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The Origin and Evolution of Antique Desks

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The Origin and Evolution of Antique Desks

As the trend of using antique furniture continues to swamp modern houses, more and more people are looking for antique desks online. But did you know that desks were a relatively obscure furniture item in the 17th century?

In fact, desks didn’t populate workplace and household settings up until the 18th century.

But the humble desk that we now know as the place to write and work has a rather interesting history.

Read on to learn more as we explore the origin, development, and evolution of desks.

The Origin of Desks

Desks- styylish
Desktop (detail), Albrecht Dürer, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1526, detail of an engraving, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The word ‘desk’ is believed to originate from the Old Latin word ‘desca.’ It means a ‘table to write on.’

The earliest known evidence of the use of desks dates back to the 14th century.

Medieval illustrations show table-like designs which were constructed for reading and writing. These structures were composed of a flat tilted surface placed on long wooden legs. There were lots of slots and hooks for bookmarking and keeping writing implements like quills, blotters, and ink pots.

The antique desk forms that we see today were mostly developed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Evolution of Desks – Featuring Basic Bureaus, Exquisite Escritoires, and More

Whether you are an antique furniture collector or a homeowner interested in buying antique desks online, here are the main desk types that you ought to know about:


The name is quite self-explanatory. Desk-on-frames were basically large wooden boxes resting upon turned legs. The stands were embellished with brass fittings and carved inlays.

These desks served multi-purposes as the top compartment could be removed when needed and used elsewhere.

The slanting lid hid a few compartments underneath for storing small items like pens and ink jars.

The typical school desks you may have come across in public institutions were based on this design.

Desk-on-frame desks, also known as escritoires in French interiors.

Drop-Front Desks

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French Louis XV Desk, 1770- available on Styylish

Drop-front desks are a variation of the desk-on-frames.

As the name suggests, these desks have a hinged surface that can be ‘dropped’ open to serve as a writing spot.

Drop-front desks were a big hit in their time owing to their style and functionality.

However, some people found it inconvenient to have to remove the items from the top every time before opening the drop-front.

As a result, slant-front desks came into existence. Their hinged surfaces opened forward and hence, helped users avoid the hassle of having to clear items from the top.

Either way, both these desk styles are making a fast comeback in modern interiors.

If you want an antique desk to grace your space, a slant or drop-front desk from the Baroque period can be a prime choice to consider.

Alternatively, Mary style featuring a drawer beneath the top can a more practical option.

Queen Anne style desks often feature cabriole legs bearing intricate designs.

For something more elaborate, you might find Biedermeier styles and their elaborate interiors more to your liking.

Biedermeier drop front desk- styylish
Biedermeier Drop Front Desk, Berlin 1820- available on Styylish.

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Bureau Mazarin

The Bureau Mazarin, named after Cardinal Mazarin, the Chief Minister of France who ruled the country during the time, is one of the earliest desk forms dating back to the 1660s.

It is an early type of desk with two or three drawers on both sides. Typically, there is a small drawer at the center as well.

What makes the Bureau Mazarin so attractive is its bottom construction.

The desk has eight legs (four on each side) ending with toupee feet. X- or h-shaped stretchers connect the four legs on each side.

Rich marquetry usually decorates the Bureau Mazarin on each side.

Bureau Mazarin

Butler’s Desk

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Directoire Butler’s Chest, France 1790- available on Styylish

The Butler’s desk commonly known as butler’s chest, is a more modern version of the drop front desk. Whit a closed lid it resembles a chest of drawers.

Introduced in the 18th century, this desk style didn’t gain popularity until after almost hundred years.

It is quite smaller in size compared to an average desk. But with plenty of shelves and compartments, is highly functional, nonetheless.

Butler’s desks are void of the detailed ornamentation found in Bureau Mazarins. However, they still make for a rather tasteful addition in modern workplaces with their stately beauty and elegant construction.

Cylinder Desks

Cylinder Desks online- styylish
Louis XVI Cylinder Desk, 1780- available on Styylish

Cylinder desks are small writing tables that remind of  Bureau Mazarins. The major difference is that these desks do not usually feature the showy legwork of Bureau Mazarins.

Unlike Mazarins that normally have eight legs, cylinder desks have the usual four. Brass or gold-plated fittings cover these for a lush look.

These furniture items have in-built shelves. But what makes cylinder desks an unparalleled table form is the well, ‘cylinder’ part.

This is a revolving extension that can hide and lock up the working surface when the desk in not in use.

In household settings, this can prove to be a huge advantage. Cylinder desk allow you to make any corner of your home as your workplace.

You don’t need to worry about clearing up the space after you are done. Simply, roll over the lid and your reading and writing equipment will remain untouched until you return.

Bureau Kaunitz is another name for the cylinder desk. The then- Austrian ambassador named Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz supposedly introduced the design in France.

Fancy an Antique Desk?

antique furniture
Photo: Roberto Migotto | Source:

Are you looking for ways to mix and match the old and new styles in interior design by buying antique furniture online?

Trying to setup a trendy yet practical home office to work from home comfortably during the pandemic?

Or just trying to refresh your place in general and meanwhile have some fun during the lockdown?

Whatever the case might be, there’s something to suit every palate and purpose on Styylish.

Why buy a boring mass-produced writing table when you can get yourself truly unique antique desks?

Ditch the modern desks with a monotonous look and buy an exquisite one that boasts old-world charm instead.

Believe us, you will love it!

Check out the complete range at our store to buy antique furniture online now.




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