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Desk; c. 1765; mahogany, chestnut and tulip poplar; 87.3 x 92.7 x 52.1 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) Bureau table MET DP108643.jpg
Desk; c. 1765; mahogany, chestnut and tulip poplar; 87.3 x 92.7 x 52.1 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)

A desk or bureau is a piece of furniture with a flat table-style work surface used in a school, office, home or the like for academic, professional or domestic activities such as reading, writing, or using equipment such as a computer. [1] [2] Desks often have one or more drawers, compartments, or pigeonholes to store items such as office supplies and papers. [2] Desks are usually made of wood or metal, although materials such as glass are sometimes seen.


Some desks have the form of a table, although usually only one side of a desk is suitable to sit at (there are some exceptions, such as a partners desk), [3] unlike most usual tables. Some desks do not have the form of a table, for instance, an armoire desk [4] is a desk built within a large wardrobe-like cabinet, and a portable desk [5] is light enough to be placed on a person's lap. Since many people lean on a desk while using it, a desk must be sturdy. In most cases, people sit at a desk, either on a separate chair or a built-in chair (e.g., in some school desks). Some people use standing desks to be able to stand while using them.


The word "desk" originated from the Modern Latin word desca "table to write on", from the mid 14th century. [6] It is a modification of the Old Italian desco "table", from Latin discus "dish" or "disc". [2] The word desk has been used figuratively since 1797. [6] A desk may also be known as a bureau, counter, davenport, escritoire, lectern, reading stand, rolltop desk, school desk, workspace, or writing desk. [7]


Chinese editing desk of the 12th century Yokeback armchair and painting table, Ming dynasty, Metropolitan Museum of Art.jpg
Chinese editing desk of the 12th century

Desk-style furniture appears not to have been used in classical antiquity or in other ancient centers of literate civilization in the Middle East or Far East, but there is no specific proof. Medieval illustrations show the first pieces of furniture which seem to have been designed and constructed for reading and writing. Before the invention of the movable type printing press in the 15th century, any reader was potentially a writer or publisher or both, since any book or other document had to be copied by hand. The desks were designed with slots and hooks for bookmarks and for writing implements. Since manuscript volumes were sometimes large and heavy, desks of the period usually had massive structures. [8]

Ornamental desk (walnut), designed by Frank Furness, 1870-71, Philadelphia Museum of Art Desk, designed by Frank Furness, 1870-71, Philadelphia Museum of Art.jpg
Ornamental desk (walnut), designed by Frank Furness, 1870-71, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Desks of the Renaissance and later eras had relatively slimmer structures, and more and more drawers were added as woodworking became more precise and cabinet-making became a distinct trade. [8] It is often possible to find out if a table or other piece of furniture of those times was designed to be used as a desk, by looking for a drawer with three small separations (one each for the ink pot, the blotter and the powder tray) and storage for pens.

The basic desk forms were developed mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries. The modern ergonomic desk is a refinement of the mechanically complex drawing table or drafting table [9] from the end of the 18th century.

Industrial era

Refinements to the first desk forms were considerable through the 19th century, as steam-driven machinery made cheap wood-pulp paper possible towards the end of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution. This allowed an increase in the number of the white-collar workers. As these office workers grew in number, desks were mass-produced for them in large quantities, using newer, steam-driven woodworking machinery. This was the first sharp division in desk manufacturing. From then on, limited quantities of finely crafted desks have been continued to be constructed by master cabinetmakers for the homes and offices of the rich, while the vast majority of desks were assembled rapidly by unskilled labor from components turned out in batches by machine tools. Thus, age alone does not guarantee that an antique desk is a masterpiece, since this split in quality took place more than a hundred years ago.

More paper and correspondence drove the need for more complex desks and more specialized desks, such as the rolltop desk which was a mass-produced, slatted variant of the classical cylinder desk. [10] It provided a relatively fast and cheap way to lock up the ever increasing flow of paperwork without having to file everything by the end of the day. Paper documents became voluminous enough to be stored separately in filing cabinets. Correspondence and other documents were now too numerous to get enough attention to be rolled up or folded again, then summarized and tagged before being pigeonholed in a small compartment over or under the work surface of the desk. The famous Wooton desk and others were the last manifestations of the "pigeonhole" style. The surfaces of some newer desks could be transformed into many different shapes and angles, and were ideal for artists, draftsmen, and engineers.

Steel versions

A small boom in office work and desk production occurred at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th with the introduction of smaller and less expensive electrical presses[ further explanation needed ] and efficient carbon paper coupled with the general acceptance of the typewriter. Steel desks were introduced to take heavier loads of paper and withstand the pounding meted out on the typewriters. This also gave rise to the "typewriter desk", a platform, sometimes on wheels and with expandable surface via flaps, that was built to a specific height to make typing easier and more comfortable than when using a standard or traditional desk. The L-shaped desk also became popular, with the "leg" being used as an annex for the typewriter.

