Unsung icons: Writing desks A scribe’s best friend
COMEDIAN DAVID SMIEDT TAKES AN IRREVERENT, BUT APPRECIATIVE, LOOK AT THE CLASSIC THINGS THAT DEFINE YOU-BEAUT AUSSIE LIFE
NOSTALGIA IS A dangerous business. It’s easy to romanticise the past and pooh-pooh the present as an era where efficiency has run roughshod over savoir faire. To give them their due, email and SMS are wondrous – not to mention eco-savvy – inventions. From the device in your pocket, on your lap or nestled amid your kid’s strewn desk, you can communicate instantly with almost anyone.
However, we’d like to pen our own love letter to the writing desk, and you just can’t do that in 140 characters. It would be something close to a desecration. We know this sounds like a “Back in my day, everything was better” rant, but it’s not. It was just different. For, tucked in the corner of a comfortable room with access to natural light, sat a furniture wonder. Even at its plainest – think the timber equivalent of unflavoured crisps – the writing desk possessed an austere elegance. It was a zone set aside for a purpose, one which required both concentration – you didn’t want to be crossing out left, write (geddit?) and centre – and a steady hand. Sure, there was only one font available (your own), and the point size was dictated by your paper budget, but you couldn’t simply go back and erase the text you weren’t happy with. This dictated – last writing pun, we promise – a level of consideration when composing your text. Words and their implications had to be thought through, evaluated and considered, or your page would end up a struck-through mess.
Writing desks evolved in terms of aesthetics and design. From English rococo and neo-classical styles right through to Art Deco and mid 20th-century modern, the piece endured and enthralled. As time passed, stylistic flourishes such as turned legs and carved pediments were added, complemented by contrasting timbers that were glazed and studded like Christmas hams, as well as the most delicate of joinery and parquetry patterning. Spared the foot traffic of floorboards, and the need of napery that covered even the fanciest dining tables, writing desks were bijoux CVs where craftspeople could display their timber talents and wooden whimsies.
And that was just on the outside. In addition to cleverly concealed inserts that slid out to provide a writing surface and petite brackets that had it unfolding like a Chippendale Transformer, writing desks – or more specifically, their contents – were deemed so valuable that sloping covers were fitted. Sometimes these covers were hinged, while others rolled into place in a series of slats. Either way, they were mini marvels of engineering, secured by tiny locks and keys (often on a velvet fob) to match. Kinda like the password on your computer, but without having to include one capital letter, a number, a minimum of six characters plus a hint you probably won’t recall when prompted – I could’ve sworn my first dog was Ruffles.
Other design features included slots, drawers and slotted drawers required for the equipment you’d need to correspond, congratulate or harrumph your way through a sternly worded missive to The Age. We’re talking creamy sheets of A4 with GSM to die for (this is the equivalent of thread count in the other kind of sheets, digital readers), pens worn smooth through patina and the practise of running writing and, if you were particularly fancy, monogrammed personalised stationery which bore the legend “From the desk of…”
There will even be readers of a certain vintage who remember secreting a bottle of perfume in their writing desk with which to spray heartfelt missives to their beaux, far away. And, as the years went by, the desk became a treasure trove of spare stamps, rubber bands (always) and forgotten Christmas/birthday cards from those long gone, the sight of whose unique hand prompted a deluge of memories no computer-generated text ever will.
Perhaps most crucial of all, the writing desk encouraged a form of communication in which contemplation and composition were paramount. You quite literally and metaphorically had to dot your i’s and cross your t’s, and in so doing create an intimacy of exchange that modern technology simply cannot match. Not convinced? Next time you’re writing to a friend, take the time to do so with paper and ink, then head down to the post office and despatch. We guarantee a more heartfelt response than if you’d done it via email.
EVEN AT ITS PLAINEST – imagine THE TIMBER EQUIVALENT OF UNFLAVOURED CRISPS – THE desk POSSESSED AN AUSTERE ELEGANCE