than their share of pandemic-triggered economic damage, and receivedless federal help; many are counting on the holiday shopping season to help them survive. You can assist by buying gift cards and directing spending to Black-owned restaurants, Black-owned bookstores, andBlack-owned beauty brands. 
  • Performing arts and cultural organizations,especially those in smaller cities, experienced significant job losses and rely heavily on community donations. Consider supporting artists directly throughPatreon, or donate to theActors Fund, which broadly supports entertainment workers. 

For transit-oriented teens and map fans


If you know someone with a passion for transit — who derives joy from scrolling through theTransit App, and memorizes rush-hour subway arrival times — thisTrainTrackr light board is for them. With all the aesthetic sparkle of a Christmas tree, these LED maps are updated every second, using WiFi to mirror the real-time movement of urban transportation networks in Boston, New York City and London, as well as nationwide rail in the U.S. and U.K.

Cartography fans: Here’s an amazing list of independent map-makers to shop from, who design prints and shaded reliefs and 3-D models and pillows of places real and imaginary, near and far, topographic and typographic, urban and suburban, terrestrial and galactic. Hand-pick a different one for every map nerd in your life!

We love this commuting-from-home mug because it reminds us of the quarantine map series masterminded by CityLab’s Laura Bliss and Jessica Lee Martin, in which hundreds of people drew cartographic representations of their new emotional and physical worlds. Evoking the new commute, for those lucky enough to be working from home — a classic subway line with none of the actual leaving-your-house — this mug is perfect for the new day-to-night transition of morning coffee to evening hot toddy.

The Global Architect Card proclaims “I am an architect. I am here to see this significant building” in 14 languages, easing the age-old awkwardness and occasional legal unpleasantries that come with snooping around buildings and taking a lot of pictures. Handy for exploring a home city — or for that first post-pandemic getaway — the durable anodized steel card will also serve as a hopeful reminder for your recipient: There are adventures ahead. 

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