Bureau Writing Desk with drawers

As far back as Renaissance Germany, ” featured hinged tops on box-like stands, beautifully inlaid with silver, called “plateresque.” Writing was on the rise.

Outside of the furniture habits of the wealthy, the Bible Box, a direct descendent of the chest, was one of the earliest bloodlines of the modern desk. A simple, sturdy box with either a flat or a slanted top, the Bible Box—treasured for keeping the family Bible, important papers, documents, and valuables safe—was pretty much the earliest desk. With the top of the box closed, you had a slanted space for reading or writing. Add a stand to it, and you’ve got the earliest example of a “writing desk.”

The period (and, in tandem, Colonial America) was big for brought about the straight, tapered lines of Neoclassicism, and the bureau plat was modified to have the famous cylinder top—with smaller versions of both for ladies of the house. The bureau plat remains a popular form of desk today, adjusting well to modern minimalism and chic offices.

Another French desk made with women in mind was the, a petite desk with a high row of little drawers across the back.

The Secretary: the Lady’s Desk, or Tall Desk

The Latin word for “writer, ” secretarius gives us the title “secretary, ” which in turn belongs to this beautiful, formal piece of writing furniture. Into the 18th century, written material was more widely published and circulated, and desks grew to accommodate.

The key to the secretary is the built-in storage up top: it combines a lower, slant-top desk for writing space with two cabinet doors above that conceal shelving, drawers, or a mix of pigeonholes and slots. It married storage and organization with an architectural, built-in quality that not only looked lovely in a room, but could be closed up and clutter-free.

The Low Secretary, or Tambour Desk

The Federal-style tambour secretary was another variation, also called a “low secretary, ” noted for its sliding tambour shutters that conceal the upper level of drawers and pigeonholes. They were carefully crafted by applying thin slats of wood vertically to fabric—flexible, yet delicate. The lower drawers of tambour secretaries took on characteristics of Federal-style commodes, adding a combined functionality of having lots of drawers, and lending it the name “bureau secretary.” In the Victorian period, secretaries really flourished, with elaborate china cabinets up top—but simultaneously, secretaries assumed some of their most plain forms, thanks to the philosophically driven and popular . They were heavy oak, with crude joinery, Medieval style hardware, and an overall “austere” feel.

The secretary would have seen its day, though, and after 1920, their production tapered off—with built-in bookcases being the more common option.

Name to know: “The Wooton desk” was a rare luxury, but a stand-out style. Almost like an upright steamer trunk, this impressive 3-piece desk had two sides that swing out on castors, revealing tons of cubbies and drawers and creating a cozy, cocoon-like space.

The Bureau Desk

In France, the bureau desk got its name (and, incidentally, so did the French word for “office, ” where the desk lived) from a traditional swath of dark red fabric that was draped across the top of a desk—in Latin, burrus, for red.

Developed during, the bureau desk ramped up the size and storage space for desks, combining a slant-top box with a lower chest of drawers. Pull-out slides built in next to the top drawer supported the top.

The bureau-style desk led to one of the coolest aspects of the desk: myriad little pigeonholes, slots and drawers for stashing all manner of paper, pens, and letters. They are often named for their front surface: straight-front, serpentine-front, oxbow, block-front, or bowed-front.

Kneehole Desk

The kneehole desk developed during fanciful, Rococo, resplendent with Chippendale’s signature details: block, flat, or serpentine fronts; oversized brass mounts; large ball-and-claw feet; and molded edges. It was a brilliant turn in desk design, making it easier to sit closer to the desk without having to turn to the side.

The backs of the kneehole openings were either open, or closed—sometimes with a small cabinet built into the back. This form of desk grew incredibly popular in Victorian times, evolving into two other popular forms: pedestal desks, and the roll-top desk.

The Partner’s Desk

A less-common variant of the Pedestal desk, this two-sided beast of a desk was designed to accommodate partners working in banks in England in the 1800s. Stately and impressive, it was essentially two pedestal desks made into one, with drawers and cupboards on both sides. It sounds a little distracting, but efficiency and communication were the goal. A hallmark of this desk is its leather-covered top, which could be replaced and prevented scratches.

Roll-top or Cylinder Desk

A variation on both the knee-hole desk and the tambour secretary, the cylinder desk features a solid barrel roll, or a tambour-style shuttered piece that rolls horizontally into the back of the desk.

Sheraton-Style Desks

Some of the most beautiful writing desks came out of the and periods, with the lightness of Neoclassical forms married with rich veneers and elegant brass mounts. Thomas Sheraton himself was a big fan of including secret doors and hidden mechanisms in his desks.

Modern Desks

Modern desks are basically variations of all of these styles, just less complicated. desks were crafted in lacquer, plastic and metal, with sleek aerodynamic shapes and shiny surfaces in chrome and Bakelite. desks took on fluid forms, like boomerangs and kidney shapes, in blonde Scandinavian style wood, or simple, industrial-inspired shapes, like With computers, phones, and the Internet… desks have become as streamlined as technology will allow.

1. [Blake, J.P. Little Books About Old Furniture: The Period of Queen Anne. Frederick A Stokes Company. New York, NY.]

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