What is a secretary desk? This piece furniture may seem old fashioned—with its fold-down writing surface and numerous cubbies—but it’s making a stealthy comeback.
“You’d think this clunky piece would be going out of style, but I’m seeing it more and more lately,” says Jamie Novak, author of “Keep This Toss That.” The reason? That fold-up front lets you hide the mess and keep your look streamlined, plus it offers varied storage in a single piece.
With more sleek laptops in today’s home offices, and fewer towers and megaprinters, a secretary can easily house your tech and paper needs. It’s pretty, to boot, sometimes made with inlays, carvings, and adorable drawers and cubbies for secret treasures.
If you’re thinking of adding a secretary to your decor, here’s what you need to know about its history—and where in your home it looks best.
What is a secretary desk? How it looks
According to Justin Riordan of Spade and Archer Design Agency, this piece looks as if a bookshelf, desk, and dresser had a baby together. “It’s a very traditional style of furniture that includes shelves above, often with glass doors, a bottom with drawers, and a middle containing a dropdown slanted workspace that lays flat when opened,” he says.
“This combination of a writing desk and storage or display unit was one of the first and most practical examples of multifunctional furniture,” adds Beverly Solomon of the eponymous design firm. Tiny drawers in the middle, plus slatted spaces—and even secret compartments—reveal space for pens, envelopes, and other tiny supplies.
A brief history of the secretary desk
The secretary’s provenance is likely to have been French, appearing in the first half of the 1800s in France as an offshoot of the plainer escritoire, or writing desk. Traditionally made from wood and often ornate, a secretary may also feature various metals, such as gilded accents, and inlays.
“Originally, these pieces were used by the actual secretary of an estate, as a place to pay the bills and handle the affairs of a large household,” says Greg Jaron of Jaron’s Furniture in New Jersey. As the industrial revolution arrived, and work moved outside the home, older desks like these became family heirlooms. “But with today’s smaller computers, people have started using them again for paperwork or doing homework.”
Where a secretary desk looks best
A secretary is right at home in a bedroom, especially when painted in a soft pastel. It’s also typically seen in a living room as a spot for writing notes, as well as displaying china curios in the cabinets above. Arrange books in the upper portion for a library feel, or try it in an oversized bathroom, suggests Carole Marcotte of Form & Function in Raleigh, NC.
“It can hold towels and a pharmacylike display of bath salts, oils, and bubbles behind the glass doors, and the lower drawers can conceal extra linens,” she says. This piece is also an all-in-one home office or a smart addition to the kitchen for holding cookbooks, napkins, and tablecloths.
Think outside the box with a secretary, say the pros. “If you don’t mind a little wear and tear, you could use this piece as a garden center in the garage, complete with seed packet storage and a flat surface for potting plants,” Novak points out. It also makes a great home bar in the dining room or a crafting or gift-wrapping station in a spare bedroom. But a secretary isn’t recommended in a nursery, says Jaron. “Some feel it’s a creative way to make a changing table, but we don’t advise it, due to tipping concerns.”
Where to find secretary desks
Try flea markets, garage sales, and vintage shops, if you’re hoping to score this timeless piece. “A secretary desk from the 1930s or ’40s can be had at an estate auction for a couple of hundred bucks, but a real-deal antique will fetch quite a bit more,” says Marcotte.
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