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Desk job: a short study of the surfaces on which we toil

Thomas demand buro desk architectural review

From elaborate cabinets of locked secrets to optimised altars to capitalism, to its potential obsolescence in a post-coronavirus world, the desk tells the story of how we work

When asked to provide a design for the memorial of German philosopher Theodor W Adorno, Russian artist Vadim Zakharov chose not to recreate his mortal bodily form, but ‘the true expression of Adorno’s personality’: his desk. The monument, encased in a glass cube, occupies the centre of Theodor W Adorno Platz at the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, where Adorno spent the last years of his life. Complete with parquet flooring, a marked-up copy of Dialectic of Enlightenment and a working table lamp, it is a symbol of the solitary pursuit of authorship.

Adorno desk architectural review

Adorno desk architectural review

Source: dpa picture alliance / Alamy

Adorno’s desk appears in a public square wrenched from the interior

There is something absurd about seeing the desk and its companions outside the darkened study. The desk asks to be sheltered by walls and a ceiling, it is a place to retreat to. One sunny afternoon in the 1960s, some years before Adorno’s desk found its final home in Frankfurt, some young Italian architects strode out of their studio carrying their desks and settled them in the middle of a garden. For Superstudio, taking the desk outside was a purposeful act. By removing the desk from its conventional environment – the study or the studio – it became stripped of its usual associations. A desk is a desk until it is a dining table, or a bed.

Superstudio designed desks with their regular grid, a ‘zero degree of architecture’ that would will the ‘destruction of the object’ to the benefit of life and creative behaviour. The form of both their furniture and their architectural proposals, devoid of all ornamentation or representation, reflected their dissatisfaction with the capitalist workplace and political landscape of 1960s Italy. The desk is no stranger to radical changes in shape and style, its material form has shifted in accordance with taste, invention and politics throughout history.

Design for an architect's table 1720 1780 thomas chippendale drawing matter tc

Design for an architect’s table 1720 1780 thomas chippendale drawing matter tc

Source: Drawing Matter

A measured design for an architect’s modest drafting table from the 18th century, attributed to Thomas Chippendale

With the emergence of cabinetmaking as an attractive and lucrative trade in the late 17th century, the desk became an expression of craft and skill. The intricately constructed desks of David Roentgen, a distinguished cabinetmaker from Germany, became a favourite of the highly literate nobility in 18th-century France. Delicate and boastful, these desks were works of art in fine marquetry and the perfect companion for the letter-writing upper classes.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect to Roentgen’s clientele was the mechanical and technical complexity of the desks. Hidden drawers, secret compartments and concealed locks were built into the tables so that they demanded to be unfurled in a very precise manner. A user with an intimate knowledge of the full measure of the desk’s interiority was required in order for it to yield its velvet-lined writing surfaces. With the ability to hide secrets within the volume of its solid body, the desk became a repository for confidences, but it also represented an opportunity for violation. The theatricality of Roentgen furniture and its intricate security mechanisms mirrored the politics of secrecy and intrigue that preoccupied the Parisian ancien régime. The desk became a very personal piece of furniture, attached to the one who lined its locked nooks and niches with private documentation and belongings. 

As well as the way possessions are stored inside the desk, those that gather on its surfaces have also been deemed worthy of close study – for they too speak of our activities, habits and identity. In ‘Notes brèves concernant les objets qui sont sur ma table de travail’ (‘Brief Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work Table’), Georges Perec contemplates how writing a history of the various artefacts on his desk might serve as a way to talk about his daily practice. The endeavour would be an oblique approach to recording his work, history and preoccupations, but reassuring in its ability to grasp ‘something pertaining to my experience’, not at the level of remote reflections but ‘at the very point where it emerges’.

Daniel spoerri desk architectural review

Daniel spoerri desk architectural review

The banal chaos of the everyday is captured in Daniel Spoerri’s map of the objects on his table

Before Perec had even begun to ponder the potentialities of the detritus on his desk, Daniel Spoerri, in pursuit of a similar goal, rigorously mapped the outline of the objects on top of his table. He assigned a number to each of the 80 items and wrote a plain, mock-encyclopaedic description, tracing any memories or associations it provoked, cross-referencing other objects on the table. The book Spoerri produced, Topographie Anecdotée du Hasard (An Anecdoted Topography of Chance), formed a compelling quasi-autobiography, excavated from the residue of the quotidian. In the introduction to the first edition Spoerri sets out what he imagined describing these objects would achieve: ‘The way Sherlock Holmes, starting out with a single object, could solve a crime; or historians, after centuries, were able to reconstitute a whole epoch from the most famous fixation in history, Pompeii’. 

‘The portability of our writing and work means that most surfaces can take on a desk-ness’

For most throughout history, however, the desk has not promised a comforting intellectual sanctuary or provoked reflexive pieces of art, but is the altar at which hours are offered in return for a salary. At the turn of the century, American workers migrated from factories into office-based administrative and clerical work. Repeated desks arranged in tight rows characterised the Taylorist landscape of work, starkly reminiscent of the production line. Every aspect of the office was assembled for maximum efficacy. The goal was to place everything within easy reach, so that the clerk not only need not, but dare not, be too long away from the desk.

