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Practical Secretary Desks – The Furniture Hiding a Secret

Practical Secretary Desks – The Furniture Hiding a Secret

Due to the increase in the importance of education, the furniture for writing began to appear also in the interiors of houses belonging to representatives of the middle class. Secretaries, along with desks, were particularly popular. All this because of their functionality. Such furniture had already been known in the 16th century, but it became particularly popular during the Biedermeier period. Thanks to the column structure, it easily integrated into the rooms, saving space at the same time, which was not without significance in the apartments located in bourgeois tenement houses.

A secretary is usually a piece of furniture of the profile’s size similar to small one-door closets, in the lower section resembling a dresser, usually with two or three drawers, and equipped with a lowered top. Some versions had a base arched towards the front and a pull-out top closed with a cylindrical flap. The earliest secretaries were in the form of secretary desks-cabinets, which were composed of a dresser and a cabinet add-on unit with numerous compartments or drawers. As books became popular, dresser-cabinets were being gradually replaced with secretaries-bookcases – a cabinet for books was added in the upper section to the base typical for dressers.


In the 18th-century models, there are special pull-out candle stands placed under the doors of the top module. They were intended to provide the light necessary for reading. In some countries, such as Denmark, secretaries were placed in living rooms where they served as sideboards, and cutlery and glass were stored in the side cabinets of their add-on units. Most of that cabinet furniture had a segmental structure – divided into three parts in a vertical layout. Such a structure facilitated transport and carrying the furniture up, and also gave the option of replacing one module with a new one in the case of its damage or wear. Collectors and experts on the subject pay attention to that because it happens that a piece of furniture has one part from different period, made in a different style than the rest. Secretaries were often regarded as a symbol of high social status, which is why they were richly ornate, ranging from marquetry to exotic veneers with decorative grain. In the Empire period, appliqués of gilded bronze were added onto the fronts. Those secretaries from the Biedermeier period were characterized by restraint of the form and simplicity. Later models, from the late 19th century, were characterized by more sophisticated shapes and spectacular finials. 

Unikatowa sekretera z 1860 roku Unikatowa sekretera z 1860 roku Piękna sekretera w stylu Biedermeier Piękna sekretera w stylu Biedermeier   

The most interesting part of the article of furniture is the interior hidden behind the lowered top, divided into a series of small drawers, cabinets, and compartments – often with fronts intricately decorated with intarsias or incrustations of bones or nacre. The role of secretary, as mentioned before, was not limited only to the function of a writing desk. It was both a functional and capacious piece of furniture that was used to store documents, books or glass but also as a kind of a home safe box for valuables, secret documents or love letters. In short – secret things. That is where the name derives from. Secretaries owe their practicality to the hidden storage compartment, which most of the models were equipped with. 

Mysterious hiding places functioned in the form of a double bottom or a wall, or in a more sophisticated form – sometimes so perfectly masked that only a coincidence could lead to their exposure. Sometimes, they were found only on the occasion of a thorough renovation, after a piece of furniture had been purchased by a new owner; the find could often be surprising – from small coins to real treasures. Nowadays, there are many fans of secretary desks. All the more so because their small size makes it possible to place them even in apartments with not much space. The functionality of secretaries often exceeds that of modern furniture, and this type of furniture blends in perfectly with both stylish and modern interiors, constituting an extremely original touch.


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