DESK (from Lat. discus, quoit, in med. sense of "table," cf. "dish" and Ger. Tisch, table, from same source), any kind of flat or sloping table for writing or reading. Its earliest shape was probably that with which we are familiar in pictures of the monastic scriptorium - rather high and narrow with a sloping slab. The primitive desk had little accommodation for writing materials, and no storage room for papers; drawers, cupboards and pigeon-holes were the evolution of periods when writing grew common, and when letters and other documents requiring preservation became numerous. It was long the custom to secure papers in chests or cabinets, whereas the modern desk serves the double purpose of a writing-table and a storehouse for documents. The first development from the early stall-like desk consisted of the addition of a drawer; then the table came to be supported upon legs or columns, which, as in the many beautiful examples constructed by Boulle and his school, were often of elaborate grace. Eventually the legs were replaced by a series of superimposed drawers forming pedestals - hence the familiar pedestal writing-table.
For a long period there were two distinct contemporary forms of desk - the table and the bureau or escritoire. The latter shape attained a popularity so great that, especially in England and America, it was found even in houses in which there was little occasion for writing. The English-speaking people of the 18th century were amazingly fond of pieces of furniture which served a double or triple purpose. The bureau - the word is the French generic appellation for a desk - derives its name from the material with which it was originally covered (Fr. bure, woollen cloth). It consists of an upright carcass sloping inward at the top, and provided with long drawers below. The upper part is fitted with small drawers and pigeon-holes, and often with secret places, and the writing space is formed by a hinged slab supported on runners; when not in use this slab closes up the sloping top. During the 18th century innumerable thousands of these bureaux were made on both sides of the Atlantic - indeed, if we except tables and chairs, no piece of old furniture is more common. In the first part of that period they were usually of oak, but when mahogany was introduced into Europe it speedily ousted the heavier-looking wood. Its deep rich colour and the high polish of which it was capable added appreciably to its ornamental appearance. While the pigeon-holes and small drawers were used for papers, the long drawers were often employed for purposes other than literary. In time the bureau-secretaire became a bureau-bookcase, the glazed shelves, which were often a separate erection, resting upon the top of the bureau. The cabinetmakers of the second half of the 18th century, the period of the greatest floraison of this combination, competed with each other in devising elegant frets for the glass fronts. Solid and satisfying to the eye, if somewhat severe in form, the mahogany bureau was usually an exceedingly presentable piece of furniture. Occasionally it had a bombé front which mitigated its severity; this was especially the case in the Dutch varieties, which were in a measure free adaptations of the French Louis Quinze commode. These Dutch bureaux, and the English ones made in imitation of them, were usually elaborately inlaid with floral designs in coloured woods; but whereas the Batavian marquetry was often rough and crude, the English work was usually of considerable excellence. Side by side with this form of writing apparatus was one variety or another of the writing-table proper. In so far as it is possible to generalize upon such a detail it would appear that the bureau was the desk of the yeoman and what we now call the lower middle class, and that the slighter and more table-like forms were preferred by those higher in the social scale. This probably means no more than that while the one class preserved the old English affection for the solid and heavy furniture which would last for generations, those who were more free to follow the fashions and fancies of their time were, as the pecuniarily easy classes always have been, ready to abandon the old for the new.
Just about the time when the flat table with its drawers in a single row, or in nests serving as pedestals, was finally assuming its familiar modern shape, an invention was introduced which was destined eventually, so far as numbers and convenience go, to supersede all other forms of desk. This was the cylinder-top writing-table. Nothing is known of the originator of this device, but it is certain that if not French himself he worked in France. The historians of French furniture agree in fixing its introduction about the year 1750, and we know that a desk worked on this principle was in the possession of the French crown in the year 1760. Even in its early days the cylinder took more than one form. It sometimes consisted of a solid piece of curved wood, and sometimes of a tambour frame - that is to say, of a series of narrow jointed strips of wood mounted on canvas; the revolving shutters of a shop-front are an adaptation of the idea. For a long period, however, the cylinder was most often solid, and remained so until the latter part of the 19th century, when the "American roll-top desk" began to be made in large numbers. This is indeed the old French form with a tambour cylinder, and it is now the desk that is most frequently met with all over the world for commercial purposes. Its popularity is due to its large accommodation, and to the facility with which the closing of the cylinder conceals all papers, and automatically locks every drawer. To France we owe not only the invention of this ubiquitous form, but the construction of many of the finest and most historic desks that have survived - the characteristic marquetry writing-tables of the Boulle period, and the gilded splendours of that of Louis Quinze have never been surpassed in the history of furniture. Indeed, the "Bureau du roi" which was made for Louis XV. is the most famous and magnificent piece of furniture that, so far as we know, was ever constructed. This desk, which is now one of the treasures of the Louvre, was the work of several artist-artificers, chief among whom were Oeben and Riesener - Oeben, it may be added here as a matter of artistic interest, became the grandfather of Eugene Delacroix. The bureau is signed "Riesener fa. 1769 à l'Arsenal de Paris," but it has been established that, however great may have been the share of its construction which fell to him, the conception was that of Oeben. The work was ordered in 1760; it would thus appear that nine years were consumed in perfecting it, which is not surprising when we learn from the detailed account of its construction that the work began with making a perfect miniature model followed by one of full size. The "bureau du roi" is a large cylinder desk elaborately inlaid in marquetry of woods, and decorated with a wonderful and ornate series of mounts consisting of mouldings, plaques, vases and statuettes of gilt bronze cast and chased. These bronzes are the work of Duplessis, Winant and Hervieux. The desk, which shows plainly the transition between the Louis Quinze and Louis Seize styles, is as remarkable for the boldness of its conception as for the magnificent finish of its details. Its lines are large, flowing and harmonious, and although it is no longer exactly as it left the hands of its makers (Oeben died before it was finished) the alterations that have been made have hardly interfered with the general effect. For the head of the king for whom it was made that of Minerva in a helmet was substituted under his successor. The ciphers of Louis XV. have been removed and replaced by Sèvres plaques, and even the key which bore the king's initial crowned with laurels and palm leaves, with his portrait on the one side, and the fleur de lys on the other, has been interfered with by an austere republicanism. Yet no tampering with details can spoil the monumental nobility of this great conception.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)