Another big expansion occurred after the Second World War with the spread of photocopying. Paperwork further increased the number of desk workers, whose work surfaces diminished in size as office rents rose, and the paper itself was moved more and more directly to filing cabinets or sent to specialized records management centers, or transformed into microfilm, or both. Modular desks seating several co-workers close by became common. Even executive or management desks became mass-produced, built of cheap plywood or fiberboard covered with wood finish, as the number of people managing the white collar workers became even greater.

Student models

School desk manufactured by the American S.F. Company of Buffalo, New York in about 1900 SchoolDeskBenchWebsterNewYork.jpg
School desk manufactured by the American S.F. Company of Buffalo, New York in about 1900

A student desk can be any desk form meant for use by an enrollee in elementary, secondary or postsecondary education. Anna Breadin designed and patented a one-piece school desk in the late 1880s that was built with a table section attached in front of a wooden seat and back rest. Before this, most students in America sat either on chairs or long benches at long tables. [11]

Student desk and chair commonly used in high schools and universities. Student Desk.jpg
Student desk and chair commonly used in high schools and universities.

In homes, the term "student desk" designates a small pedestal desk, [12] or writing table [13] constructed for use by a teenager or a pre-teen in their room. It often is a pedestal desk, with only one of the two pedestals and about two-thirds of the desk surface. Such desks are sometimes called "left-pedestal desks" and "right-pedestal desks", depending on the position of the single pedestal. These desks are not as tall as normal adult desks. In some cases, the desk is connected from the seat to the table.

The desks are usually mass-produced in steel or wood and sold on the consumer market. [11] There is a wide variety of plans available for woodworking enthusiasts to build their own versions. Modern mass-produced student desks are often made with laminate table tops and molded plastic seats in a combined single unit, with storage found under the desktop or on a wire shelf beneath the seat. [11] There are many novel forms of student desks made to maximize the relatively restricted area available in a child's room. One of the most common is the bunk-bed desk, also called the "loft bed". [14]

Influence of computers

A desk in an office Schreibtisch.2.JPG
A desk in an office
An office desk in a cubicle, which shows the sharing of space between computer components and paper documents Desk333.JPG
An office desk in a cubicle, which shows the sharing of space between computer components and paper documents

Until the late 1980s, desks remained a place for paperwork and "business machines", but the personal computer was taking hold in large and medium-sized businesses. New office suites included a "knee hole" credenza which was a place for a terminal or personal computer and keyboard tray. Soon, new office designs also included "U-shape" suites which added a bridge worksurface between the back credenza and front desk. During the North American recession of the early 1990s, many managers and executive workers were required to do word processing and other functions previously completed by typing pools and secretaries. This necessitated a more central placement of the computer on these "U-shape" suite desk systems.

With computers more prevalent, "computer paper" became an office supply. The beginning of this paper boom gave birth to the dream of the "paperless office", in which all information would only appear on computer monitors. However, the ease of printing personal documents and the lack of comfort with reading text on computer monitors led to a great deal of document printing. The need for paperwork space vied with the increased desk space taken up by computer monitors, computers, printers, scanners, and other peripherals. The need for more space led some desk companies to attach some accessory items to the modesty panel at the back of the desk, such as outlet strips and cable management, in an attempt to clear the desktop of electrical clutter.

Through the "tech boom" of the 1990s, office worker numbers increased along with the cost of office space rent. The cubicle desk became widely accepted in North America as an economical way of squeezing more desk workers into the same space, without further shrinking the size of their cramped working surfaces. The cubicle walls have become a new place for workers to affix papers and other items once left on the horizontal desktop surface. Even computer monitor bezels themselves were used to attach reminder notes and business cards.

Early in the 2000s, private office workers found that their side and back computer-placing furniture made it hard to show the contents of a computer screen to guests or co-workers. Manufacturers have responded to this issue by creating "forward facing" desks where computer monitors are placed on the front of the "U-shape" workstation. This forward computer monitor placement promotes a clearer sight-line to greet colleagues and allows for common viewing of information displayed on a screen.

Replacement of bulky CRT monitors with flat panel LCDs freed up significant room on desktops. However, the size of displays often increased to accommodate multiple on-screen windows, to display more and more information simultaneously. The lighter weight and slimmer profile of the new displays allowed them to be mounted on flexible arms, so they could be swung into view or out of the way, and adjusted frequently as needed.

Notable examples

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Typewriter</span> Mechanical device for typing characters

A typewriter is a mechanical or electromechanical machine for typing characters. Typically, a typewriter has an array of keys, and each one causes a different single character to be produced on paper by striking an inked ribbon selectively against the paper with a type element. At the end of the nineteenth century, the term 'typewriter' was also applied to a person who used such a device.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Drawing board</span> Desk used for drawings and architecture

A drawing board is, in its antique form, a kind of multipurpose desk which can be used for any kind of drawing, writing or impromptu sketching on a large sheet of paper or for reading a large format book or other oversized document or for drafting precise technical illustrations. The drawing table used to be a frequent companion to a pedestal desk in a study or private library, during the pre-industrial and early industrial era.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Armoire desk</span>

