Designing a Writing Desk
The inspiration behind a successful desk design.
I designed and built this desk in a hurry—a show I’d been invited to join was two weeks away. As it turned out, that wasn’t a bad thing, because it forced me to focus and to make design decisions quickly.
Much of the inspiration for the desk came out of danish Modern furniture. In particular, I was looking at desks with a broad writing surface and A-frame leg assemblies. I veered away from the standard danish Modern style by building my piece from a much lighter-colored wood, ash, and by making the shapes harder-edged.
As I designed the desk, I focused solely on the end view. I never even did a drawing of the whole desk. The piece was fairly simple, and I felt confident that if I got the ends right, the whole desk would hang together.
In a series of very rough end-view sketches, I explored various shapes for the desk’s end cap, settling on one that reminded me of the swooping hull of a racing sailboat. I also worked out the splay of the legs, giving the back leg a more pronounced angle than the front, and setting it farther in from the end of the end cap. when I had shapes I felt good about, I made a more careful—but still rudimentary—small sketch.
Then I made a full-scale end-view drawing on brown kraft paper (not quite artist’s vellum, but hard to beat at $11 per 140-ft. roll at Home depot). This full-scale drawing is where I worked out the sizes of the parts and the details of the joinery. At the tops of the legs, where strength was vital, I used shouldered tenons to join them to the end cap. But down below, to make the joinery less fiddly, I fully housed the stretchers into the legs; that way, with no shoulders to worry about, even if the angle of the legs was slightly off, the fit of the stretcher would be fine.
I followed up the full-scale drawing by making a full-scale poplar mockup of one end assembly. This allowed me to refine the shaping of the parts and do a trial run on the joinery.
To give the spare desk some real rigidity, I made the writing surface of plywood—veneered with ash I sliced from solid wood—and glued it to the end caps along its full width with tongue-and-groove joints. I also glued the surface to the rails beneath it.
with wood cut from the same plank as the veneer, I made a 3-in.-wide solid nosing for the front edge of the writing surface. This enabled me to undercut the front edge and bring it to a fairly narrow point, giving the impression of a thinner surface.
on some of the danish Modern desks I’d admired, there was a small drawer or two perched on the back of the writing surface. I liked that, and had planned all along to add one to my desk. But as the days flew by and the deadline loomed, I had to drop the idea. In retrospect, I’m glad; it seems to me it was another example of how the tight time constraints helped simplify and clarify my vision of the desk.