AskDefine | Define desk

Dictionary Definition

desk n : a piece of furniture with a writing surface and usually drawers or other compartments

User Contributed Dictionary



From desca, from discus.



  1. A table, frame, or case, usually with sloping top, but often with flat top, for the use writers and readers. It often has a drawer or repository underneath.
  2. A reading table or lectern to support the book from which the liturgical service is read, differing from the pulpit from which the sermon is preached; also (esp. in the United States), a pulpit. Hence, used symbolically for the clerical profession.


Coordinate terms

Derived terms


table for writing and reading
See: lectern


  1. To shut up, as in a desk; to treasure.

Extensive Definition

A desk is a furniture form and a class of table often used in a work or office setting for reading or writing on or using a computer. Desks often have one or more drawers to store office supplies and papers. Unlike a regular table, only one side of a desk is suitable to sit on, except for some unusual desks such as a partners desk. Not all desks have the form of a table. For instance, an Armoire desk is a desk built within a large wardrobe-like cabinet, and a portable desk is light enough to be placed on a person's lap.

Early desks

Desk-style furniture might have existed in classical antiquity or in other ancient centers of civilization in the Middle East or Far East, but there is no specific proof. Medieval illustrations show the first pieces of furniture which seem to have been designed and constructed for reading and writing.
Before the invention of the movable type printing press in the 15th century, any reader was potentially a writer or publisher or both, since any book or other document had to be copied by hand. The desks were designed with slots and hooks for bookmarks and for writing implements. Since manuscript volumes were sometimes large, and heavy, desks of the period usually had massive structures.
Desks of the Renaissance and later eras had relatively slimmer structures, and more and more drawers as woodworking became more precise and cabinet-making became a distinct trade. It is often possible to find out if a table or other piece of furniture of those times was designed to be used as a desk by looking for a drawer with three small separations (one each for the ink pot, the blotter and the powder tray) and room for the pens.
The desk forms we are familiar with in this beginning of the millennium were born mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ergonomic desk of the last decades is the newest addition to a long list of desk forms, but in a way it is only a refinement of the mechanically complex drawing table or drafting table of the end of the 18th century.

Industrial era

Refinements to those first desk forms were considerable through the 19th century, as steam-driven machinery made cheap wood-based paper possible in the last periods of the first phase of the industrial revolution. This produced a boom in the number of, or some might say the birth of, the white-collar worker. As these office workers grew in number, desks were mass-produced for them in large quantities, using newer, steam-driven woodworking machinery. This was the first sharp division in desk manufacturing. From then on, limited quantities of finely crafted desks have been constructed by master cabinetmakers for the homes and offices of the rich while the vast majority of desks were assembled rapidly by unskilled labor, from components turned out in batches by machine tools. Thus, age alone does not guarantee that an antique desk is a masterpiece, since this shift took place more than a hundred years ago.
More paper and more correspondence drove the need for more complex desks and more specialized desks, such as the rolltop desk which was a mass produced, slatted variant of the classical cylinder desk. It provided a relatively fast and cheap way to lock up the ever increasing flow of paper without having to file everything by the end of the day. Paper documents started leaving the desk as a "home," with the general introduction of filing cabinets. Correspondence and other documents were now too numerous to get enough attention to be rolled up or folded again, then summarized and tagged before being pigeonholed in a small compartment over or under the work surface of the desk. The famous Wooton desk and others were the last, monstrous manifestations of the dying "pigeonhole" era. The new desks can be transformed into many different shapes and angles, ideal for artists.

