The desk is more than just the piece of furniture that many of us spend a great deal of time sitting at. It is also a reflection of our ideas about life and work. Its design through the ages says something about social status, roles, and power, sometimes also about the emancipation of its users.
The Travelling Desk
The writing case is a distant relative of today’s laptop: a travelling desk. With the exception of lecterns in monasteries, almost all desks were mobile until the 17th century. Writing cases fit on your lap, on a table, or on a frame. The noble and royal courts where they were in use, roamed between different seats of power or battlefields, taking all their possessions with them. Although writing cases are portable, some do not have the sleek weight of their digital descendants.
The Showpiece Desk
Paris was the epicentre of 18th-century furniture production. The strict rules of the furniture makers’ guild ensured a high standard and extensive specialisation in processing techniques. Aspiring guild members completed at least six years of training before graduating with a masterpiece and securing a place on the workshop waiting list.
The French royal family commissioned hundreds of richly decorated desks in rococo style (also called Louis XV style) and neoclassicism (Louis XVI style). They were not necessarily designed to be used frequently. Their artistic refinement emphasizes the wealth, prestige, and the free time enjoyed by their owners.
The influence of the French court provided Parisian furniture makers with an international clientele. The ‘marchand-mercier’, the equivalent of today’s design dealer, played an important role in this. According to the French guild system, he was not allowed to make anything himself, but rather acted as an agent. It was the start of serial production and of clever furniture that combined functions, such as this dressing table with writing tablet.
Generations later, the privileged class still defaults to Louis period styles, not least as a way to showcase their good taste.
The Secret Desk
The use of the secretaire in the 18th and 19th centuries reflects the bourgeoisie’s need for a personal writing space. Letters were increasingly self-written rather than dictated. Characteristic in this context is the changing meaning of the word ‘secrétaire’: from someone commissioned to write letters to the name of a new piece of writing furniture.
The rise of the secretaire is also closely linked to the social emancipation of women. The open ‘bureau plat’ was reserved for men and wide enough to accommodate both the owner and his clerk. The secretaire, on the other hand, is an intimate place, large enough to ‘embrace’ one person, with lockable storage spaces and hidden drawers. It is the ideal spot for writing letters, a popular pastime at a time when independence and self-expression were gaining in importance. Especially for women, letter writing was a way to develop oneself and to stay in touch with the outside world. Private enough not to be considered paid employment, public enough to given them an identity and a voice.
The Industrial Desk
At the beginning of the 20th century, the industrial revolution turned business into Big Business. In Western countries, more was produced, consumed, and administered than ever before. Initially, offices were still small sections of the factory, but with the advent of new means of communication, such as telegraphy and telephone, orders can easily be forwarded, releasing the office from the production site.
In the first instance, the interior followed the floorplan of the factory: office workers sit in long rows of desks. Their managers insist on efficiency and discipline, inspired by The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) by Frederick Taylor. Desks were standardised and reinforced, because the handwritten document was replaced by heavy typewriters.
After the depressions and the World Wars, the ‘efficient office’ lost its shine. There was growing attention for behavioural science, for motivating employees, and their optimal mutual communication. At the end of the 1950s, for example, the open office space was introduced, in which office furniture can be arranged as one sees fit.
The Cockpit Desk
In the 1960s, new techniques in a climate of optimism of progress resulted in an invasion of plastic furniture in all shapes and sizes. It also encouraged French sculptor Maurice Calka to experiment. A life-size plaster sculpture forms the basis for the mould of this desk cast in polyester, the Boomerang. This asymmetric piece of furniture with its round shapes and glossy surface would not look out of place in a science-fiction film. It seems that the producer, the historic Leleu-Deshays company, was determined to join modernity with it.
This desk also shows that the progressive director was a man of his times. The big brother of the Boomerang, aptly named the PDG (short for ‘président-directeur general’), has even more to offer. This version has an extension with a screen, an intercom, a lighter, and a swivel chair on an adjustable rail. Even more than the Boomerang, the PDG embodies the new manager. He is still a cigar-smoking man who has everything under control, but one with a sense of originality, creativity, and good taste.
Even the French First Lady Claude Pompidou is said to have purchased a PDG for her husband’s office. The story goes that she burst into tears when she first set foot in the presidential palace in 1969. She immediately hired the French designer Pierre Paulin to modernise the personal rooms. Calka’s desk fits in with Paulin’s vision of a modern look for the Elysée. Today, the Boomerang continues to capture the imagination of pop stars and would-be presidents.
The Deskless Desk
In the 1980s, the dream of a non-hierarchical, flexible workplace was replaced by a vision: the death of the office. With the advance of computer technology, designers, managers, and trend watchers were embracing the idea of an office-less life. Initially, the predictions of futurologists such as Alvin Toffler were considered utopian. According to him, the office would be replaced by ‘telecottages’ in the countryside and vacant office buildings would be converted into living space. From the 1990s onwards, the laptop, mobile phone, internet, and email have brought Toffler’s ideas a step closer.
This new computer era requires different office furniture. The ‘workstation’ should be a mobile and more personal space, a microcosmos where, with the right support, someone can sustain hours of screen time without distraction.
However, the deskless life is not catching on in a big way. We are more mobile than ever and now used to ‘hotdesking’, flexworking, and working from home, but preferably at a desk or just at the kitchen table. Perhaps this is because we feel the need to mark out our territory with photographs, books, and coffee mugs. According to some, a full desk is even a sign of a rich inner life. Or, as Einstein would have said: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
Show me what’s on your desk and I will tell you who you are. Our office life can be mapped based on our office accessories. In the late 19th century, the fountain pen sounded the death knell for the inkstand. In the course of the 1980s, the personal computer rendered the typewriter obsolete. Other accessories, such as waste bins, calculators, calendars, and file folders are given a second digital life on our ‘desktop’. Initially, they retained their original three-dimensional form. Later, these made way for ‘flat’, abstract symbols. This not only ensures for minimal distraction on ever smaller screens. It also extends a hand to the younger generations, who did not grow up with analogue cameras or floppy disks.
The Homebound Desk
In the past year, incidental flex working has made way for compulsory working from home. Work is happening on kitchen tables, workbenches, windowsills, and improvised desks. This fusion of everyday life and work was also the source of inspiration for the Table Blanche by the Belgian fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester in the mid-1990s. Commissioned by furniture manufacturer Bulo, she designed a ‘blank’ worktable for the Carte Blanche collection, entirely covered with white painter’s linen. It is a canvas for multiple purposes that may leave traces in the form of spots, circles, rings, and imprints.
Working from home doesn’t always go smoothly. It’s tough to stay focused on your screen when the coffee has run out, the washing basket is overflowing, the dog is at the door, and the sock drawer is screaming out to be sorted by colour. It is an ideal environment for procrastination – to postpone work. In the video The Procrastinators (2011), Dutch designers Lernert Engelberts and Sander Plug recorded how eleven creators deal with procrastination. For them, a blank canvas is not a clean slate, but a frightening void or an invitation to loaf around.
27.03.2021 – 12.09.2021
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