A secretary desk is versatile piece of furniture. They are useful for smaller office desks, personal writing desks, and as room décor.

When choosing the right secretary desk, you need to consider the space you’re going to use it in.

This will dictate the size, height, and style of your secretary desk. Smaller spaces require a lot more flexibility from the furnishings and you should avoid using bulky desks in these rooms.

Larger rooms open up more options, including a secretary desk with hutch. Hutches and drawers increase the usefulness of your desk, allowing you to keep useful things close on hand.

ambassador-residence-by-wheeler-kearns-architects Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Wheeler Kearns Architects

Keep in mind that some styles are very recognizably from a certain time period. If you’re looking to evoke a certain feel or mood, do some research to see what materials and features were common at the time. We’ll discuss how to pick out a real antique desk later on, but let’s begin with the basics of secretary desks.

Types of Desks

Secretary

Secretary desks are distinguished by their drop-down surface. This partition door slants backwards when it’s closed and opens to a flat position on a hinge. In previous decades, these kinds of desks were kept in public spaces, as the door conceals the work space. You can normally find various partitions and cubbies behind the partition.

Flat Desk

A flat top desk is a very simple desk, with a lot variations available. Depending on how much you want to spend, this kind of desk can have drawers and various built-in accessories.

noe-valley-residence-by-riguerra-design Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Riguerra Design

Roll Top

This desk is large and has a rolling door that slides over to either reveal or conceal the desktop contents. It also typically has drawers for even more storage. These kinds of desk are rare and highly sought after.

School Desk

These are the small one-person desks you might remember from school. They’re designed to save space and be easy to move. The chair and the desk are usually attached. There might also be a small cubby under the desk surface or even a rack for books under the chair.

Lap Desk

These desks have a lift-up lid. The surface is either parallel to the base or slants downward. Under the lid is a space for storing papers, pens, and other objects. Lap desks are increasingly common with the rise of laptops, and you can find lap desks with fans built in to keep a laptop cool. Earlier lap desks were used when sitting, lying in bed, or traveling.

junior-league-of-boston-showhouse-by-elizabeth-home-decor-design-inc Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Elizabeth Home Decor & Design, Inc.

Ship Captain Desk

These desks were originally found in ship’s captain’s quarters. They have a flat surface that lifts up to show a storage space. These desks are normally heavy wood with drawers and sometimes they are decorated.

Bookcase Drop Down

These desks are bookcases with a small drop down desk attached. They can sometimes have glass partitions instead of normal book shelves.

Drafting Table

These are the desks used by serious artists and architects. It is a devoted writing surface, often without any drawers or cabinets. The surface slants backwards. The legs are wood or iron and are pretty slim. Sometimes there is simple a broad base instead of legs.

Travel Desk

This kind of desk has folding legs and resembled a drafting desk when unfolded.

home-office-by-maureen-fiori Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Maureen Fiori

Low Secretary Desk

A lower secretary desk is what people think of when they think of a mid-century secretary desk. It’s the aesthetic called to mind by the Mad Men television show. It looks great with mod accents, but you can also pair it with a nice chair upholstered in velvet, leather, or floral fabrics.

Since shorter secretary desks don’t crowd small spaces and overwhelm them, you can easily stick a secretary desk in your bedroom. You can keep clothes in the bottom drawers. Jewelry and various odds and ends can be kept at the top. You can use the shelf as a writing desk.

These desks are very reminiscent of older captain’s desks. They work really well for a maritime or beachside theme. Add accessories like buoys, seashells, and other nautical décor.

One of the great things about these short desks is that they leave plenty of wall space for paintings and other decorations. If you’re looking for an excellent accent piece for a nautical themed room or home, pick up a low-slung secretary desk.

vacation-rental-w1-by-ute-gc3bcnther-wachgekc3bcsst Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Ute Günther wachgeküsst

High Secretary Desk

A tall secretary desk takes up a bit more room. These desks are much more practical looking, fitting perfectly in an office space, but they can also be used to help a space seem more glamourous and grand.

A wood secretary desk with touches of gold in the bits and bobs decorating it, combined with a bed in crisp white sheets, look classy. The desk offers a great way to organize knick-knacks you might need, hiding them away behind the desk’s door.

For a slicker look, find a painted secretary desk done up in a monochromatic finish. A glass-fronted version of a secretary desk looks like a display cabinet, showcasing items and protecting from dust or damage.

Decorate the shelves with books and cherished objects. Mix up the shapes and sizes of what you display for a more artistic and interesting look.

If you want to add a mini office to your home, find a little used corner and add in a secretary desk. Find a comfy chair and you suddenly have a small home office space or a reading nook or even both.

A tall secretary desk takes up very little floor space, but it will offer a lot of places for you to put all kinds of items, thanks to its nooks and cubbies.

eastern-point-vista-by-siemasko-verbridge Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Siemasko + Verbridge

Vintage Secretary Desk

The secretary desk originated in the early 18th century for use by secretaries (naturally) and clerks. Their design was compact with a number of compartments to store the tools of these trades, i.e. writing supplies and reference papers.

