Desks delineate personal spaces for their users, who stand or sit behind these essential pieces of furniture to work, study, settle accounts, daydream, and play. In the United States, one of the nation’s most famous desks is a portable rectangular box, with locking drawer and lift-up lid, upon which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. In fact, portable writing desks were common in the 18th century, when they were outfitted with tiny tambours, mini rolltops, and slanted surfaces to make letter writing comfortable and convenient.
While many full-size American desks were patterned after those popularized in Europe, some styles were home grown. Desks made by the Shakers, for example, pared the form down to its essentials, foregoing Queen Anne, Rococo, or Victorian frills and for functionality in pine, maple, cherry, and other woods. Sometimes the desk’s drop-front writing surface would fold down to reveal a secretary with slots, drawers, and shelves. Other times the surface would lift up to expose storage area, a feature especially common in stand-up desks.
The Shaker aesthetic was just one of several inspirations for the Arts and Crafts or Mission style, as practiced by Gustav Stickley, his brothers Leopold and John George, Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard, and Charles Limbert. Which is not to say these designers didn’t believe in decoration. But instead of adorning their furniture with fancy finials and animal-like feet, Arts and Crafts designers made their desks from beautiful materials such as white oak, whose grain shimmers when quarter-sawn.
Materials continued to play an important role in desks throughout the Art Deco era, when woods such as walnut and bird’s-eye maple, as well as techniques like mirroring (in which veneers were placed side-by-side to create the illusion of a reflection in the grain), were commonplace. But Modernism was nipping at Deco’s heels, and before long these relatively exotic materials were replaced by planks of plain ash (perhaps stained white and black), unfinished birch, and slabs of glass, held in place by steel or chrome frames.