I’m writing this from a desk, and you’re probably reading it from one as well. Whether you have a desktop computer or a laptop, desks are an essential feature of our modern, connected lives. But desks have a long history linked to all kinds of work: writing, learning, painting and reading. Here’s how desks matter in our culture and in our lives.
The desk: A history
In their simplest form, desks are tables meant for activities other than eating. Desks are different from tables by their more utilitarian design: they often have drawers and shelves to put away papers and writing material.
Historians have found no proof of desks specifically meant for writing in the Greek and Roman antiquity. The earliest examples we know come from the Middle Ages, when monks started to specialize in copying manuscripts for preservation. Medieval illuminated texts often show monks and saints at writing desks. These pre-printing press desks had space for writing and illumination implements and were made to withstand the enormous weight of books.
The first desks with drawers appeared during the Renaissance. Historians can confirm the purpose of these desks by finding the characteristic spaces for the ink pot, the blotter and the powder tray, as well as a space for pens and quills.
The Enlightenment version of our laptop was called a “portable desk”, a sort of box you could open up to reveal paper and ink and put on your lap to write during travels or when staying away from home. A now sadly infamous example is the recent theft of George Eliot’s portable writing desk from a museum dedicated to the Victorian author.
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As science and technology evolved during the Industrial Revolution of the mid-to-late 1700s, a new type of desk appeared: the drawing or drafting desk. This more complex desk lets the user put the plane of the desk at an incline for the most comfortable drafting position. Designers, artists and architects still use this kind of desk today. During the 19th century, cabinet makers started selling the rolltop desk, a desk that could be covered by a series of linked wooden slats. A lock would keep the contents private when the slats were rolled down.
The emergence of the computer changed the shape of the desk to include space for a screen, holes for wires, a sliding shelf for a keyboard and drawers and shelves for CDs and computer-related books. The modern multifunction desk has enough space for reading and writing as well as working on computers. Today, desks come in all shapes and forms. Some are for general use, while others have specialized functions.
The desk: A cultural view
Culturally, the desk is associated with work and industry, as well as learning and education.
Nothing recalls school days better than the student desk, with its hollow shape filled with books and booklets, colored pencils and pens. How can we forget the sleepless nights spent at our dorm desk in college, plowing away at that essay or report due the next morning? The desk is where children and youth learn the skills they need to succeed in their professional future.
When these children finally grow up and join the workforce, the desk becomes a space of productivity and work. In junior positions, the desk is often surrounded by the grey walls of the office cubicle. These young workers long for the space of the supervisor’s desk, tucked away in an office with windows and doors.
The size and material of a desk denotes the desk owner’s position in a company. CEOs have massive desks made of expensive wood, large enough to house three of the junior workers. But no matter where it is found or who works on it, the desk is still the place where work is done.
The desk: A personal view
I’ve always had a love affair with desks. While my current workspace is minimal and simple, I often dream of a desk made of rich red wood placed between two bookcases filled to the brim with volumes. I am a writer; my desk is where my ideas come to life on the screen.
As a self-employed professional, my desk is both a working and a relaxing space. I’ve spent countless hours watching videos, social networking and playing video games, as well as writing my way to paying the rent. My desk has a double, often conflicting purpose.
Home desks are intimately personal spaces nowadays, given how much personal information our computers contain. But at work, in an office, desks can be impersonal and alienating because they are so easily interchangeable. Who was there before you? Who will be there after you leave? Will there be a trace of you left?
What does your desk, at home or at work, mean to you? How does it represent your relationship with work? Share your thoughts and experiences with our community!