They had lower drawers, an upper bookcase, and a drop-down writing surface. These originals were made from local wood and constructed in one piece.

A real antique will cost you a pretty penny. You can easily finds reproductions however. These vintage secretary desks have the same look and feel of the 18th century originals.

Typically, they have wide bases with a number of drawers to store supplies, with a bookcase on top. Often the bookcase will have glass doors. he drop front normally opens to allow for writing and will close to secure items when not in use. That desk area will include numerous cubbyholes, slots, and drawers to tuck away papers and other items.

architecture-and-interior-design-by-ed-ritger-photography Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Ed Ritger Photography

There is another style of old secretary desk with a roll top design. The front side of these desks does not drop down like more conventional secretary desks, but is instead concealed by a front piece that rolls upwards to reveal the writing surface.

Modern Secretary Desk

More modern secretary desks have a lot more variation than vintage secretary desks. There is a wide variety of heights available, as well as more variation with secretary desk hutch styles.

You can find them with glass doors for displaying items or solid fronts that secure the desk’s contents. The fold-down writing surfaces often have a pull-out support. You can find these modern secretary desk designs with lots of drawers or simple legs.

You can find a modern secretary desk in a variety of colors including a black secretary desk or white secretary desk. It’s very easy to integrate them into modern styles.

mugga-way-residence-by-luci-d-interiors Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Luci.D Interiors

A lot of modern conceptions of secretary desks now have a simpler table style. They are flat surface desks and are extremely versatile. You can use them as normal desks or as side tables. They may or may not have cabinets and drawers on the sides. If you’re looking for these sorts of desks, an IKEA secretary desk may be a good choice.

How to Choose a Secretary Desk

Where are You Using It?

Before choosing a secretary desk, you should carefully consider the space you want to use it in. This will determine the style and size of your desk. Is it going to be used in a home office, where the desk will be the primary focus of the room? Or is it going to be used in a room with other large pieces of furniture?

Is it an accent piece or writing desk in a themed room? What are the colors used in the space’s overall design? Figuring out these questions will be very helpful when you are deicing on what desk to purchase.

mill-valley-bungalow-by-artistic-designs-for-living-tineke-triggs Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Tineke Triggs

How are You Using It?

If you mostly do computer work, you should choose a desk designed for computer use. You should choose a desk that is optimized for the sort of work you will be doing.

If you are going to be using a desktop PC, look for a desk with space set aside to hold the CPU tower. Try to find built-in wiring holes and channels for wires. These will help you keep your cords under control and safely out of the way.

If you do work that generates a lot of paperwork, you should choose a desk that has as much surface area as possible to accommodate all your books, spreadsheets, or other important papers. Shelving and overhead storage space is probably other features you should look for.

It you do a lot of computer work that also generates a lot of paperwork and involves a lot of meetings, you should consider getting an L-shaped desk that allows a lot of space for paperwork, your computer, as well as space to meet. These are also great if your desk is sharing space in a room with other large pieces of furniture, like beds or couches.

A U-shaped model offers even more space, but they are more expensive and have a larger footprint. This also makes a great presentation space for great clients or other guests.

modern-in-montvale-by-jennifer-pacca-interiors Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Jennifer Pacca Interiors

Another good option, especially for a home office desk, you might want a computer armoire. These offer a lot of storage space and allow you to corral all tour work items together easily. If space is particularly tight, you might want to consider getting a compact computer desk or a mobile computer cart.

What are Work Habits and Tools?

How do you work? Are you the kind of person who has a messy desk, with a system of organization known only to you? You’ll probably need and want a large secretary desk with a lot of open desk space. Or do you need a tightly organized desk space? You’ll likely be fine with a small secretary desk or a narrow secretary desk, though you may want more drawers and shelves to help you organize.

Ergonomic and Space Considerations

You need to make sure your desk offers you the right amount of leg space. Desks generally have standard heights of 29 to 30 inches, which is enough for most people. If you’re sitting behind the desk, you want about three and a half feet of space. There should be about three feet of space between the desk and other furniture in the room, including any chairs you have for guests or clients.

urban-building-group-charlotte-nc-by-jim-schmid-photography Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Jim Schmid Photography

If you’re using a computer at the desk, make sure the keyboard is at a comfortable height. Traditional desks may place the keyboard too high, which can be very comfortable and cause muscle strain. See if you can find a desk with a keyboard platform or adjustable legs.

Make sure the keyboard platform can hold a mouse.
Make sure that all the materials and equipment you need are within easy reach. Your desk should eb large enough so that you don’t overload it.

If the desk has a sharp edge, you may want to place a wrist pad along the edge to make it more comfortable to use.
You may want to consider getting a stand up desk. Many users swear by this kind of desk, saying that it makes them more efficient and helping prevent back pain.