Memex desk architectural review

Memex desk architectural review

the Memex – a precursor to the worldwide web, first imagined by Vannevar Bush in 1945 in desk form

The Action Office system invented by Robert Propst in the 1960s was meant to overhaul this rigid arrangement, providing office workers with more privacy, better storage and a reduction in the unnecessary intrusions arising from open-plan offices. Propst had invented his solution while at Herman Miller Research Corporation. A system that incorporated the desk into an assemblage of several vertical screens and stacks of shelves which could be configured and reconfigured with maximum flexibility was to achieve what he described as a ‘sense of place’ for the employee, and in turn greater productivity to benefit the employer.

The desk became a room, the sense of place was one of ubiquity, and the cubicle was born. The Action Office II appeared in Herman Miller’s catalogues in 1967, the same year as Jacques Tati’s Playtime was released. In this film, Monsieur Hulot, stumbling around a stark and entirely modern Paris, attempts to attend an important meeting at a shiny glass skyscraper, only he fails. His encounter with the absurd cubist landscape of the repeated office cubicle, a scene now eerily prescient of what a post-coronavirus workplace might resemble, throws him off course. Dutiful workers are glimpsed at their desks from above, before Hulot descends on an escalator and is released into the faceless labyrinth of shining silver partitions. There are no desks in sight.

Tati playtime desk architectural review

Tati playtime desk architectural review

Jacques Tati Playtime (1967)

George Nelson, the director of design at Herman Miller who conceived the Action Office system with Propst, wrote in a letter to the company that the system had a ‘dehumanising effect as a working environment’ and its only admirable quality might be in ‘cramming in a maximum number of bodies for “employees”…corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority’. Propst’s admission that ‘the marketplace invented the cubicle’, and not Herman Miller, was right. The marketplace eagerly embraced the cubicle system and spat it out into banal offices around the globe.

In 1981, after Propst left Herman Miller, Italian industrial designer Clino Castelli was commissioned to overhaul the Action Office II. A collaboration which culminated in a series of AO II components transformed into colourful ‘altars’. A Postmodern shrine to the desk, the altarpieces would paint the working day in bright hues. Of course, this was not a model of the AO II to be rolled out in quite the same manner as its more ‘egalitarian’ (and cost-efficient) predecessor. 

Probst action office 2 desk architectural review

Probst action office 2 desk architectural review

Clino Castelli’s Postmodern ‘altarpieces’

For Apple’s new Foster + Partners’ headquarters in Cupertino, furniture-makers Willem and Jorre van Ast of Arco designed 18-foot-long desks whose span is intended to spark fortuitous encounter and conversation. The tussle between collaboration and focus is carefully managed in the neoliberal workplace. The lumbering pieces of furniture, an engineering feat made from 660 pounds of continuous seamless white oak from the fairytale forests of Germany, were shipped in vast containers across the Atlantic. 

Another desk made this journey more than a century ago, in 1880. In what was touted as an exemplar act of diplomacy, the Resolute desk was gifted to President Rutherford Hayes by Queen Victoria. It is one of six desks the holder of the Oval Office can pick from which to run the country. Entirely antithetical to the minimalist tables designed to represent the religion of the digital age devoid of excess in Cupertino, the Resolute desk, made from the timbers of the shipwrecked British HMS Resolute, has history carved into its pedestals. The very form of the furniture is shorthand for the authority that the US wishes to parade. 

With the computer comes the alleviation of the desk from its physical appurtenances. The fixed horizontal dimensions of its surface, and the objects it materialised to hold, are splintered into pixels and become endless. The desk can now promise even more. It is a space from which the whole world can be reached. Collapsed and presented on retina display summoned via the vast networks of the internet, distant people are drawn together. 

Ernest hemingway desk architectural review

Ernest hemingway desk architectural review

Source: Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Nietzsche was certain a writer would never work upright – that ‘every specialist had his hump’ due to the body bending and morphing to suit the height of the desk. Hemingway (right)preferred to write at a good height, and the standing desk has made a comeback as a way to alleviate the deleterious effects of the slumped and sedentary posture which accompanies the working day

The laptop comes close to rendering the desk obsolete, or perhaps just mitigates old associations, as Superstudio attempted to do. While we are compelled to work from home, sharing surfaces in small apartments or negotiating tables with children, the portability of our writing and work means that most surfaces can take on a desk-ness. Ernest Hemingway preferred to write with his typewriter perched on top of a bookshelf in his bedroom. That the workplace would be forced to so openly reckon with the domestic was unforeseen, and there is the chance this might be something positive. The world of work can no longer ignore the demands of the home because it resides markedly within it. 

For Adorno, writing itself is where authors dwell: ‘As he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture he sinks into, content or irritable’. If the mind exists adrift in writing, the body can surely adapt to wherever it finds itself. Sitting at your desk, you can find yourself anywhere. As Italo Calvino acknowledged, the desk is ‘like an island: it could just as well be in some other country as here’. 

Lead image: The chaos of ransacked desks at the headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi, in Berlin following the fall of the Wall is depicted in Thomas Demand’s photograph Büro (1996)

This piece is featured in the AR June 2020 issue on Inside – click here to buy your copy today