A desk to go with your fountain pen

Furniture: Smaller desks with old-fashioned charm are replacing clunky work stations in the stylish home office or multipurpose room.

September 16, 2001|By Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub | Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub,Special to the Sun

Start waving goodbye to the behemoth home-office desk that looks as though it had been pilfered from the Oval Office.

Decorators, manufacturers and retailers say customers are asking for an alternative to the massive, leather-topped, wood desk that appears big enough for a team of accountants. The chic, sought-after desk du jour is smaller, simpler and looks as if it came from a time when manners were important and everyone used fountain pens and fine stationary to write thank-you notes.

The furniture folks call them writing desks and small secretaries, but their resemblance to their ancestors is strictly on the surface. Many now have fronts that fold down to reveal a hiding place for a computer keyboard. Drawers once designed to contain inkwells are now wired to plug in laptops, phones and modems.

You can find these desks everywhere -- from designer sources. Styles range from Bassett Furniture's casual bamboo Colette writing desk from the Chris Madden Collection to Century Furniture's elegant hand-painted DeGaulle Secretary from the Coeur de France Collection.

Last fall, Marc Thee, co-chief executive officer of Marc-Michaels Interior Design of Winter Park and Boca Raton, Fla., predicted a trend toward simpler, smaller desks. Designers, he said, need to address this important need of clients, who are looking for a place of their own to pay bills, plan a family reunion or finish work from the office.

Theories abound on why these desks are hot stuff. Some point to an e-mail backlash and a return to handwritten notes. Others say the trend is fueled by a combination of improved technology that has given us more powerful laptop computers and a desire for more attractive desks that integrate better into a multipurpose room.

"Work stations are more impersonal," says Michael Zarlin of Michael Zarlin Designs in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "People are either tired of them or they are unconsciously geared for something more grounded and comfortable from the past."

Chris Casson Madden, TV personality and author of several books including the best-selling A Room of Her Own: Women's Personal Spaces (Clarkson Potter, 1997), agrees. She says she felt a need to design a few of these smaller desks for her namesake collection for Bassett Furniture. Last year, she created the bamboo Colette writing desk (about $599) with matching chair (about $399). This year's popular offering was a small secretary, the Lady Jeanne (about $1,299), inspired by a desk she saw while visiting her sister Jeanne in Paris.

"I feel it's a reaction to e-mail and our fast-paced, frenetic lifestyle," she says. "It's similar to the need for personal spaces. It's a visual reminder to slow down There is something special about a place where you can have a cup of tea and write a note to a friend. It adds a bit of elegance to our lives, and people today are yearning for a more serene, elegant lifestyle."

The folks at Ballard Designs believe in the newfound popularity of writing desks enough to include them in the August / September catalog. A curved desk, based on one used by a French nun, is antiqued pine with three drawers on the inside of the curve (about $998). A small writing desk in dark cherry or white with cabriole legs is a perfect size for a bedroom (about $375).

Laura Daily, Ballard's director of home accents, says the small desk trend has been building for a few years. First, there was the introduction of the Herman Miller Home collection about two years ago, after the company noticed clients were beginning to order home-office furniture for their work offices. About the same time, Daily noticed how many people were becoming addicted to beautiful stationery and pens.

Call it the anti-Dilbert, anti-cubicle movement.

"Whether it is a work office or a home office, we want it to be special and a reflection of who we are, and we want to be happy there," she says. "And writing desks are becoming more appealing as we become more e-mail-driven. I started to think that there are people who don't always want to be hooked up or plugged in."

Century Furniture also is showing more small desks and secretaries and is considering issuing a catalog for them.

One big hit is the DeGaulle Secretary from the Coeur de France Collection (suggested retail $5,865). The secretary, inspired by a late-18th-century desk found at a French antiques market, appears at first to be a hand-painted chest.

But when the front panel is lowered, it becomes a writing surface. Inside is a work area with six love-letter drawers sized to hold stationary, an electrical outlet for a notebook computer and a phone jack for a telephone and modem.

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