Desk Surface Types

The most popular desk surface is laminate, which is a durable material that is available in a lot of colors and patterns. Quality laminate is thick and high pressure. Metal desktop surfaces are very durable and pretty reasonably priced. They are really good for high-traffic areas or if you do a job where heavy equipment is moved around often.

dub-by-michael-abraham-architecture Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Michael Abraham Architecture

The quality of metal desks is identifiable by their overall weight. For a very elegant desk, choose wood or veneer. These choices are more delicate and more expensive, but they look very good. They nick and show damage quite easily.

You should avoid them if you think you need a desk that can take heavy use. An oak secretary desk is pretty nice middle ground, as it looks very good but is a bit tougher than most wooden secretary desks.

Durability

The best way to assess the durability of a desk is the quality of the drawers. Drawers should open and close easily when bearing weight. They should slide out to their full length. Look for dovetail construction. For steel or metal desks, make sure the drawers are set right when closed.

Make sure there is no fraying on the corners and edges of the desk. The warranty is also a good indication of the desk’s durability. Longer warranties generally mean it is a tougher desk.

minnesota-residence-by-martha-ohara-interiors Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Martha O’Hara Interiors

What to Look For In an Antique Secretary Desk

A true antique is more than 100 years old. Anything younger than that, but still older, is often referred to as vintage. Antique and vintage are both quite valuable. Identifying a true antique secretary desk requires knowing as much as possible about the desk’s age, origin, style, size, and quality. A maker’s mark is always a big help.

These can be found anywhere on the desk or its hardware. Originals are normally pricier than restorations, as collectors are looking for value over function. Being able to identify an antique desks takes a bit of research. It can be worth you while to put the extra work in, especially if you really want an antique, or if you want the antique look without the costs.

Alterations

Antiques that have survived to the present day show some wear and tear. It should not look absolutely pristine. Antiques that have been altered are no longer considered to be antiques. What is meant by alterations? Alternations that change the nature of the antique include new stain, new wood, and new hardware. The most common issue with this are the feet, since rotten feet are usually replaced.

carmel-valley-estate-by-evens-architects Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Evens Architects

Construction

Antique furniture should not have perfect, factory standard construction. Early antique furniture was handmade. The joints had dovetailed tongue and groove joints or pegs instead of metal screws. It was only later that desks started to be manufactured with screw and glue instead. The screw thread on these desk should run the length of the shaft.

Dovetail joints on drawer corners should look handmade. Most antique secretary desk drawers are made of cedar, oak, or mahogany. Many antique secretary desks with delicate and complicated carvings have those carvings done in mahogany and walnut wood, since they are so much easier to carve. If a secretary desk has carvings, it is more valuable.

Most early secretary desks were made of oak overall, but slightly later ones were made of walnut and mahogany. Other types of wood were used, often in a veneer, like cherry, olive, tulipwood, rosewood, laburnum, and satinwood.

You can occasionally find ones from some area that were made of wicker or rattan, or even ones that feature mirrors and glass doors. Any desk that features pearl inlay or leather topped areas is very valuable.

scandinavian-home-office-library-by-up-interiors Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Up Interiors

Locks and Handles

Draw pulls and handles are some of the most easily broken parts of the desk and the most often replaced when the desk was still being used. You can tell older pulls by their short thread. They were screwed directly into a drawer or secured to it with an irregularly shaped circular nut. Most locks were made of steel or brass. They were also often replaced due to breakage, as well. A maker’s mark on the back is a good indication of whether or not it’s original.

Inlays and Veneers

A veneer is made of thinly cut slices of wood that have been glued together. Inlays are a pattern made up of veneered wood. Veneered wood was used to make the core of the desk with cheap wood and smaller amounts of fine wood were used to cover and decorate the exterior of the desk. Veneered patterns can be two large pieces or even multiple small pieces. Antiques have much thicker veneer than more modern secretary desks.

Patina

A patina is an accumulated wax polish and other environmental effects on a piece of furniture, including the effects of sunlight. Quality, well-tended antiques have a patina that seems like a subtle glow.

The patina will vary in different parts of the desk. A uniform finish is a good sign that the piece has been restored. The surface of the desk and inside the drawers, you should find signs of use, like scratches, ink stains, and other signs of wear.

davidson-project-by-chuck-mills-design Secretary Desk: Modern, Vintage, Small, Or Large
Image source: Chuck Mills Design

Other Odds and Ends

Sometimes you will find an antique secretary desk with the original keys to its drawers. Others may include a replacement lock key. You’re very lucky if you can find a desk with its original accessories, like an inkwell. It’s slightly more common to find a desk sold as a set with its original chair.

Purchasing an Antique Desk

Never purchase any kind of antique without seeing it in person. You should examine every element of the piece, the drawers, the pulls, the legs, everything. Online photos will only show you so much of the desk.

Ending thoughts on the secretary desk

A secretary desk is a versatile option for your home office or even your regular décor. Whether antique or modern, one of these desks brings in an old world charm to any space. Look at all the options available to you and see if you can find one that works.

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