The History of Desks Part 2: The Computer Desk

I recently put up a post on the history of the writing desk. Furniture makers perfected the writing desk in the 17th century, but the history of desks marched on. The advent of the typewriter and the computer resulted in specialized adaptations that are still being improved on today, and we can expect new forms of the computer desk to emerge in the future.

custom handmade cherry desk

In order to really understand the history of the computer desk, we have to go back to where it began once again.

The Bargueño (Again)

I covered the bargueño in detail in my other post. In short, it’s one of the very earliest desks. It was made of two pieces: the top, which had a fall-front writing surface that could be closed to conceal the numerous drawers, and the base, which consisted of either a table or a chest of drawers.

The bargueño made a decent standing desk and a beautiful piece of furniture. The two-part design also made it relatively easy to transport.

Soon, similar pieces began to emerge in other parts of Europe, such as …

The Escritoire

The escritoire style of writing desk showed up in France about a century after the bargueño made its first appearance. This is probably the earliest form of desk that most people today would recognize. It stood on legs instead of a solid base, allowing the user to pull up a chair and fit their knees underneath. However, most were still designed with standing in mind, and were too tall to sit at.

Much like the bargueño, the escritoire had ample storage, with several drawers and pigeonholes behind the writing surface. Some also had the same fall-front design that allowed the user to close the desk.

The Kneehole Desk

For some, the storage space behind the writing surface of an escritoire simply wasn’t enough. They wanted all of the advantages of the bargueño’s chest-of-drawers base. They also wanted to sit down.

This gave rise to one of the simplest but most brilliant innovations in the history of desks: the kneehole. Desks were designed with a solid base full of drawers and storage, with just one gap for the user’s legs.

This design can be seen in classics like the bureau Mazarin, the partner desk, and the rolltop desk.

"Rolltop desk." Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Rolltop desk.” Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Adapting to Typewriters

The typewriter completely changed the purpose of the desk. Instead of needing only to resist the light scratching of pen on paper, they had to stand up to the punishment of writers slamming away endlessly on 20-pound machines.

The very strong and stable design of the kneehole desk made it more and more popular. The steel tanker desk was one of the most common toward the end of this period, showing up in the late 1940s and staying in use until about the time computers were popularized.

The rise in the number of office workers also meant that desks needed to be cheap. Mass manufacturing became the norm, and handcrafted desks all but disappeared.

The Shift to Computers

The appearance and refinement of computers meant a gradual shift away from heavy loads for the desk. Computer keyboards required less pressure per keystroke than a typewriter, and computers themselves were generally lighter, especially as time went on. The ability to store files on a computer rather than using up reams of paper also meant that physical storage became less and less of a priority.


Today, computer desks show up in a wide variety of forms, specialized to individual jobs and preferences. Some are little different from the kneehole desks that were in use before and during the time of the typewriter. Others look remarkably similar to the French escritoire. Still more are simple and streamlined, with a flat surface and one or two drawers.

With the amount of time that everyone spends on computers now, ergonomics have also become increasingly important. More and more people are turning to adjustable or customized computer desks to reduce the risk of repetitive motion injury. The need to live a less sedentary lifestyle has also caused many people to return to standing desks.

cherry walnut stand up computer desk handmade

I certainly believe this is a change for the better, and I’m voting with my work. I build computer desks that are customized to height and body metrics to provide the best ergonomics possible. While I still offer sitting desks, I’m also proud to offer standing versions.

Working at a computer doesn’t need to be hazardous to your health, nor does it need to be done on a mass-produced papier-mâché “work surface.” Get in touch with me and we can start designing the computer desk you’ve always wanted today.

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