« Saint Jérôme dans son cabinet de travail » par Antonello de Messine, vers 1475, huile sur bois © Public domain/ National Gallery London

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The History of the Desk - Part I

Armoires and cupboards, tables and chairs, sofas and beds : Of all the furniture handed down to us by history, the piece that is surely the most powerfully linked to the evolution of society is the desk. The reasons for this are clear when we recall this object’s primary purpose: writing.

Though the act of writing may seem utterly commonplace to us today, it has only been so for a few centuries. In the Middle Ages, only monks, a handful of nobles, and those practicing certain trades had this capability, along with reading, thus enabling them to exchange letters. Reading, writing, and corresponding are the three occupations that would evolve side-by-side with the development of the desk, which became essential to society as literacy spread.

Let’s go back to the beginning : In French, the word for “desk” (and, interestingly, “office”) – bureau – comes from bure, meaning frieze or homespun, the inexpensive woolen cloth used to make monks’ cowls.

« La Chambre du roi Louis XIII », Château de Brissac (Maine-et-Loire) © Libens libenter / Creative Commons

« La Chambre du roi Louis XIII », Château de Brissac (Maine-et-Loire) © Libens libenter / Creative Commons

Originally, this material was placed on a table to create a work space and protect the wood from splashed ink. When, during the modern era, the first tables were invented specifically for nobility to use for writing, the word’s usage would change from meaning a temporary workspace to a piece of furniture. It is one of history’s little ironies that it is becoming an increasingly temporary place these days, for other reasons. In the early 17th century, after decades of religious wars, France was at peace. Henry IV was seated on a hard-won throne and society was ready to move on to more sedate activities, a change of pace from the massacres that had plagued the previous century. This was the beginning of an era of unprecedented literary activity, one that persisted through the golden age of French power under Henri IV, Louis XIII, and later Louis XIV. In a kingdom undergoing dramatic centralization, literary salons, preciosity (excessive refinement in art, music, language), and epistolary exchanges fueled the need for a piece of furniture devoted to writing: the desk.

In Memoirs of Maximilian de Bethune, Duke of Sully, Prime Minister to Henry the Great, translated from the original French, Sully tells of when Henry IV insisted on such an object: “…he ordered that I should have a great desk or cabinet, contrived full of drawers and holes, each with a lock and key, and all lined with crimson satin, in such number as to contain, in a regular disposition, all the pieces that were to be there deposited.”The desk spread rapidly for kings and their advisers, nobility, and the upper middle class to use. The early versions were often covered in precious marquetry.

Grand bureau de Nicolas Fouquet (œuvre d'André-Charles Boulle), Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (Seine-et-Marne) © Jean-Pol Grandmont / Creative Commons

Grand bureau de Nicolas Fouquet (œuvre d'André-Charles Boulle), Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (Seine-et-Marne) © Jean-Pol Grandmont / Creative Commons

Several different designs soon appeared, with spaces that closed and locked, often for administrative and epistolary needs. As linguistic history would have it, this style would come to be called a Mazarin desk, after Cardinal Mazarin, who was the Chief Minister of France from 1642 to 1661, under Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Then came the bureau plat, most like our own executive desks, under Louis XIV and Louis XV. The costliest desks at the time were trimmed in Boulle work, a technique that owes its name to cabinetmaker André Charles Boulle : It involves veneering furniture with elaborate designs in tortoiseshell and copper, brass, and pewter, often incorporating arabesques. The prolific and imaginative craftsman also had the inspiration of adding decorative bronze edging to protect the furniture’s edges.

Bureau d'époque Louis XIV dit Cabinet Mazarin © De Boutselis / Creative Commons

Bureau d'époque Louis XIV dit Cabinet Mazarin © De Boutselis / Creative Commons

Bonheur du jour de Martin Carlin, 1770 © Public Domain/The Met/The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982

Bonheur du jour de Martin Carlin, 1770 © Public Domain/The Met/The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982

Soon thereafter came the French Regency and the reign of Louis XV – and the appearance of the cylinder desk and drop-leaf secretary, which were soon adorned with attributes of the rocaille style, particularly in bronze. The desk was spreading across society and becoming more refined through Boulle work, wood marquetry, Chinese or Japanese lacquer panels, and the use of many botanical species: mahogany, various rosewoods, kingwood, etc. The era’s great cabinetmakers demonstrated increasing ingenuity and among the masterpieces of that day is the Bureau du Roi, the desk of King.

Louis XV crafted by Jean Henri Riesener and the first roll-top desk. In addition to its aesthetic refinements, this icon of craftsmanship featured a complex mechanism that allowed the cylindrical portion be fully opened with a single turn of the key. The cabinetmaker would remain Marie Antoinette’s preferred craftsman and, in 1783, would again create a small desk, in Louis XVI style this time, for the Trianon. As cylinder desks were very expensive to make, simpler desks began replacing them as the century came to a close. Small lady’s writing desks, a design known in both English and French as a bonheur du jour (essentially “daytime delight”), were also invented, so that literate ladies could keep up with their correspondence. Its sibling, the slant-top secretary, was a piece of writing furniture with a lid that stayed closed when at an angle, but opened horizontally to provide a writing surface.

Bureau exécuté pour le roi Louis XV, par Riesner - Illustration extraite du « Dictionnaire de l’ameublement et de la décoration - Tome I » par Henry Havard, Ed. Maison Quantin, 1894

Bureau exécuté pour le roi Louis XV, par Riesner - Illustration extraite du « Dictionnaire de l’ameublement et de la décoration - Tome I » par Henry Havard, Ed. Maison Quantin, 1894

Bureau ministériel, 10 février 1911 : photographie de presse, Agence Rol © gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Bureau ministériel, 10 février 1911 : photographie de presse, Agence Rol © gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

With the arrival of the 19th century, France was modernizing and the style that came into vogue was the minister’s desk, invented in the previous century, but destined to become widespread in a new world in which business was of greater public interest. This type of desk, still the foundation for many of our desks today, featured a substantial number of drawers on each side of the legs, used to store files, a practical function for those handling either administration and commerce. It was also the era in which classic French styles were reinterpreted and the great cabinetmakers were rediscovered.

Bureau ministre, second Empire, à caissons (acajou, bois cuir), Collection Mobilier national © Isabelle Bideau/Mobilier National/janvier 2019

Bureau ministre, second Empire, à caissons (acajou, bois cuir), Collection Mobilier national © Isabelle Bideau/Mobilier National/janvier 2019

The following century saw styles radically evolve due to shifts in aesthetic tastes and desks were simplified and stripped of their ornaments, though without any disproportionate changes to their form and function. In the post-war period, rationalization of the work of reconstruction saw the spread of legless, wall-mounted desks using the principle of the descending flap that serves as a writing desk. Then came the invention of computers, gradually rendering clusters of drawers obsolete, as files were being digitized. The desk – and the office it spawned – once again became mobile, a changing place rather than a piece of furniture. From the humble homespun cowl to the nomadic worker’s home office, the desk has come full circle...

IBM 360/85 console of the NSA, 1971 © Public Domain / Creative Commons

IBM 360/85 console of the NSA, 1971 © Public Domain / Creative Commons

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