Great Designs: The Evolution of the Office Desk


The office desk as we know it today, first emerged in medieval times. It was specifically designed for people who had to spend long hours writing. In the days before the invention of the printing press, books were hand written mainly in monasteries where scribes (usually monks) sat in ‘scriptoriums’.


They sat at what today we would call draughtsman desks and wrote, copied and illuminated manuscripts. Their desks were made with places for their quills and ink, and although they became more refined, were largely unchanged until the Industrial Revolution.


As mass production became the norm, there followed an exponential rise in white collar workers to administer the new trade boom. Desks were now mass produced and low quality, with only the rich being able to afford furniture made by master craftsmen.


Scriptorium Desk - 15th Century | Image Source: Project Gutenburg™ - Wikipedia Public Domain


Scriptorium Desk - 15th Century ~ Image Source: Project Gutenburg™ - Wikipedia Public Domain



The desk design changed along with the changing needs of managers and administrators. The roll top desk was invented in the 19th century with pigeon-holes, shelves and drawers which were needed to store the increasing amounts of documentation being produced. The roll top was easy to mass produce thanks to the wooden slats which could be manufactured quickly and uniformly.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the typewriter was in greater use and cheap wooden desks weren’t sturdy enough to take the pounding. Steel desks came into use, often with drawers underneath the surface on one side. Desks also expanded in size and were produced in the famous L-shape, enabling the typewriter to sit on one side whilst leaving desk space free for other duties.


After Xerox produced the first photocopier in 1949, offices became overwhelmed with paper. Storage space was taken away from the desk, and the larger desks people had become used to working at, were no longer needed. Smaller desks standing in identical rows in open plan offices became the norm until 1968... when they got even smaller!



Bonus: Check out our Blog > 
Great Designs: Office Design over the Decades



American office furniture designer Robert Propst was the person who came up with the idea of the cubicle. His idea of placing three ‘walls’ surrounding a desk was to give workers in crowded workplaces a bit of autonomy and independence. He also thought it would help with posture as the walls encouraged people to get up and move around more when they needed to talk to colleagues.


1990's Office Space | Image Source: Fistful of Talent


1990's Office Space ~ Image Source: Fistful of Talent



In 1985, the World Design Conference called the cubicle the most successful design of the previous 25 years and millions of people spent their working hours between its fabric walls. However, when the recession hit in the ‘80s and ‘90s, cubicles gained a different reputation. Downsizing and company mergers meant there were more workers than jobs, and many who had previously had offices were moved into cubicles whilst they waited to hear whether or not they were being made redundant. So the small desk spaces became a symbol of transience and disposability.



Bonus: Check out our Blog > 
Great Designs: The Evolution of the Office Chair



Hot desks rose in the ‘00s, with the diffusion of laptops and flexible working. They are a way of cutting down on office space, so instead of having one desk for each member of staff, companies can have fewer desks available to anyone who needs them (or gets in early enough to bag one!).


The debate as to whether hot desking is a good or a bad thing is always strong and often depends on the working needs of each employee. Secretaries and admin staff who are always in the office tend to dislike the system, especially if they can’t sit near colleagues in their own department; whereas it’s ideal for staff who are out of the office a lot of the time and work mainly from laptops.


Possibly the world’s most famous office desk is the ‘Resolute’ which is housed in the Oval Office in the White House. It was originally a gift from Queen Victoria to President Hayes in 1880 and has been in the Oval Office since 1961 where it’s provided a suitably grand setting for every President of the United States ever since.


Barack Obama at the Resolute Desk in 2009 | Peter Souza - The Official White House Photographer | Image Source: Wikipedia - Public Domain


Barack Obama at the Resolute Desk in 2009 ~ Image source: Peter Souza / Wikipedia - Public Domain



If you want to see how the modern office desk has evolved thanks to technology, the Harvard Innovation Lab has produced a video showing how much clutter we’ve managed to get rid of over the past 30 years. Although some people will always find ways of keeping their desk messy, as we found out last year. 


Contact us to find out more about the best type of modern office desks we have on offer, and if you liked our latest blog, check out the rest of our #GreatDesign series via our news portal here.