By Rosemary Lane
Desks are everywhere: in our homes, schools, offices, the Oval Office. They have even been fashioned on treadmills. But desks weren’t always essential. The origins of the desk trace back 600 years, sparked not by a single moment of invention, but by the growth of literacy.
Medieval scribes used the earliest known desks around 1440. Copying books by hand was laborious and backbreaking, so sloped boxes were fashioned, angled at 45 degrees to protect the neck and back. The boxes were placed on top of a table or affixed to a wall. Scribes were a minority though; desks were usually found only in monasteries. Most of Europe’s general population could not read or write, so desks weren’t a necessity.
That all changed with the advent of the printing press and the resulting spike in literacy. By the end of the 1600s, more of Europe’s middle class was literate, creating the need for more paper and more storage.
Enter the Bible box. Most households stored their Bibles and other valuable papers in wooden boxes they could transport or keep locked at home. The boxes, most made out of oak, were about eight inches high by two feet wide, some with a slanted top that could be used for writing.
Eventually, they evolved into “writing boxes” or portable writing desks. Thomas Jefferson designed his own writing box, which had a top that folded open for more writing space, and on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Jane Austen wrote of hers, “No part of my property could have been such a prize before, for in my writing box was all my worldly wealth.”
At the beginning of the 18th century, people needed desks with more storage. Writing boxes gained stands, resulting in bureaus in France, varguenos in Spain and writing tables in Germany. The wooden desks resembled chests, with a set of drawers on the bottom for storage and a slanted top surface for writing that opened to reveal cubbyholes, slots and often, hidden drawers.
Throughout the 18th century, cabinet-makers kept innovating, creating modern desks as we know them today. The kneehole desk had columns of drawers on either side of a table with space in between to rest one’s legs, so the writer wouldn’t have to sit sideways. The secretary desk, or “lady’s writing table,” had more storage, with a bookcase attached to a bottom chest. Between the two was a hinged writing flap that could be pulled downward. When upright, the flap would hide all the cubbyholes, compartments and paperwork.
The roll-top desk was also invented during this period. Louis XV commissioned a secure desk for his inner study at Versailles. The desk took nine years to make, and Marie Antoinette’s favorite designer ultimately finished the project in 1769. Called the bureau du roi, the desk contained thin wooden slats that curved around a cylinder that was hidden behind the top drawers. Louis could close the desk by turning a key and open it by pressing a button.
By the mid-1800s, many furniture designers and tradesmen migrated to America, creating a booming furniture market. Abner Cutler of Buffalo, NY, improved upon the bureau du roi in 1850. Unlike Louis’s desk, Cutler’s roll top could be mass produced and was a mainstay in offices until the Tanker desk exploded onto the market in the 1940s. Made out of thick steel with two flanking pedestals, the Tanker desk, became the largest selling commercial desk in the world.
Modern desks have morphed into pods or conjoined office desks, such as the ErgoQuest Zero Gravity workstation — a $4,500-all-in-one reclining chair with a padded desk and attached screens — and standing desks. Other recent desk developments include a Kinetic Desk, which senses your presence and urges you to sit or stand, and a standing desk with built-in pull-up bars.
A video by the Harvard Innovation Lab shows just how quickly the modern desk is changing. In the video, a desk from 1984 is cluttered with a fax machine, phone, globe, books, calendar and pens. The items are then dragged onto a laptop as apps, leaving the desk empty. Which begs the question: If all we need now is a laptop, will the desk become obsolete?