CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

How to Identify Antique Desk Styles

From secretary desks to writing desks, read on to learn everything you need to know about antique desk styles and their purpose in your home.

Whether it be your workspace, or the place where you unwind to read, write or organize your day, desks have been an integral part of human history and furniture periods since the dawn of literacy. From simple to ornate and from hidden compartments to grand focal points, the different styles of antique desks offer a plethora of furniture design and home decor opportunities.

 

Secretary Desk

The secretary bookcase, or secrétaire, was an innovative piece of writing furniture introduced in the early 18th century. For the wealthiest households, the secretary desk proved to be the preferred place to write, transcribe and store written treasures. As the demand for these versatile furnishings grew, so did the level of craftsmanship and overall beauty. Secretaries soon became the focal point of the manor, serving as a marker of culture and education.
 
The secrétaire is not only an item of remarkable beauty; it is also a fully functional piece of furniture. The fall-front opening descends to reveal a multitude of features, typically a writing surface, storage shelves and drawers. Often, the bottom doors conceal even more storage space, as well as a hidden safe for one's most important collectibles.
 
Louis XVI secrétaire à abattant by the master ébéniste André Gilbert. Circa 1780. M.S. Rau.
 
Louis XVI secrétaire à abattant by the master ébéniste André Gilbert. Circa 1780. M.S. Rau.
 

Mechanical writing desk

In an age before technological advancements like typewriters and laptops, a writing surface was the single most important feature in any well-educated home. A place for commerce and personal correspondence, a well-organized writing desk held a person’s most intimate communications. To meet these demands, a furniture maker was commissioned to make pieces that were beautiful, functional, and above all, safe. In order to ensure that letters never ended up in the wrong hands, the most refined antique mechanical writing desks feature movable spaces and hidden compartments.
 
With these beautiful mechanical writing desks, there is always more than meets the eye. Crafted of luxurious mahogany wood, this mahogany 19th-century Davenport desk is compact yet offers ample storage space. The leather-upholstered slanted writing surface lifts to reveal space for keeping one’s documents. Additional small drawers provide supplementary room for housing writing instruments and other treasures. With a nod to this patron’s expectation of luxury, the base of the desk is exquisitely carved with scrolling motifs and lion's paw feet. Blending function and form, this desk was likely used as flat furniture, meaning that it was crafted in a smaller scale to accommodate the more compact London apartments of the British elite.
 
Mahogany Davenport Desk. 19th Century. M.S. Rau.
 
Mahogany Davenport Desk. 19th Century. M.S. Rau.
 
Mahogany Davenport Desk. 19th Century. M.S. Rau.

 

Campaign Desk

The expansion of the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in the production of campaign furnishings that proved to be stylish, practical and some of the most fascinating pieces ever created. Also known as "knock-down furniture," campaign pieces were as elegant as any of their non-traveling counterparts, but could be taken apart and re-assembled quickly without tools.

 
British Field Marshal’s Campaign Desk. Circa 1900-1910. M.S. Rau.
 
British Field Marshal’s Campaign Desk. Circa 1900-1910. M.S. Rau.
 

 

British Field Marshal’s Campaign Desk. Circa 1900-1910. M.S. Rau.
 

When it comes to decorating with antiques, finding campaign desks in pristine condition, like this exceptional British Field Marshal campaign desk, can be difficult due to their storied histories. Equally beautiful and functional, campaign desks offer a plethora of organizational opportunities. The present desk can be separated into two sections, so it could be easily transported as British Marshals moved from camp to camp. As British officers of the higher ranks went on campaigns in Africa or India, they expected to live much the same as they did in England, with the same or similar amenities. Thus, many furniture makers began to design furniture that was sophisticated, sturdy and able to be used in a range of settings. Made out of high-quality materials, campaign furniture soon became popular with the landed gentry of Great Britain as well.

 

Writing Desks for Royalty

Simultaneously inventive in their use of space and secretive in nature, royal writing desks were much more than just a place for writing. These desks would have been highly effective for the safekeeping of sensitive documents and valuable items, which were frequent commodities for a king. King Carlo Alberto of Sardinia, the owner of this antique writing desk, forged many political actions from revolutionary to absolutist, meaning there was never a shortage of confidential correspondence and political plans to be stored. Given that he had many servants and workers in his space, it was imperative that these sensitive documents be hidden carefully — thus precipitating the need for many small drawers to act as hidden compartments.

 
Royal Italian Writing Desk. Circa 1840. M.S. Rau.
 

