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For places in Iran, see Desk, Iran.

A desk , or bureau is a generally wooded piece of furniture and a type of useful table often used in a school or office setting for various academic or professional activities such as reading or writing on or using technology such as a computer.[1][2]

Desks often have one or more drawers, compartments, or pigeon holes to store items such as office supplies and papers.[2] Unlike a regular table, usually only one side of a desk is suitable to sit on (though there are some exceptions, such as a partners desk).[3] Not all desks 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. Desks were first made from wood, but are slowly being converted into harder materials that last longer.

A desk is also known as a bureau, counter, davenport, escritoire, lectern, reading stand, rolltop desk, school desk, workspace or writing desk.[6] In Spanish a desk is called escritorio.[7]


The word desk comes from the Modern Latin word desca, “table to write on”, from the mid 14th century.[8] It is a modification of the Old Italian desco table, from Latin discus dish, disc.[2] The word desk has been used figuratively since 1797.[8]

Early desks[edit]

Chinese editing desk of the 12th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

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.[9]

Desks of the Renaissance and later eras had relatively slimmer structures, and more and more drawers as woodworking became more precise and cabinet-making became a distinct trade.[9] 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 room for pens.

The desk forms we are familiar with in this beginning of the millennium were born mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ergonomic desk of the last decades is the newest addition to a long list of desk forms, but in a way it is only a refinement of the mechanically complex drawing table or drafting table[10] of the end of the 18th century.

Industrial era[edit]

An untidy desk.

Refinements to those first desk forms were considerable through the 19th century, as steam-driven machinery made cheap wood-based paper possible in the last periods of the first phase of the industrial revolution. This produced a boom in the number of, or some might say the birth of, the white-collar worker. 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 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 shift took place more than a hundred years ago.

More paper and more 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.[11] It provided a relatively fast and cheap way to lock up the ever increasing flow of paper without having to file everything by the end of the day. Paper documents started leaving the desk as a "home," with the general introduction of 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 newer desks could be transformed into many different shapes and angles and were ideal for artists.

Steel desks[edit]

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 and efficient carbon papers 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. The L-shaped desk became popular, with the "leg" being used as an annex for the typewriter.

Another big boom occurred after the Second World War with the spread of photocopying. Paperwork drove even higher the number of desk workers, whose work surface diminished in size as office rents rose, and the paper itself was moved more and more directly to filing cabinets of sent to 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 or people managing the white collar workers became even greater.

Student desks[edit]

A student desk.

A student desk can be any desk form meant for use by a student. Anna Breadin designed and patented a school desk in the late 1880s that was built with a table section and attached in front of it was a wooden seat and back rest. Before this, most students sat either on chairs or long benches at long tables.[12]

Usually the term designates a small pedestal desk[13] or writing table[14] constructed for use by a teenager or a pre-teen in their room at home. 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.[12] There is a wide variety of plans available for woodworking enthusiasts. Modern 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.[12] Desks are usually found in offices and other working areas. They are also commonly found in bedrooms, for decoration and work space. 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.[15]

Influence of computers[edit]

Until the late 1980s, desks remained a place for paperwork and business negotiation, though at the end of this decade, 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 manager and executive workers had 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.

A desk in an office.

With computers abounding, "computer paper" became an office staple. The beginning of this paper boom gave birth to the dream of the "paperless office", in which all information would 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 rising desk space taken up by computer monitors, CPUs, printers, scanners, and other peripherals. As well, the need for more space led some desk companies to attach some items to the modesty panel at the back of the desk, such as multi-outlets and cabling.

Through the "tech boom" of the 1990s, office worker numbers skyrocketed along with the cost of office space rent. The cubicle desk became widely accepted in North America as an economical way of putting more desk workers in the same space without actually shrinking the size of their working surfaces. The cubicle walls have become new place for workers to affix papers and other items once left on the horizontal desktop surface. Even computer monitor frames themselves are 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, increases computer screen privacy and allows for common viewing of information displayed on a screen.

Famous desks[edit]

The Resolute desk in the Oval Office has been used by many presidents, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Harry S. Truman and President John F. Kennedy. It is made from the timbers of the HMS Resolute, an abandoned British ship discovered by an American vessel and returned to the Queen of Great Britain as a token of friendship and goodwill. Queen Victoria commissioned the desk from William Evenden, Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham, England, and presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880.[16]

World's most expensive desks[edit]

In early 2015, a UK based office furniture manufacturer launched a new desk known as the Milli Diamond Desk which is up for sale on its retail website for £4.8m,[17] followed by the Parnian Desk at $200k.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Desk". The Free Dictionary By Farlex. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  2. ^ a b c "Desk". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  3. ^ "Partners desk". Webster’s Online Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  4. ^ "Armoire desk". Webster’s Online Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  5. ^ "Portable desk". Go Historic. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  6. ^ "Desk". Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  7. ^ "Desk". SpanishDict. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  8. ^ a b "Desk". Online Etymology. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  9. ^ a b "A Short History of Desks". Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  10. ^ "Drawing table". The Free Dictionary By Farlex. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  11. ^ "A Potted History of Writing Furniture". Dorking Desks. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  12. ^ a b c "A Short History of Desks". Interior Design. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  13. ^ "Pedestal desk". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  14. ^ "Writing table". The Free Dictionary By Farlex. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  15. ^ "How to Build a Loft Bed With a Desk Underneath". HGTV. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  16. ^ "Resolute desk". The White House Museum. Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  17. ^ "Office Furniture Specialists Kit Out My Office put a £4.8m Desk on Sale.". Digital Journal. Retrieved 2015-01-15. 
  18. ^ "The Top Ten Most Expensive Furniture in the World". Retrieved 2015-01-15. 
  • Aronson, Joseph. The Encyclopedia of Furniture. 3rd edition. New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1965.
  • Bedel, Jean. Le grand guide des styles. Paris: Hachette, 1996.
  • Boyce, Charles. Dictionary of Furniture. New York: Roundtable Press, 1985.
  • Comstock, Helen. American Furniture: 17th, 18th and 19th century styles. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 1997
  • Duncan, Alastair. Mobilier art déco. Paris: Thames and Hudson, 2000
  • Forrest, Tim. The Bulfinch Anatomy of Antique Furniture. London: Marshall editions, 1996.
  • Hinckley, F. Lewis. A Directory of Antique Furniture: The Authentic Classification of European and American Designs. New York: Bonanza Books, 1988.
  • Moser, Thomas. Measured Shop Drawings for American Furniture. New York: Sterling Publlishing Inc., 1985.
  • Nutting, Wallace. Furniture Treasury. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1963.
  • Oglesby, Catherine. French provincial decorative art. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951.
  • Payne, Christopher, Ed. Sotheby's Concise Encyclopedia of Furniture. London: Conran Octopus, 1989.
  • Pélegrin-Genel, Elisabeth. L'art de vivre au bureau. Paris: Flammarion, 1995.
  • Reyniès, Nicole de. Le mobilier domestique: Vocabulaire Typologique. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1987.

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