Supine desk (2013) by Charles Trevelyan in patinated bronze, £52,000 © Adrien Millot
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At the Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan in April, the Dutch designer Frans Willigers made an announcement. The desk as we know it, he said, is “as good as dead”. The widespread use of the laptop has rendered the archetypal desk with draws and storage space obsolete. It was appropriate, then, that Willigers christened his new piece of hybrid furniture The Last Writing Desk.

In past centuries, if you thought and wrote then you needed a desk. Work places for businesses and governments, schools and universities were designed around the desk, whether ranked in serried rows or sequestered in the corner office. Today, however, mobile technology allows us to carry as much work with us as we store on our desktops. The overt function of the desk is diminished but its symbolic function remains — to mark a space for private thought, within public arenas of hotels, offices and airports and to separate intellectual work from all the other things we do on tables — eat breakfast, play cards, pile post.

Willigers’ solution for the desk to end all desks is minimalist and angular. It has a gently sloping surface for a laptop, inspired, he explains, by the propped surfaces monks used in their scriptoria. This sweeps around to provide another surface to accommodate a laptop bag and perhaps a coat, and then there is a backless seat, to encourage active posture in the desk-bound. The whole is covered in calfskin, perhaps a distant echo of the vellum over which monks toiled. Willigers admits his desk, available via eporta.com for €5,300, is not a solution for those at their computer eight hours a day; it is more a pleasurable stopping point in a hotel lobby or private house, where you can sit to check your emails.

Loïc Le Gaillard, of Carpenters Workshop Gallery, argues that far from making the desk redundant, today’s working patterns have given it a new role. “Many people have a more flexible way of organising themselves. They can often work at home, where they have space to think. The sculptural and aesthetic qualities of a desk can have a real decorative impact in the home — but a desk is also something very personal.”

Based Upon, a company that creates bespoke furniture based on the life stories of its clients, has made a desk that is more personal than most. The piece was commissioned by a daughter for her father’s 60th birthday (such commissions usually start at about £500,000). Based Upon travelled to Siberia to visit the man’s birthplace, his first school and early homes, building a portfolio of photographs, sketches and drawings, absorbing the local culture.

Bespoke gift (2014) by Based Upon in oak, phosphor bronze and leather

The team then created a huge desk in phosphor bronze, oak, leather and Tramazite — a material which they have developed — with decorative details, including cast panels of images drawn from the research trip. As this extreme example shows, desks are peculiarly symbolic pieces of furniture; even emblems of authority. You can see this in a Louis XVI ormolu-mounted, mahogany French desk (c1765-70) currently available at Galerie J Kugel in Paris (€2.4m).

As William Iselin, a consultant and expert in European antiques and art, puts it: “If you were an 18th-century CEO, this is what you would sit behind.” The desk has aprons that can be pulled out for a secretary to take dictation, and the piece comes with its original cartonnier for documents. The flat writing desk had been introduced as a distinct item of furniture by the French cabinet-maker André-Charles Boulle in about 1710. This desk’s creator, Pierre Garnier (1726-1806), was one of the first to pioneer the neoclassical style, with Grecian details and restrained geometries. It is, Iselin says, “the original power desk”.

If desks are about status, they are also about secrets. On display with Apter-Fredericks at London’s Masterpiece fair in July was an English bureau cabinet from 1725 with exotic lacquering and a flap desk (£575,000) — a masterwork of drawers and cubby holes into which wills, title deeds and love letters can be squirrelled.

George I Japanned bureau cabinet (c1725), £575,000 © Apter-Fredericks

Dutch designer Maarten Baas picked up on this idea with his new Carapace desk (£65,000). This armadillo-like piece, with its welded “skin” (bronze or steel), narrow top and bulbous cupboard speaks “a contemporary language”, Baas says. “Everybody works on a laptop today, so desks do not need to be so wide.”

Carapace desk (2016) by Maarten Bass, £65,000
Detail of Carapace desk © Adrien Millot

Essential, however, are hidden compartments, not just to conceal cables but also to secrete private papers or objects. Charles Trevelyan has also inserted a drawer and a hidden box for wires into his sculptural Supine desk (£52,000, edition of eight). It seems to dance on its branch-like bronze legs, like a mythic beast.

In the past 50 years, one distinct trend has been the abandonment of the weighty boardroom desk in pursuit of character and elegance.

At Design Miami/Basel, Galerie Pascal Cuisinier showed the smaller Rio Rosewood version of Pierre Guariche’s President desk (1961), a modernist classic (€32,000). In the same tradition of Gallic chic, Francis Sultana’s more recent Harry Desk (£20,735, edition of 30) is wrapped in pink leather, with a streamlined lacquered rosewood body and patinated bronze drawer with rock crystal handle. Driving to a minimalist extreme is Thomas Lemut’s Jel desk (2012, edition of eight, £14,000 with Fumi Gallery) made from batons of woods — sycamore, ash, cherry, acacia, pear, oak, beech and walnut — held together with steel screws. There is a metal shelf; a vestigial drawer. It is, says the French designer, “my masterpiece”.

For almost 20 years, Italian designer Constanza Algranti has made one-off pieces from reclaimed materials such as benches, gutters, barrels and metal sheets. In her Milan studio, industrial waste is transformed into sculptural furniture — including, this year, a desk. The resolutely functional Algranti desk (from €2,500) has a smooth top, foot bar and two capacious drawers.

A desk at its best celebrates and embodies the romance of work. Perhaps the purest such model is US artist Donald Judd’s Standing Desk (1984, available from Artware Editions, $9,900-$26,400 depending on materials). It has open shelves for books, space beneath the main writing or drawing surface for pens and papers, and promotes a healthy standing position — a direct invitation to get down to work.

Photographs: Apter-Fredericks; Adrien Millot

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