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Roll-Top Desk: History, Origin & Trivia

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office desks,Office furniture,roll-top desks

There’s something magical about a roll-top desk; a marvel of wood craftsmanship that was light years ahead of its day, and still a coveted design hundreds of years after its creation.

Think about it this way: No one ever asks where you got your couch, but everyone always wants to know how you found your roll-top desk. It’s an item that demands attention, especially when it’s closed and its mysteries are hidden away.

So, how did we come to have the roll-top desk?

A Secretive King

Louis XV of France, known as Louis the Beloved, ruled the country from 1710 until his death in 1774, and it was he who commissioned the first precursor to the roll-top desk near the end of his reign.

No one knows exactly why, but it’s said that the king had an interest in security and wanted a writing station that could be shuttered and locked – perhaps due to an assassination attempt in 1757, shortly before the desk’s commission. (That's merely this author's opinion, but it's cool to think about.)

In any event, fulfilling the order would take many years. The king’s most celebrated cabinetmaker, Jean-Francois Oeben, had already introduced a roll-top desk design around 1760, but died before he could complete the king’s request. Oeben passed away in 1763 and left the task to his protégé, Jean-Henri Riesener, who went on to complete the desk six years later – just five years before the king’s death.

A Lost Treasure

That very desk, which is actually on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., may have been a wonder to behold, but it wouldn’t make waves in the furniture design community for more than a century.

It wasn’t until European furniture makers brought the idea to the U.S. in the 19th century that the style really got … uh … rolling. A middle class with an interest in and income for furniture was developing, and at the time letter writing was the primary form of long-distance communication.

People enjoyed the various nooks and cubbies as well as the ability to cover them all up, and so roll-tops became quite popular.

A Modern Tragedy

Roll-top popularity surged for more than 50 years, but eventually died on the doorstep of modern design. An appreciation for Bauhaus minimalism and efficiency all but erased the desire for large, ornate furniture pieces like roll-top desks in the 1960s.

Again, Americans found themselves lured by European design, only this time it came from Germany instead of France, and desks with fancy tambours made of wooden slats flew in the face of the sleek glass and steel designs being cranked out by the Germans.

A Comeback Ensues  

But, you can’t keep a good desk down, and the roll-top proved the point in the 1980s. There are several reasons why roll-tops came back into fashion as antiques; their unique design, wood construction and dash of embellishment received a warm welcome after decades of modern neutrality.

These days, roll-tops remain the same, but people’s perceptions of style seem to have widened to appreciate them in a wide range of design settings. So, no matter what kind of look you have, a roll-top desk might be just the thing you need to make it complete.

This classic roll-top desk from Dakota Handcrafters is made in the USA of solid oak and maple. 

Dakota Handcrafters' single-pedestal roll-top desk comes in three different finish options and features precision ball-bearing tambour glides. 

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