A desk is a piece of furniture made to read on or to write on, using simple implements like a pencil and paper or complicated ones like a computer.

To many the ideal or generic concept of a desk is the pedestal desk, which is often called an executive desk.

At one extreme in size one finds the Armoire desk, encased in a very large cabinet looking like a traditional wardrobe from the exterior, when the doors are closed. At the other end one finds the Portable desk, which, in its smallest forms, is light enough to be placed on a lap or on small supports on a bed.

Table of contents
1 Early desks
2 Classical desk forms
3 Industrial era desks
4 Desks groaning under masses of paper
5 Impact of computers on desk forms
6 Future desk evolution
7 References

Early desks

Desk forms might have existed in classical antiquity or in other ancient centers of civilisation in the Middle East or Far East, but we have no specific proofs. Medieval illustrations show the first pieces of furniture which seem to have been designed and constructed for the specific goals of reading and writing.

Before the invention of practical movable type Printing press in the 15th century, any reader was potentially a writer or a publisher or both, since any Book or other document had to be copied by hand. The desks were designed in consequence, with slots and hooks for bookmarks as well as writing implements. The absence of regular movable type printing also influenced desk size and shape because of the bigger volumes required for manuscript documents. Desks of the period usually had massive structures.

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. 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 the pens.

Classical desk forms

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 of the end of the 18th century.

Industrial era desks

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 periodes 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 to our present day limited quantities of finely crafted desks were constructed by master cabinet makers 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. 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 monstrous manifestations of the dying "pigeonhole" era.

Desks groaning under masses of paper

A smaller 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 cheaper electrical presses and efficient carbon papers coupled with the general acceptance of theTypewriter. 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 rent rose and the paper itself was moved more and more directly to filing cabinets or 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 veneer, as the number of persons managing the white collar workers became even greater.

Impact of computers on desk forms

The biggest paper boom occurred in the last decades of the 20th century with the introduction of mainframe computer printers and personal computer printers. The modular nature of the Personal computer and its printer and other peripherals gave a boost to the existing but recently invented Ergonomic desk, which was adapted to the peculiar needs of computer users. The beginning of this paper boom gave birth to the concept of the "paperless office", in which all information would appear on computer monitors. There would be no need for paper since all documents would be perfectly organized and accessible on the computers. The exact opposite happened. As information work was shifted to computers, users constantly printed out what was on their screens because the computer monitors had a resolution which was much inferior to that of paper, and because monitors were too costly to occupy entire desks, like sheets of papers laid out for comparison and/or for "reminding" purposes.

Since this last paper boom again produced a rise in the number of office workers and rises in office space rent, the infamous Cubicle desk became widely accepted 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 homes for papers and other items once left on the horizontal desktop surface.

Future desk evolution

The desk's working surface served as the inspiration for our present Direct manipulation interface, which we usually know as the GUI, the Graphical user interface or as the virtual Desktop.

In a sense, the typical desk is becoming gradually virtual through a combination of the GUI and printouts, and is now expanding in size instead of shrinking, because of the exploitation of cubicle walls and of the theoretically infinite size of the GUI desktop. The term "paperless office" seems to have been finally discredited and integrations of future desk forms with future computer systems are usually discussed under the more neutral term of Office of the future.

See also the List of desk forms and types.


Articles and books on real and virtual desks and things in between:

Aronson, Joseph. The Encyclopedia of Furniture.3rd edition. New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1965.

Barreau, Deborah K.; Nardi, Bonnie. "Finding and Reminding: File Organization From the desktop". SigChi Bulletin. July 1995. Vol. 27. No. 3. pp. 39-43

Bedel, Jean. Le grand guide des styles. Paris Hachette, 1996.

Bederson, Benjamin; Hollan, James D. "Pad++: A Zooming Graphical Interface for Exploring Alternate Interface Physics". in: ACM SIGGRAPH and ACM SIGCHI. UIST 94 seventh Annual Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. Proceedings of the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, Marina Del Rey, California November 2-4 1994. Boston, ACM press 1994. pp. 17-25.

Berger, Warren. "Lost In Space". Wired. Vol. 7 No. 2. pp.

Boyce, Charles. Dictionary of Furniture. New York: Roundtable press book, 1985

Browne, Hilary. Bederson, Benjamin B.;Plaisant, Catherine; Druin, Allison. Designing an Interactive Message Board as a Technology Probe for Family Communication. HCIL online tech report HCIL-2001-20, CS-TR-4284, UMIACS-TR-2001-63 (September 2001) ftp://ftp.cs.umd.edu/pub/hcil/Reports-Abstracts-Bibliography/2001-20html/2001-20.htm

Chou, Paul et alia. BlueSpace: Creating a Personalized and Context-Aware Workspace. IBM technical report October 31 2001

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

Fass, Adam M.. Jodi Forlizzi. Randy Pausch. MessyDesk and MessyBoard: Two Designs Inspired By the Goal of Improving Human Memory. Proceedings of the conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques. London, England, June 25-28 of 2002. pp. 303-311.

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.

Lanier, Jaron. "Virtually There: Three-dimensional tele-immersion may eventually bring the world to your desk". Scientific American. April 2001. http://www.sciam.com/2001/0401issue/0401lanier.html

Giuiliano, Vincent E. "The Mechanization of Office Work". Scientific American. Vol. 247 No. 3. September 1982 pp. 148-164

Nutting, Wallace. Furniture Treasury. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.

Malone, Thomas W. "How do people organize their desks? Implications for the design of Office Information Systems". ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems. Vol. 1. No. 1 January 1983. pp 99-112.

Nardi, Bonnie; Barreau, Deborah K. "Finding and Reminding Revisited: Appropriate metaphors for File Organization at the Desktop". SigChi Bulletin. January 1997. Vol. 29. No. 1.

Oglesby, Catherine. French provincial decorative art. New York, Scribner, 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.

Regenbrecht, Holger. and Tetsutari, Nobuzi. . Developing a Generic Augmented Reality Interface. Computer, March 2002. Vol.35. No3, pp. 44-50.

Reyniès, Nicole de. Le mobilier domestique: Vocabulaire Typologique. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1987.

Robertson, George G. Maarten van Dantzich. Daniel Robbins. Mary Czerwinski. Ken Hinckley. Kirsten Risden. David Thiel. Vadim Gorokhovsky. "The Task Gallery: A 3D Window Manager". In: CHI 2000: Proceedings of the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems The Hague. April 1-6 2000 . New York: ACM Press, 2000. pp. 494-501.