Bureaux de change

Bespoke desks are answering our modern-day need for flexible working spaces around the home, says Nicole Swengley.

October 23 2011
Nicole Swengley

The way we work has changed immeasurably. Leaps in technology and the proliferation of gadgets have freed us up, dissolving boundaries between office and home. In this newly fluid world, where we can work anywhere, tailor-made designs are increasingly commissioned by homeowners for any – and every – room in the house. “People don’t necessarily want designated home offices any more,” says Karen Howes, director of interior design firm Taylor Howes. “They want desks in several rooms so they can run integrated technology with all the cables, wires and equipment concealed.”

Despite the universal need for a desk, there’s a distinct gender divide over aesthetics. “One client, a financier living in Knightsbridge, wanted a formal study-cum-reception room with dark wooden panelling and leather armchairs,” says Howes. “The big, walnut partners’ desk [£30,000] was a power statement. His wife – also a financier – prefers to work in her bedroom because it’s a huge, peaceful, light-filled space. Since it’s a feminine room with silk-panelled walls, we made a glass-topped, white lacquer desk [£4,800]. Paperwork is stored in a pair of bespoke Chinese-style cabinets [£26,400 each] either side of the en-suite door.”

Interior designer Katharine Pooley similarly cites two very different desks commissioned by a client working in finance from a London mews house. One had to accommodate four computer screens in his home office. The other – commissioned by his wife for the living room – needed to be chic and slim. “We built his desk [£7,452] in black stained oak, nickel and slate with all the wires tucked neatly into a rear slit,” says Pooley. “The top runs the length of the room and the slate’s roughness contrasts with suede wall-panelling. The overall effect is intimate yet masculine. Then, in total contrast, we made a drop-front, bureau-style desk [£3,375] in stained oak with nickel inlay – sized around a sheet of A4 paper – for the living room.”

Shared desks are not uncommon. Designer Joanna Wood made a double partners’ desk in oak (£5,500) for one couple. “He’s a captain of industry and she heads up a charity. They sit face-to-face at this double-width desk and it’s a very efficient use of space,” she says. Generally, though, requirements differ. “Men often want a masculine-looking desk – oak with a leather top – in a study with a nice, clubby atmosphere where they can disappear after dinner,” says interior designer Martin Brudnizki. “Women want a fresher, lighter style of desk, so we use bleached sycamore with bronze detail on the legs or bleached – almost white – oak with a pale leather inset or mirrored top.”

Designer Francis Sultana recently created a desk with unisex appeal. “It has warmth in the stitched leatherwork and a hint of masculinity in the patinated, wrought-iron legs,” he says. “We chose a black/bronze combination [£12,600], but lipstick-red leather or deep bottle-green leather would give it a different feel.”

A fashionable scenario involves creating two individual home office desks and a communal drawing room desk, as Howes did for the west London home of a banker and his wife. His office has grass-papered walls and a masculine, ebony Macassar desk. Hers has blossomy de Gournay silk wall-coverings and a glass-topped desk with a white lacquer X-frame base. Sitting alongside is a bespoke cabinet with sliding panels (£26,400), hiding a docking station for charging cameras, mobile phones and iPods. The communal desk, meanwhile, resembles a sleek, bronze console table (£6,660) and matches the drawing room’s Christian Liaigre sofas in height.

“In a way, we’re returning to the idea of having an elegant writing table or bureau in the drawing room as they did in the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Howes. “We make desks in glass, steel or lacquer for contemporary schemes or, for more traditional interiors, Louis XV-style bureaux or deeper-than-average sofa tables.”

Interior designer Louise Bradley has another suggestion. “I find a bespoke shagreen bureau [from £3,995] works well in a drawing room or bedroom. It looks glamorous, never dominates the space and the drop-front conceals clutter,” she says. For clients who want a modern take on a traditional leather desk, Bradley suggests her Openshaw design (£6,495) in a lizard or crocodile embossed leather – one recent client, she says, adventurously chose purple croc-effect leather.

