The Charming History of the Desk: Part 1

Furniture history is something we take a great interest in and one particular piece of furniture that has captured our attention recently is the desk.

The writing desk really does have quite a charming history and it is captivating to learn how this humble structure that evolved from a chest – as did many furniture pieces – developed into something so practical and attractive over the years.

The first drawings of desks date back to 1440 and depict scribes sitting at tall, sloping tables. But it would be the end of 17th century before the desk evolved into the type of structure we would recognise today because up until that point, much of the population remained illiterate, which meant there was little call for a table dedicated to writers.

Here in this two-part blog series we take a tour through desk history, starting during the reign of one of our favourite French Kings and furniture aficionados, Louis XIV.

Louis XIV: Bureau Mazarin

It probably comes as no surprise that one of the first formal writing desks was created in France, or that it came about on a grand scale. Around the 1660s, the ‘bureau Mazarin’ was developed. It had a most regal air about it and featured a large flat top and kneehole style body together with three drawers to each side. There were eight legs, usually curved and carved in Baroque style. Mazarin was Louis XIV’s principal minister and his name was given to this first manifestation of the French style ‘writing table’, which was embellished with glorious brass inlays and marquetry courtesy of the King’s cherished cabinet maker, Andre Boulle.

Louis XV: Bureau Plat

Rococo styling brought us the Bureau plat, or the ‘flat desk’. Cabriole legs supported a table-like structure with slimline drawers. The plat was all about curvaceous crafting and was the must-have furniture piece of the aristocracy. You’ll see plat-style desks in use today, often in boutique settings such as attic studios or hotels.

The Bureau Desk

Bureaus present so much intrigue, and perhaps this is down to the expansive volume of fascinating fiction that has been plotted around the secrets that hide within their concealed cubbyholes. When you open up an antique bureau, what will you find?

The bureau drew its name from the Latin for red, ‘burrus’. Why you may ask would a desk be named after a colour? It was actually down to the swathe of red woollen fabric that would be used to cover it.

The bureau was first introduced during the reign of William III and Mary III, co-regents over England, Scotland and Ireland from 1689 until 1694. William and Mary style was all about aesthetics and comfort, and this piece of furniture would certainly offer that, with its tidy-away design housing a mountain of storage space courtesy of an abundance of pigeon holes, mini-drawers, niches and apertures.

Queen Anne: The Secretary Desk

Harbouring something of a split personality, the secretary desk (also known as the lady’s desk’ or ‘tall desk’) originated during the Queen Anne period of the early 18th century. Was it a desk, or a storage unit? In reality, it was both. Designed during the ‘age of the diarists’, these charmingly formal pieces of furniture took their name from the Latin word for writer, ‘secretarius’. They comprised an upper storage area consisting of either open shelves or a closed cabinet fitted with shelves or pigeon holes. Under that there was a slanting writing space, and sometimes there would be drawers underneath that.

Original Queen Anne secretaries were usually crowned with striking carved bonnet tops and this design remained the same throughout the Chippendale period. When the Regency era arrived the designs had become a little more restrained, but the fact remained that these pieces were some of the most practical and sophisticated types of desk to grace history.

And it’s with Queen Anne that we sign-off this first instalment of our two-part series on the history of the desk. In part two we’ll be exploring the desk style of the Chippendale and Regency periods including a look at the partner’s desk and a peek into what became of the writer’s table come the Art Deco era.