Steel desks

A smaller boom in office work and desk production occurred at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th with the introduction of smaller and cheaper electrical presses and efficient carbon papers coupled with the general acceptance of the typewriter. Steel desks were introduced to take heavier loads of paper and withstand the pounding meted out on the typewriters. The L-shaped desk became popular, with the "leg" being used as an annex for the typewriter.
Another big boom occurred after the Second World War with the spread of photocopying. Paperwork drove even higher the number of desk workers, whose work surface diminished in size as office rents rose, and the paper itself was moved more and more directly to filing cabinets or sent to records management centers, or transformed into microfilm, or both. Modular desks seating several co-workers close by became common. Even executive or management desks became mass-produced, built of cheap plywood or fiberboard covered with wood veneer, as the number of persons managing the white collar workers became even greater.

Student desks

A student desk can be any desk form meant for use by a student. Usually the term designates a small pedestal desk or writing table constructed for use by a teenager or a pre-teen in his or her room at home. More often than not it is a pedestal desk, with only one of the two pedestals and about two thirds of the desk surface. Such desks are sometimes called left pedestal desks or right pedestal desks depending on the position of the single pedestal. The height of the desk is usually a bit lower than is the case for normal adult desks. In some cases, the desk is connected from the seat to the table. The table is also used for sitting before classes.
The desks are usually mass produced in steel or wood and sold on the consumer market. In addition there is a wide variety of plans available for woodworking enthusiasts. There are many novel forms of student desks made to maximize the relatively restricted area available in a child's room. One of the most common is the bunk bed desk, also known as a loft bed.

Impact of computers

Until the late 1980's desks remained a place for paperwork and business negotiation. Mainframe computers were relegated to a special "computer room" and human workers were guests in this space. Furniture largely separated these two entities except in data entry departments. Many manager-level workers if they did have a computer had a small computer desk unit in the corner of their office.
At the end of this decade though the personal computer was taking hold in large and medium sized businesses. New office suites included a "knee hole" credenza which was a place for a terminal or personal computer and keyboard tray. Soon new office designs also included "U-shape" suites which added a bridge worksurface between the back credenza and front desk. During the North American recession of the early 1990s, many manager and executive workers had to do word processing and other functions previously completed by typing pools and secretaries. This necessitated a more central placement of the computer on these "U-shape" suite desk systems.
With computers abounding, "computer paper" became an office staple. The beginning of this paper boom gave birth to the dream of the "paperless office", in which all information would appear on computer monitors. However, the ease of printing personal documents and the lack of comfort with reading text on computer monitors led to a great deal of document printing. The need for paperwork space vied with the rising desk space taken up by computer monitors, CPUs, printers, scanners, and other peripherals. As well, the need for more space led some desk companies to attach some items to the modesty panel at the back of the desk, such as multi-outlets and cabling.
Through the "tech boom" of the 1990s, office worker numbers skyrocketed along with the cost of office space rent. The cubicle desk became widely accepted in North America as an economical way of putting more desk workers in the same space without actually shrinking the size of their working surfaces. The cubicle walls have become new place for workers to affix papers and other items once left on the horizontal desktop surface. Even computer monitor frames themselves are used to attach reminder notes and business cards.
Early in the 2000s, private office workers found that their side and back computer-placing furniture made it hard to show the contents of a computer screen to guests or co-workers. Manufacturers have responded to this issue by creating "Forward Facing" desks where computer monitors are placed on the front of the "U-shape" workstation. This forward computer monitor placement promotes a clearer sight-line to greet colleagues, increases computer screen privacy and allows for common viewing of information displayed on a screen.


Articles and books on real and virtual desks and things in between:

