Where Royals Wrote: The Antique Secretary Desk in Focus

Few furniture styles in our collection stand out more than the antique secretary desk. Though various in size and origin, common traits deriving from their rich history unite the various secretary desks available on Styylish.

In last week’s blog, we began to cover the history of antique desks in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before continuing on our journey into the 20th century, let’s take a look at what sets each style of antique desk apart, from the antique secretary desk to drop front desks and cylinder secretaries.

We will consider these desk designs in regard to their functional features. The decorative identity of antique desks evolved with the historical periods we covered last week. But the functional differences between a secretary desk and a pedestal desk are important to consider independently of style to better understand how to identify them, regardless of period.

The Secretary Desk

Originating in the 17th century, the secretary desk evolved from the French escritoire. A small writing desk with a foldable or pullable surface, the escritoire was designed to be conveniently collapsible in sitting rooms. The word secretary derives from the Latin word for “writer”.

The antique secretary desk emphasizes storage. It features a slanted lid that folds forward and becomes a writing surfaces. But most of the secretary desk is dedicated to compartments, vitrines, cubbies, and internal drawers. The many items you could store in it are hidden from view once you shut the lid again. That is certainly part of the appeal.

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An antique secretary desk from the Empire period, available on Styylish

This striking example of an antique secretary desk from the Empire period of furniture design is available now on Styylish. It incorporates growing simplicity in form and Neoclassical motifs. Note the vast storage capabilities of the piece. Behind the lid is a cavernous, theatrical space.

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A baroque secretary desk, available on Styylish

Secretary desks are not always bookcase sized. This wonderful Baroque Secretary desk, available now on Styylish, features the same foldable lid that identifies the antique secretary desk. But it is more petite and slender than a desk cabinet.

The Antique Secretary Desk did not exist in a vacuum. It is perhaps the most versatile and recognizable example of the period. Various other styles evolved around the secretary desk and incorporate many of its most striking features.

Important Influencing Styles

The Cardinal Mazarin, who was Chief Minister of France in the 17th century, popularized his own style of work desk. The Bureau Mazarin incorporated many features that would later come to shape the design and evolution of writing stations, including the antique secretary desk.

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An example of the Bureau Mazarin-style, lavish with 17th century royal opulence – an imposing piece of furniture

The Bureau Mazarin featured drawers on both sides of the seated writer, with space for knees and legs in between. It seems a recognizable shape today but was revolutionary at the time. It combined functionality and storage capability with a dedicated work surface.

The Pedestal Desk, also a product of the 18th century, features convenient drawer columns surrounding the leg area. It continued the Bureau Mazarin’s tradition of storage, and expanded upon it by adding more drawers, all the way to the floor.

These styles evolved before or concurrently with the antique desk secretary. Notable features that unite them even in their stylistic differences: a tendency towards efficiency, storage, and decorative functionality.

The Cylinder Desk

Out of the Bureau Mazarin came one more important style: the cylinder desk. It featured a stable work surface and a cylindrical lid that is one round piece of wood. The writer could pull the round lid down over the surface when done writing.

The cylinder desk allowed for the separation of work clutter and charming interiors. When the user had completed work, they could simply pull the cylinder shut. The antique secretary desk mirrors that functionality.

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A classic Louis XVI Roll Top Desk

The cylinder desk was potentially first introduced to the French court by the Habsburg Ambassador Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz. It drew wide acclaim and became a fixture of 18th century French furniture design.

This breathtaking exemplar of Louis XVI design, available now on Styylish, continues the rolltop obsession of the Rococo period, instead incorporating the Neoclassical design of the late 18th century.

The Roll Top Desk

An emblem of Louis XV style furniture, the cylinder desk was a version of antique secretary desk popular with the King himself. His royal cabinet maker, Jean Francois Oeben, crafted him a specialized desk. He took the concept of the cylinder desk and opened it up to more workspace.

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Le Bureau du Roi, the King’s Desk of Louis XV

Le Bureau du Roi, or the King’s desk, is a very early example of a roll top desk. It features slats of wood called tambours in its cylindrical covering that are more flexible when raised. As a result, the writing surface is less impacted by needing to store a large, inflexible cylinder of wood, like that of a traditional cylinder desk.

Louis XV’s desk is exhibited in the Palace of Versailles, where it would have stood during the King’s long reign. Perhaps the most famous antique writing desk in the world, it is a gorgeous example of Rococo furniture design, with golden flourishes, and lavish wood décor.

Roll Top Desks would become a very popular middle class furnishing in the 19th century, when early industrial technology encouraged the development of new, efficient designs. Those desks would be significantly less lavish than the antique desk of Louis XV.

A Great Variety of Styles

The antique secretary desk is just one example of the prolific era in furniture design that is the 17th and 18thcenturies. Desks evolved stylistically from Rococo to Neoclassicism to Biedermeier. But the functional structures of certain desks remained consistent throughout style periods. That is why such a wide variety of periods feature antique secretary desks.

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A Louis Philippe antique drop front secretary desk, available now on Styylish

Even in the 19th century, secretary desks continued to be produced and proliferated. This stunning Louis Phillipe style secretary desk, available now on Styylish, makes a vibrant, imposing addition to any living room.

As does this example of Neoclassicism in furniture design: a classic Louis XVI secretary desk, with Roman influences, stark geometry, and gorgeous wood paneling.

There are a vast variety of antique desks in furniture history and on Styylish. Be sure to browse our antique furniture store for more examples and find your own regal antique secretary desk today!

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