The Well-Appointed Office

By Terry Quillen


If you’re old enough, you remember the stereotypical secretary: The buxom blonde with a stenographer's pad, perched on the lap of the boss, taking dictation. Reality was rarely like that, and even the term “secretary” has become outdated, in favor for the more PC term, “administrative assistant.” But “secretary” – or rather, “secrétaire” – has an alternate meaning that never goes out of style.


In French, “secrétaire” can mean a “Personne qui assume des fonctions administratives” – in translation, “the person who assumesadministrative functions.” But that same word can also mean, simply, “writing desk.” This word derives from the Latin word for “writer,” secretaries.


The period secretary is a refined piece of furniture, a handsome centerpiece for many a well-styled study. The traditional secretary is actually a combination of three pieces of furniture: a base with one or more drawers and a middle piece with a writing surface and cubby spaces topped by a bookcase, often with glass-paneled doors. It makes for a tall, graceful piece of furniture.


In the photo, above right, is a secretary that has been painted a lovely shade of dove gray; it is available in Booth T-324 at GasLamp Too. It features the cabriole legs that were popularized during the reign of Louis XV (1710 – 1774). Its curvaceous shape was based on the legs of certain animals. While the ancient Chinese and Greeks were both familiar with this shape, it didn’t reappear until late 17th-century Europe, when it was re-introduced by the French, English and Dutch.


The walnut secretary, left, features another 17th-century feature: graceful bombé drawers on the lower portion (GasLamp, Booth B-228). Like cabriole legs, bombé drawers were part of the curvilinear form that swept furniture design during late 17th-century France through the 18th-century Rococo period. This look remained in style until the neoclassical styles of the Louis XVI period.


As with many secretaries, this one features a writing surface that can be raised and locked. It also features Chippendale styling, including chinoiserie lattice work on the doors and a pediment top with urn and flame finial.


The secretary is but one of the design pieces available for the well-appointed home office. The écritoire (from the French verb, “écrire,” meaning “to write”) can encompass a variety of small, somewhat portable pieces, such as the lap desk. These could be placed on a table and used for writing and storing the necessary accessories, such as paper, stamps and sealing wax. (Some antique experts also use the word écritoire when referring to inkstands and their accompanying trays.) The maple écritoire, right, is available in Booth T-707 at GasLamp Too. (Note the leather inlay that provides a writing surface and protects the wood from scratching.)


The écritoire was a must-have for a Victorian or Edwardian lady, being the place where she would pen letters and write up a dinner menu for the cook. (The contemporary version would be checking your email and Googling a recipe.)


Somewhere in between the secretary and the écritoire is the petite desk, which was a small, French desk on legs. The French called it a “bonheur du jour,” meaning “daytime delight.” Such items were sold as early as 1760 among the Parisan “marchands-merciers” – fashionable décor shops of the rue Saint-Honoré. Such desk were small, on thin legs, and had a raised back which might form a closed cabinet or open shelves. The term bonheur du jour first appeared in 1770, in an inventory of the Duc de Villars' Marseille property.


If you find such a desk, grab it, put a pretty little lamp on it, and discover that it will give any room a touch of charm. The small desk, left, is available at GasLamp, in Booth B-307. You can see one of the two extendable rails that support the writing surface when it is open.


Some of the most intriguing office-type pieces are the smallest, including the “desk set,” which encompasses such items as pen-and-ink stands, ink wells and small containers for stamps and paper clips. Fine examples, topped with Wedgewood medallions, are found at GasLamp in Booth B-234 (photo, right).


In fact there is a movie entitled Desk Set; it is one of the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movie classics. He is hired to install a massive computer named Emmarac, but Kate’s character, a researcher, prefers the traditional approach to office work. In true Hepburn-Tracy style, they battle it out and end up together.


Well, Emmarac has gotten smaller and smarter – and she now lives in virtually every home. And since home is where, as likely as not, you’ll find the 21st-century office, why not give it a touch of taste?


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