Un­sung icons: Writ­ing desks A scribe’s best friend


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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.



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