Style Files: History of the Desk

Did you know that the growth and spread of literacy in Europe created an entire new category of furniture? It wasn’t until the 17th century that the desk as we know it today was created. Before then, scribes would sit at sloped, rudimentary tables to make copies of books and manuscripts and documents. Those who were able to read and write before the 17th century were typically of the upper class and as such, they wanted refined furniture that would suit their needs—specific needs—for writing and reading. Thus, the desk was born.

Before the desks we are now familiar with came into fashion, people would often work at writing tables. Renaissance Germany created the most famous writing tables with a very neat feature—secret drawers. These writing tables often had multiple drawers tucked into other drawers to keep secrets and documents well concealed (remember, this was before password protection software!) In Spain, these desks were Moorish in style and known as “varguenos.” These varguenos had hinged tops on box shaped stands and were inlaid with silver, known as “plateresque.”

The next big innovation in desks was known as the Bible Box. It was simply a large, sturdy box, not unlike a chest, that featured a slanted top and a small lip around the edge. The Bible Box would display the family Bible when opened or could function as a writing table when closed.

In France, during the William and Mary period (same time period as Colonial America) writing desks, or desks-on-frames were known as ecritoires. They were fitted in the typical French style with brass fittings, molded edges, carved skirts, inlay, spiral legs, and gorgeous woods. In the 1660’s the bureau Mazarin was crated which featured a giant, flattop, eight legs (four per pedestal), kneehole-style body, a bow front, three drawers, and Baroque stretchers. The desk was named after Louis XIV’s principal minister and was the first official French-style writing table.

Soon the heavy, Baroqu style of the Mazarin would be outdated, and the people of Europe wanted Rococo-style desks. Flat desks, that looked like tables, were suddenly back in vogue. From there the secretary desk became popular. The secretary combines the lower, slant-top desk for writing space with a stack of tall drawers or cabinets. Next, the shorter, low secretary, or Tambour desk came into existence, which combined the writing and storage capabilities of the tall secretary with a slimmer, more compact style sensibility. In France the bureau desk then became popular. The bureau desk combined all the style and storage of the larger secretary desks and added a slide out table that could be accessed when the desk was opened.

Today’s desks are a combination of all the previous desks. Some people prefer mid century secetaries while others like the look and feel of a Rococo writing table. Choosing the right desk is about the feeling you get when you sit down to work. Your desk should be an inspiring piece of furniture that reflects your personality and worth ethic. At AntiquitiesWeb we know how important it is to have a desk that allows you to get down to business. We have the following selection of beautiful antique desks:



Machine Age Art Deco American Streamline half circle desk in solid mahogany with exterior book shelves. Circa 1930s.


American Art Deco desk in the style of Gilbert Rohde with four drawers. Desk is maple stained mahogany. Handles are bakelite with brass trim. Circa 1930-1940.


Secretary and chair from the Casa e Giardino, Italy 1941. Italian walnut and brass.


Mahogany, ivory, lizard desk. France, circa 1935. signed with applied metal label to interior of central drawer: Mercier Freres.


Biedermeier Butler Desk flamed birchwood, ebonized handles, brass keys. Drop front writing surface with interior drawers above three large exterior drawers. Circa 1860-1880.


Biedermeier Butler Desk oak, inlaid ebonized wood, ebonized columns, and brass hardware. Drop front writing surface with interior drawers above three large exterior drawers. Circa 1860-1880.


Biedermeier “piano” writing desk. Piano base w/mahogany and pyramide-mahogany veneer w/maple vein contours. Presumable after WW1, changed from piano to writing desk, manufactured south west old Austrian Hungarian monarch. Private estate in Vienna, completely restored and repolished. Certificate of Origin Budapest Hungary. Circa 1860-1880.

If you’re looking for a one-of-kind antique desk then contact AntiquitiesWeb. Our selection of top quality antique desks and chairs are unique, original, and timelessly beautiful. No matter what kind of antique you’re looking for, AntiquitiesWeb has the piece for you. To see these pieces and more call us at 212-644-4236, contact us, or visit our New York gallery.


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