Desks located in bedrooms or drawing rooms cry out for secret compartments to protect their owner’s privacy. David Linley specialises in this type of design. “One client wanted a secret cupboard, which we hid, invisibly, at the back of the desk behind the filing drawer,” he says. “Another desk had a pen tray containing a special ‘pen’ that, when inserted into a spigot, sprung open a secret drawer.” Similar desks would cost £12,500 and £21,500 respectively.

This level of personalisation requires designers to work closely with clients. “People want their desk to be totally individual, so we need to understand how it will be used, right down to what goes in the drawers,” says Lulu Lytle, co-founder of Soane. “We take care over the tiniest details, such as pencil trays. We’ve lined drawers in cedar or suede and created an interior silver scallop to hold paperclips. We’ve fitted handles in the form of hand-blown glass eggs or marble balls.”

Soane is not alone in her client-centric approach, of course. Designer Tim Gosling says, “Creating a bespoke desk is an extraordinary design journey because you end up in a completely different place from where you started. At first you feel like a tailor when you take the owner’s physical measurements. Then you have to behave like a psychotherapist and find out how the client works, sits and which technology they use. I recently had a long debate with a client about whether to go for a desk height of 800mm or 790mm. It needs to be that precise.”

Requests can indeed be extraordinarily specific. One client ordered a contemporary desk inspired by a Kandinsky artwork for his teenage son’s bedroom, so Gosling built a pedestal desk in multidirectional Santos rosewood (£20,000-£25,000). Another client wanted a desk with a “New York” feel for a compact bedroom in a penthouse. Gosling created a cantilevered desk (£16,000), paired with a “floating” bedside table (£9,500) on the opposite wall; both in black lacquer with a chrome band around the edge of the black shagreen top. Four suede-lined drawers in the desk’s frieze echo four doors running along the top of the desk, each with nickel handles decorated with ebony squares. Very Manhattan.

Luxurious materials are key, but a desk’s shape is also important. Michael d’Souza of hand-crafting specialist Mufti says, “We recently gave a bespoke desk in antique tan leather [£2,495] a curved front to eliminate those awful indents left on your arm when you work at a computer on a standard desk.” Some shapes, however, just don’t work. “Many clients want unconventional shapes such as a semicircular or kidney-shaped desk,” says interior designer Helen Green. “I generally persuade them that it needs to be practical and suit the room’s style.” The desk she designed while refurbishing a £45m Georgian house in Regent’s Park for property developer Oakmayne Properties is a case in point. “We created a classic knee-hole desk [£8,200] but gave it multidirectional walnut veneers to catch the light and add interest to the room’s contemporary interior.”

Deco-inspired designs are popular for both traditional and modern properties. The desk Kelly Hoppen designed with Gosling for a male client living in a contemporary apartment has a floating glass top with a Macassar ebony border and curved sides (£18,500), its powerful shape giving it a strong sense of masculinity. Pooley created a deco-style desk in highly polished, dyed, bird’s-eye maple veneer with nickel inlay and shadow gaps between the drawers (£5,200). The client, an investment banker, “was very specific about the drawer interiors”, she says. “The top one has dividers for pens, the second is the width of A4 paper and the one opposite is to fit US-size files.” Meanwhile, deco-inspired desks by Mufti (from £2,695) are built in ebony with faux-shagreen tops, and handles on the curved drawers made from horn or bone with brass or nickel knuckles. “People love them because they’re glamorous and don’t look at all like office desks,” says d’Souza.

Some clients become so enamoured of their desks that they want to duplicate them. “One client,” says Howes, “has a walnut knee-hole desk with a leather top in his Kensington house [£18,000] and a similar desk for his holiday home in Provence, in oak with bronze handles [£6,500]. Like many clients, he wanted a big desktop to accommodate three screens that rise and fall at the press of a button. From here he can enjoy the magnificent view and because there’s no clutter – wires or in-trays – it doesn’t look like a work station.”

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