A Lesson on the History of Desks

If you are one of those people who feel ‘any surface will do,’ then it might be hard to understand the writing desk culture, and the personal connection many people have about the space and surface on which they work, although I dare say that working from home this past year during COVID may have turned on a few new desk fans.

The word ‘desk’ comes from the 14th century Latin ‘desca’, meaning a table to write on, but over the last few centuries, a desk has evolved to become so much more in the lives of its users.

The earliest form of the antique desk was a bureau, a hinged sloping front desk in which the writing surface can be opened and closed. They were an adaptation of a box or board onto which the writing slope was fitted. At first, the sloping surface sat on a stand or pillar legs but soon there was a need for a purpose-made writing desk. By the 1690s the writing slope merged with a chest of drawers; antique bureaus are essentially a fusion of two different types of furniture, a writing desk and a chest of drawers. They were very fashionable during the Queen Anne period (1702-1714).

The Queen Anne-period bureau was followed by the kneehole-writing table. This was a small desk with drawers on either side of a kneehole, which was often fitted with a central cupboard. These were either veneered in walnut or provincially constructed of oak. It is not until the 1750’s that we start to see the pedestal and partners desk that has become so popular today.

By 1800, the Gothic- and French-inspired Chippendale style gave way to the more regal Federal style of furnishing, which remained popular through 1820. From 1820 to 1840, Empire-style design, which featured oversize furnishings adorned with elaborate carvings, gained popularity. Furniture makers were commissioned by their wealthy patrons to craft writing tables for the home as a show of their wealth, importance, and refinement. These ornate decorative objects were an extravagance and tended to be purchased for display or personal use by a household member rather than for the utilitarian practicality required of all furniture pieces during this time period in the average American home.

Although differing in design and finish, the typical 19th-century writing desk featured a sloped writing surface that concealed tiers of drawers, plus compartments and pigeonholes for organizing letters and papers. The sloped surface of these desks often had hinges that allowed users to fold it back to reveal compartments hidden below.

Davenport and Wooten are among the most famous desk designs from the 19th century. The Davenport desk shared the same basic shape as other English and American writing desks from the period, but the drawers on the pedestal base opened to the side rather than the front. Created by a British military officer, it featured a heavy, sturdy structure. The Wooten desk, which peaked in popularity during the Victorian era, was typically built from walnut and featured a highly decorative and ornate design. This desk had a sloped writing surface that consisted of a pair of doors opening to the sides, revealing an unusually high number of compartments hidden within.

Moving into the 20th century, desks evolved with the design movements of the time and the needs of a more literate and modern society. Steam-driven woodworking machinery made cheap wood-pulp paper possible for the mass manufacturing of desk forms, which provided office equipment for an expanding white-collar workforce and the one-piece school desk designed and patented by Anna Breadin in the late 1880s for the hundreds of new public schools opening across the country.

The desk rose in importance in the 20th century as a useful and personal piece of furniture, both at home and in the office, evolving in design, importance, and functionality in spaces dedicated to the privacy and importance of the work performed on its surface, and later in the century, its proximity to a wall outlet.

The need and requirements for a desk in the home are more important than ever as millions of Americans learned this past year when they were forced to work and learn from home. Prior to COVID, the laptop and tablet were reducing the need for a dedicated workspace for particularly urban apartment dwellers tight on living space. Wi-Fi and portable devices meant you could now work on your bed, living room couch, at the kitchen counter, down the block at a coffee shop…Our time at home during COVID underscores the importance of needing, once again, a dedicated space.

There is no doubt that desks are back in style and the home office is making a comeback. So is an appreciation for the desks upon which history was written that tell a story in their own right. Learn more in this month’s issue.

 

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” – Albert Einstein