An armoire desk is a writing-table built within a large cabinet, usually 1.5–2.0 metres high. The cabinet is closed by two to four full-height doors, to keep out dust or to give a tidy appearance to a room by hiding the cluttered working surface of the desk. This form of desk is usually placed against a wall, like its antique uncle, the secretary desk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pedestal desk</span> Desk with two cabinets of drawers

A pedestal desk or a tanker desk is usually a large, flat, free-standing desk made of a simple rectangular working surface resting on two pedestals or small cabinets of stacked drawers of one or two sizes, with plinths around the bases. Often, there is also a central large drawer above the legs and knees of the user. Sometimes, especially in the 19th century and modern examples, a "modesty panel" is placed in front, between the pedestals, to hide the legs and knees of the user from anyone else sitting or standing in front. This variation is sometimes called a "panel desk". The smaller and older pedestal desks with such a panel are sometimes called kneehole desks, and were usually placed against a wall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Desktop metaphor</span> Concept used on desktop computer graphical user interfaces

In computing, the desktop metaphor is an interface metaphor which is a set of unifying concepts used by graphical user interfaces to help users interact more easily with the computer. The desktop metaphor treats the computer monitor as if it is the top of the user's desk, upon which objects such as documents and folders of documents can be placed. A document can be opened into a window, which represents a paper copy of the document placed on the desktop. Small applications called desk accessories are also available, such as a desk calculator or notepad, etc.

The portable desk had many forms and is an ancestor of the portable computer, the modern laptop an atavistic grandchild of the 19th-century lap desk.

The Wooton desk is a variation of the fall front desk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bureau à gradin</span>

A bureau à gradin is an antique desk form resembling a writing table with, in addition, one or several tiers of small drawers and pigeonholes built on part of the desktop surface. Usually the drawers and pigeonholes directly face the user, but they can also surround three sides of the desk, as is the case for the Carlton house desk form. A small, portable version is a bonheur du jour.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tambour desk</span>

A tambour desk is a desk with desktop-based drawers and pigeonholes, in a way resembling bureau à gradin. The small drawers and nooks are covered, when required, by reeded or slatted shutters, tambours, which usually retract in the two sides, left and right. It is a flatter and "sideways" version of the rolltop desk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Davenport desk</span> Small desk

A Davenport desk, is a small desk with an inclined lifting desktop attached with hinges to the back of the body. Lifting the desktop accesses a large compartment with storage space for paper and other writing implements, and smaller spaces in the forms of small drawers and pigeonholes. The Davenport has drawers on one of its sides, which are sometimes concealed by a panel. This stack of side drawers holds up the back of the desk and most of its weight.

A campaign desk is an antique desk of normal size which was used by officers and their staffs in rear areas during a military campaign.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spinet desk</span>

A spinet desk is an antique desk with an exterior shape similar to a writing table, But slightly higher and is fitted with a single drawer under the whole length of the flat top surface. The spinet desk is so named because when closed it resembles a spinet, a musical instrument of the harpsichord family.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carlton House desk</span>

A Carlton House desk is a specific antique desk form within the more general bureau à gradin form. This form of desk is supposed to have been designed in the 18th century for the Prince of Wales by George Hepplewhite. It is named after Carlton House, which was at the time the London residence of the Prince, and sometimes is also known as a Carlton House writing table.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Computer desk</span> Furniture for computer users

The computer desk and related ergonomic desk are furniture pieces designed to comfortably and aesthetically provide a working surface and house or conceal office equipment including computers, peripherals and cabling for office and home-office users.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Credenza desk</span>

A credenza desk is a modern desk form usually placed next to a wall as a secondary work surface to that of another desk, such as a pedestal desk, in a typical executive office. When used as an active work surface, the credenza desk is often placed against the wall immediately behind or perpendicular to the main desk, but close enough that the user can reach it from the seated position at the main desk by simply swivelling and wheeling their office chair over to it. It would typically be used for extra storage as well as an open work surface for paperwork, filing, or other tasks taking up more room than would be practical at the main desk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Table (furniture)</span> Piece of furniture with a flat top

A table is an item of furniture with a raised flat top and is supported most commonly by 1 or 4 legs, used as a surface for working at, eating from or on which to place things. Some common types of table are the dining room table, which is used for seated persons to eat meals; the coffee table, which is a low table used in living rooms to display items or serve refreshments; and the bedside table, which is commonly used to place an alarm clock and a lamp. There are also a range of specialized types of tables, such as drafting tables, used for doing architectural drawings, and sewing tables.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Page layout</span> Part of graphic design that deals in the arrangement of visual elements on a page

In graphic design, page layout is the arrangement of visual elements on a page. It generally involves organizational principles of composition to achieve specific communication objectives.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Writing desk</span> Furniture used for writing

A desk is a piece of furniture intended for writing on, hence writing desk is redundant. It is usually found in an office or study.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Word processor</span> Device or computer program used for writing and editing documents

A word processor (WP) is a device or computer program that provides for input, editing, formatting, and output of text, often with some additional features.


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Further reading