What to Look For in a Writing Desk

Writing desks are modern pieces of furniture that may be found in both home and office settings. Although originally designed to serve the sole purpose of handwriting letters, the uses of this type of desk have changed radically over time -- especially given the invention of the PC. Its history can be traced back to the 17th century. During that time, a writing desk was associated more with a status symbol of wealth because of its cost and the fact that most people of that era were illiterate.

Numerous classical desk styles dominated between the 17th and 20th centuries. Among them were Queen Anne, Victorian, William and Mary, and Georgian. Such styles offered the highest-quality of ornate hand-craftsmanship available at that time, like gilding, elaborate wood-carved patterns, dovetailed joints, cabriole legs that curved outward from the desk before ultimately curving back inward and ending in a ball-and-claw design that resembled an animal's paw. Such intricate architecture also explains why only the wealthy could afford them and such desks were initially regarded as more of decorative pieces or status symbols instead of functional pieces of furniture. The typical writing desk model produced during that historical era had a flat writing surface that was roughly 30 inches tall and was supported by bobbin, cabriole, or trumpet-turned legs. The flat writing surface at the rear of the desk was supported by a wall with several desktop storage units that were also called "pigeonholes." Writing implements, sensitive documents, and other various files were stored in these spaces. A set of drawers that extended for the full width of the desk were located underneath the writing surface. Many desks came with a flip-down or roll top that slide down over the writing surface and pigeonholes that locked into place to secure the user's privacy and sensitive documents. They also occasionally came with a hutch or shelving at the top, based on the user's needs at that time. A classical writing desk of this era was constructed of wood -- mainly walnut and later on, mahogany. Desks made of pine, cherry, and oak could also be readily found, however.

As overall literacy increased, so did the demand for functional and affordable desks, especially among the middle and lower classes. Combined with mass production capabilities of the early 20th century, the elaborate wood carvings and other indicia of ornate craftsmanship largely disappeared. In its place appeared features that were rapidly producible by steam-driven machines. From that point on, materials other than wood were used to construct these desks; steel, laminate, and even glass became very common. This was also the point at which such desks became more affordable for the masses.

The inception of the personal computer wrought even more changes for these desks. Their horizontal writing surfaces were enlarged to accommodate computer monitors. The desks also had built-in compartments where scanners, printers, and other PC peripherals could be stored. Pigeonholes were done away with, as sensitive documents were now stored either on the computer or inside of file cabinets that frequently replaced the drawers that once spanned the entire width of the desk. Due to the desire for greater practicality and affordability, the hutch also disappeared in most models. Many modern desks had modular designs that could be dissembled and reassembled as desired; whereas, classical-style desks were built as bulky, one-piece units.

Many of the classical writing desk models have become extremely rare nowadays. However, many replicas are being manufactured at relatively attractive price points. Such desks can be very beautiful decorative furnishings. However, a contemporary desk design may be a superior alternative for those who are looking more for affordability and practicality.


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