 

Royal Italian Writing Desk. Circa 1840. M.S. Rau.
 
 Mechanical desk by Alfred Emmanuel Louis Beurdeley. Circa 1870. M.S. Rau.
 

 

Mechanical desk by Alfred Emmanuel Louis Beurdeley. Circa 1870. M.S. Rau.
 

Visually captivating for its grand exterior, closer inspection of this desk reveals further fascinating details within, including a myriad of hidden compartments and drawers. Dozens of nooks are concealed within the beautiful structure of this desk, accessible only with a key and proper know-how. Please view this video of this antique writing desk being unlocked.

 

Another regal writing table, the mechanical desk by famed French ébéniste Alfred Emmanuel Louis Beurdeley is both an artistic and engineering achievement and also rife with secret drawers and compartments. Cleverly concealed buttons and levers open secret drawers and panels, revealing storage spaces within the rails of the chair seat, center square of the desk, frieze, corners, carved lion’s heads and throughout the base. A writing slide pulls out from above the center drawer on one side of the desk, while the opposite side is fitted with hidden architectural interiors, each brimming with secret compartments. Here is a video of this desk revealed.

Roll Top Desks

 
Mid century modern roll top desk.
 
Mid century modern roll top desk.
 
The roll top desk is a 19th-century innovation of a flat free-standing desk with stacked drawers. Nineteenth-century patrons surely wanted all of the practicality of stacked drawers, but they also wanted the ability to close off their workspace to keep it private and pristine. With the invention of the roll top, a curved tambour, or cover consisting of linked wooden slats, can be easily raised and lowered at the owner’s disposal.
 

This furniture design quickly took the world by storm, and the roll-top desk was the staple of small to mid-sized offices by the beginning of the 20th century. Still popular in both contemporary and antique furniture markets for their combination of practicality and refinement, roll top desks are likely to remain a mainstay of furniture collection for centuries to come.

 
Louis XV-Style Roll-Top Writing Desk.  Late 19th Century. M.S. Rau.
 
Louis XV-Style Roll-Top Writing Desk.  Late 19th Century. M.S. Rau.
 

 

Louis XV-Style Roll-Top Writing Desk. Late 19th Century. M.S. Rau.
 

Antique Desk Accessories for Modern Offices

Every office space should be infused with personality and character. What better way to liven up your home decor and workspace than with some antique desk accessories?
 

If you value historic pens and ink, consider this incredible inkwell from the legendary firm, Fabergé. Comprised of intricately cut glass in a star pattern, the inkwell rests upon a silver base cast with dramatic masks among foliate festoons and ribbons. Its refined, neoclassical design is completed by a silver lid with a finial in the form of a laurel wreath.

 
Fabergé Silver and Cut Glass Inkwell.  Circa 1910. M.S. Rau
 

 

Fabergé Silver and Cut Glass Inkwell. Circa 1910. M.S. Rau.
 

If you are a business person who prides themselves on efficiency, what better way to celebrate your work ethic than with this incredible table clock? This mystery clock by Cartier, known as a “prism” clock, is a work of exceptional engineering and stylish artistry. Crafted in a sleek Art Deco style with lapis lazuli accents, this prism clock is silver-plated and fitted with quartz crystal prisms and mirrors. These allow the dial, which is concealed in the base, to become visible through the glass window, but only from a certain angle. Let yourself take a break from your busy day and allow a few moments of mesmerizing wonder with this practical desk accessory.

 
Vintage Cartier Mystery Clock.  Circa 1960. M.S. Rau.
 

 

Vintage Cartier Mystery Clock. Circa 1960. M.S. Rau.
 

Last but not least, if you are one who enjoys the art of hand-written ledger, consider this incredible portable writing machine by the famed Wyatt & Co. Considered the first step into the world of modern photocopying, the copying machine was among the first widely used devices to successfully produce an exact copy of an original written work. Designed and patented in 1780 by one of history’s greatest inventors, James Watt, the copying machine was the only device in the 18th century that was able to duplicate letters; this particular antique piece and model was also among the first portable copying machines ever made. Although modern technology has made the need for this machine obsolete, this vestige of a bygone era is sure to delight.

 
Portable Copying Machine by James Watt & Co.  Circa 1795. M.S. Rau.
 

 

Portable Copying Machine by James Watt & Co. Circa 1795. M.S. Rau.
 

Want to learn more about antique furniture? Check out our articles on Victorian furniture styles or federal style furniture to find a piece that speaks to you and your interior design.

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