Originally created for libraries and grand houses, the pedestal desk has proved such a useful piece of furniture that its classical lines can now be enjoyed in more modestly sized homes. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals

 

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Chatelaine's Antiques and Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Expert Tip: Pedestal Desk

Originally created for libraries and grand houses, the pedestal desk has proved such a useful piece of furniture that its classical lines can now be enjoyed in more modestly sized homes.


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Pedestal Desks


PEDESTAL DESKS

Functional and imposing, the mahogany pedestal desk found a home in private libraries and the offices of professional men and women.

 The combination of a writing surface with storage space, in the form of drawers and cupboards, is so obviously practical that it's surprising that no-one made a pedestal desk until the mid-18th century.

George IV flat top desk, ca. 1825-1840
George IV pedestal desk,
ca. 1825-1840

 The reason for this, perhaps, is that before about I 750, fine furniture was made almost exclusively for the landed classes, most of whom had neither the time nor the inclination for study or business.

 After that date, though, more and more businessmen and merchants started to buy fine pieces for domestic and commercial purposes rather than for entertaining guests, for show and for status.

 The pedestal desk was derived from the kneehole dressing table, but was a much more substantial piece of furniture, made in three parts - the pedestal supports, with three drawers or a cupboard in each, and a top some 1.2 -1.5m (4 - 5ft) across.

 The top was usually covered with a tooled leather writing surface. Many desks had a frieze, sometimes containing three shallower drawers.

 The desks were used for letter-writing and for business matters, and were usually placed in the library of a grand house, though in the 19th century they were increasingly used in offices, doctors' surgeries, and similar professional premises.

 They were intended to stand in the centre of a large room, rather than be pushed against a wall, so the finish was equally good on all four sides.

PARTNERS' DESKS

 Because pedestal desks were freestanding, it didn't take too much of an imaginative leap to think of a slightly larger desk with drawers and cupboards fitted on both sides of the pedestals, so that, in theory at least, two people could use it at once.  This new form became known as a partners' desk.

 Both types of desk were elegantly finished, but their basic, four-square form did not lend itself to over-elaborate decoration. The drawers were opened either with brass drop handles or wooden knobs, according to the fashion of the time, and were sometimes fitted with metal escutcheons around the keyholes.

 When one pedestal was made as a cupboard, the door was often covered with dummy drawer fronts for the sake of symmetry.

 Decorative carving was kept to a minimum; perhaps a few restrained motifs around the edge of the top and the pedestal plinths, or down the edges of the pedestals.

 These edges were sometimes canted in Georgian examples, while Regency desks might have carved columns there, ending in brass cup castors.

COLLECTOR'S NOTES

 Pedestal desks and partners' desks are usually made of mahogany.  Eighteenth-century desks generally have fine Cuban mahogany veneers over a carcass of a slightly softer mahogany, while Victorian examples tend to use less well figured wood, and may be lighter in colour.

 The first 20 years of the 19th century saw a vogue for pale-coloured woods, and desks finished in satinwood tend to date from this time. At the end of the century, oak was favoured, though the wood used is much lighter than on early English oak furniture.

 Some desks were originally fitted with squat bracket feet or castors. Be suspicious of any desk without a plinth on the pedestals, or with plinths that do not match the rest of the desk in style and quality.

 Modern desks are generally smaller than old ones, but some larger examples have been made that are veneered to resemble 18th- or 1 9th-century pieces. Be on the look-out for these.

 The best way to spot them is by the lack of wear on the writing surface and in the drawers and by the thickness of the veneers; very thin, machine-cut veneers are a sure sign of a late 19th-century or later copy.

 Victorian and Edwardian pedestal desks are very popular items today.  They can he found in specialist furniture dealers, but perhaps the best place to look for them is in small auction rooms or country house sales.

 They also sometimes turn up in auctions devoted to office furniture, though you are more likely to find 20th-century examples there.

BUYER'S GUIDE

 Make sure that the three sections of the desk all match. Check that the tap sits solidly in case one of the sections has been replaced or restored.
Look inside the drawers.  Blind holes in the front show that the original handles have been replaced.
Make sure that the writing top has not peeled and is In geed, clean condition. It may have been replaced more than once in the life of the desk. Synthetic leather is an obvious modern addition.
Check that the veneers match, particularly on the sides of the pedestals.  New veneers applied to the wrong carcass wood will often lift.

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