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18th Century Continental Desks Elegance Meets Functionality

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The 18th century marked a pivotal era for the development and diversification of European furniture, particularly desks. As the Age of Enlightenment progressed, the significance of personal writing spaces became increasingly prominent. Continental desks not only responded to the demands of evolving societal roles but also mirrored the aesthetic sensibilities of the time. From intricate detailing to innovative design solutions, the desks of this era reflect a harmonious blend of form and function. This article details the main styles of desk with their shapes and key design features.

A French transitional rosewood kingwood and tulipwood bureau plat last quarter 18th century
A French transitional rosewood, kingwood and tulipwood bureau plat, last quarter 18th century, gilt metal mounted, the top inset with a later dark burgundy leather writing surface, above three frieze drawers, the opposite side with dummy drawers, raised on cabriole legs ending on sabots. Sold for £650 at Roseberys London, May 2023.

Here’s a closer look at some of the most iconic 18th-century continental desks:

  1. Bureau Plat: Originating in France, the Bureau Plat is often recognized as the quintessential 18th-century desk. Characterised by a flat, rectangular top often set over a series of drawers, this desk boasts elegantly curved legs and decorative bronze mounts. Made primarily of high-quality woods such as mahogany, kingwood, and satiné, the Bureau Plat was frequently adorned with intricate marquetry, making it both a functional workspace and a piece of art.

    French kingwood and tulipwood bureau de dame late 18th Century attributed to Pierre Garnier
    French kingwood and tulipwood bureau de dame, late 18th Century, attributed to Pierre Garnier, (1726-1806), of slightly serpentine D section, the crossbanded fall with cast rococo style escutcheon, enclosing a repolished shaped interior of drawers and pigeon-holes, over conforming frieze drawer on slender cabriole supports. Sold for £360 at Clevedon Salerooms, March 2023.
  2. Bureau de Dame: Translated as the “lady’s desk,” the Bureau de Dame is a more petite and feminine variant of the traditional desk. Fitted with a series of small drawers and pigeonholes, these desks catered specifically to the needs of noble and bourgeois women. Encased in floral marquetry and oftentimes decorated with gilded bronze accents, the Bureau de Dame elegantly captured the Rococo aesthetic that was en vogue during its time.
  3. Bureau à Cylindre (Roll Top Desk): One of the more innovative designs of the 18th century, the Bureau à Cylindre or roll-top desk, featured a cylindrical roll-down cover to conceal its workspace. Usually crafted from an intricate lattice of wooden slats, the roll-top provided security and privacy. The interior was often divided into various compartments, providing ample space for documents, stationery, and other essentials.

    A Louis XVI black-lacquered bureau à cylindre late 18th century
    A Louis XVI black-lacquered bureau à cylindre late 18th century with all-over painted and mother-of-pearl inlaid foliate decoration, with a brass gallery above the roll-top, enclosing a fitted interior with a retractable slide, above three drawers and tapering square supports. Sold for £1,900 at Sworders, March 2023.
  4. Bonheur-du-Jour: Translating to “day’s delight,” the Bonheur-du-Jour is a small, delicate writing desk that epitomized femininity and sophistication. Typically raised on slender legs, it features a writing surface over a single drawer, with an upper tier often comprising small shelves or drawers. Porcelain plaques, gilded mounts, and decorative inlays accentuated its charm, making it a favoured choice among affluent ladies of the time.

    An 18th century walnut bonheur du jour, incurved superstructure with a cupboard and small drawers
    An 18th century walnut bonheur du jour, incurved superstructure with a cupboard and small drawers, moulded top above an apron drawer and a pair of cupboards, cabriole legs carved to the knees with shells, pad feet. Sold for £320 at Bamfords Auctioneers, January 2019.
  5. Secrétaire à Abattant: The Secrétaire à Abattant, or drop-front secretary, was another innovation in desk design. With a facade resembling a tall chest of drawers, its defining feature is the hinged writing surface that drops down to provide a spacious work area. When not in use, this desk seamlessly blends into room decor, saving space and maintaining aesthetic harmony. Its internal configuration of drawers and pigeonholes further enhances its functionality.

    A secretary desk Secrétaire à abattant France Paris end of the 18th century
    A secretary desk (Secrétaire à abattant) France (Paris), end of the 18th century. Sold for 1,200 Euros at EUMEISTER Münchener Kunstauktionshaus, June 2021.

In essence, 18th-century continental desks bear testimony to an era of heightened aesthetic consciousness and evolving functionality. Their designs, reflective of the diverse needs and tastes of society, offer a fascinating insight into the cultural milieu of the time. Whether serving as a workspace for a philosopher, a noblewoman, or a merchant, these desks have etched their mark in the annals of furniture history, blending unparalleled craftsmanship with enduring elegance.

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