Real desks

  • Aronson, Joseph. The Encyclopedia of Furniture. 3rd edition. New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1965.
  • Bedel, Jean. Le grand guide des styles. Paris: Hachette, 1996.
  • Boyce, Charles. Dictionary of Furniture. New York: Roundtable Press, 1985.
  • Comstock, Helen. American Furniture: 17th, 18th and 19th century styles. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 1997
  • Duncan, Alastair. Mobilier art déco. Paris: Thames and Hudson, 2000
  • Forrest, Tim. The Bulfinch Anatomy of Antique Furniture. London: Marshall editions, 1996.
  • Hewitt, William. View Photos of handmade Wooden desks
  • Hinckley, F. Lewis. A Directory of Antique Furniture: The Authentic Classification of European and American Designs. New York: Bonanza Books, 1988.
  • Moser, Thomas. Measured Shop Drawings for American Furniture. New York: Sterling Publlishing Inc., 1985.
  • Nutting, Wallace. Furniture Treasury. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1963.
  • Oglesby, Catherine. French provincial decorative art. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951.
  • Payne, Christopher, Ed. Sotheby's Concise Encyclopedia of Furniture. London: Conran Octopus, 1989.
  • Pélegrin-Genel, Elisabeth. L'art de vivre au bureau. Paris: Flammarion, 1995.
  • Reyniès, Nicole de. Le mobilier domestique: Vocabulaire Typologique. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1987.

Virtual desktops, GUIs, and the virtual office

  • Barreau, Deborah K.; Nardi, Bonnie. "Finding and Reminding: File Organization From the desktop". SigChi Bulletin. July 1995. Vol. 27. No. 3. pp. 39-43.
  • Bederson, Benjamin; Hollan, James D. "Pad++: A Zooming Graphical Interface for Exploring Alternate Interface Physics". in: ACM SIGGRAPH and ACM SIGCHI. UIST 94 seventh Annual Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. Proceedings of the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, Marina Del Rey, California, 2 November-4 1994. Boston, ACM Press 1994. pp. 17-25.
  • Berger, Warren. "Lost In Space". Wired. Vol. 7 No. 2. Feb. 1999.
  • Browne, Hilary. Bederson, Benjamin B. Plaisant, Catherine. Druin, Allison. "Designing an Interactive Message Board as a Technology Probe for Family Communication." HCIL online tech report HCIL-2001-20, CS-TR-4284, UMIACS-TR-2001-63 (September 2001) []
  • Chou, Paul et alia. BlueSpace: Creating a Personalized and Context-Aware Workspace. IBM technical report, 31 October 2001.
  • Fass, Adam M. Jodi Forlizzi. Randy Pausch. "MessyDesk and MessyBoard: Two Designs Inspired By the Goal of Improving Human Memory." Proceedings of the conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques. London, England, 25 June-28 2002. pp. 303-311.
  • Giuiliano, Vincent E. "The Mechanization of Office Work". Scientific American. Vol. 247 No. 3. September 1982. pp. 148-164.
  • Lanier, Jaron. "Virtually There: Three-dimensional tele-immersion may eventually bring the world to your desk". Scientific American. April 2001.
  • Malone, Thomas W. "How do people organize their desks? Implications for the design of Office Information Systems." ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems. Vol. 1. No. 1 January 1983. pp 99-112.
  • Nardi, Bonnie; Barreau, Deborah K. "Finding and Reminding Revisited: Appropriate metaphors for File Organization at the Desktop." SigChi Bulletin. January 1997. Vol. 29. No. 1.
  • Regenbrecht, Holger and Tetsutari, Nobuzi. "Developing a Generic Augmented Reality Interface." Computer, March 2002. Vol.35. No3, pp. 44-50.
  • Robertson, George G. Maarten van Dantzich. Daniel Robbins. Mary Czerwinski. Ken Hinckley. Kirsten Risden. David Thiel. Vadim Gorokhovsky. "The Task Gallery: A 3D Window Manager." In: CHI 2000: Proceedings of the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, The Hague. 1 April-6 2000. New York: ACM Press, 2000. pp. 494-501.
desk in German: Schreibtisch
desk in Esperanto: Skribotablo
desk in French: Bureau (meuble)
desk in Dutch: Bureau (meubilair)
desk in Japanese: 机
desk in Portuguese: Escrivaninha
desk in Romanian: Birou (mobilier)
desk in Simple English: Desk
desk in Swedish: Skrivbord
desk in Chinese: 书桌

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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