Until the 17th century, the majority of writing work was carried out by lowly scribes whose comfort was rarely fretted over. Because of this, early “desks” were nothing more than portable boxes with sloped tops that could be placed on a table or other flat surface. But as literacy spread in the 1600s, the comfort of the writer began to be valued, and the construction of desks entered into the purview of furniture makers. These are some of the designs that developed in the ensuing years:
An early spawn of the scribe’s slanted box, the desk-on-frame was very basic; nothing more than that slanted box with legs. It was designed to be highly portable and contained minimal storage space.
Appearing in France in the 1690s, this is the first stab by designers at a more fixed writing space. The bureau has a sloping front that can be opened to reveal a flat writing surface. The design was adapted from a chest of drawers, so bureaus typically have several roomy pullout compartments on the front. The Queen Anne period of the early 18th century was the heyday of the bureau. This is also the time at which a variation developed, called the secrétaire en pente, which did not sit on top of drawers but on legs. Bureaus are designed not to take up too much floor space, and can be as narrow as 22 inches wide. An even smaller version, called the Davenport, was designed for a Captain Davenport, to fit in the cramped interior of a ship’s cabin.
This one is very similar to the bureau, but typically has added storage space in the form of a bookshelf rising above the writing well.
The Roll-Top Desk
The roll-top desk is a feat of compactness. Also called a cylinder desk, this design evolved out of the secrétaire en pente, and has a sliding cover that can be rolled back to reveal the writing table. There are two types of tops to a roll-top desk—one that folds up like a tambour shade, and another that rolls back into the body of the desk. The flat surface also slides out once the desk is open, to give more space for writing.
The Kneehole Desk
The name says it all. These look like a flat-topped chest of drawers with a little cubby hole for your knees. They are designed to provide the writer with a comfortable position while maintaining storage space. They are a precursor to more typical modern designs, but kneehole desks are often more symmetrical. Usually constructed of either oak or walnut, they are quite compact.
Also called a lady’s writing desk, this design came about in the 1760s. It usually comes with two tiered flat surfaces and sits on long, elegant, sometimes-fluted legs. The storage capacity is limited to a few small drawers above the writing surface.
The Bureau Plat
As desks were becoming more and more decorative in the mid to late 18th-century, the Bureau Plat emerged to adorn the chateaus and noble houses of rural France. This design is a large table with intricately carved legs and a generous writing space. It does away with the more practical trappings of ample storage space found in earlier desk designs. In England, during the Regency period of the 19th century, a similar but more understated design called the library table emerged.
Modernism gave birth to a whole slew of desk designs, mostly stylized variations on the kneehole desk. There are the symmetrical cherry-wood Art Deco models, off-kilter but aerodynamic Italian desks, the futuristic aluminum experiments of 1970s designer Xavier Marbeau, and many more.