Page 1


design history evolution



n these modern times, most of us fondly (or not so fondly) remember sitting in a wooden or plastic school desk as our

lessons were delivered to us. Some of us listened with the utmost attention, while others doowdled our crushes’ names in the lower corner while the instructor droned on like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Whatever our experience in school, the desk was certainly a large part of it. In this boolet, we’ll look at a brief history of school desks and how they’ve evolved overtime.


In the first half of the twentieth century,

indices in the various catalogues,

‘housing’ and ‘assorted objects’, among

many inventor‐designers were busy re-

including during the war years. Second,

paper goods, smokers’ requisites, articles

designing the school desk, witnessed by

no fixed design system was used in the

for adornment, toys and packaging,

an entire battery of approved patents.

subject index. Third, these patents relat-

household effects, household articles,

Between 1900 and 1950, the competent ministries in Belgium granted 68 patents for school furniture. We do not know how many applications were rejected. Since these patents are difficult to find in the annually published patent registers (Verzameling der Uitvindings‐brevet-


most often, school material was classified under ‘housing’ and ‘assorted objects’

personal hygiene articles, cabinetmaking and locksmithing.

The available subject indices

were systematically screened for French and Dutch designs: banc, pupitre, bureau, mobilier, siège/chaise, table (scolaire or d’école), school desk, writing

ten), we cannot give a more accurate

ing to the school desk were not always

desk, school furniture. In addition to a

figure. Tracing the patents is hard, first

placed in the same category. Most often,

brief product description, a hit produced

of all because of the lack of subject

school material was classified under

the name of the inventor and a patent



number, based on which we could re-

One good example is the evo-

suitable for schools. The children might

quest the full patent files. For the sake of

lution of the school desk with several

swing on them and moving the chairs

completeness, we should point out that

seats into a two‐seater, via a one‐seater,

would be noisy. The cost price of the

this was an initial exploration. Several

then into the separate chair and table.

single‐seaters and chairs and tables

approved patents may well have fallen

As far back as 1880, Dr Guillaume (Vice‐

fell as their industrial manufacture got

through the net, for example because

President of the Health Commission, in

under way and the negative comments

the conceptual net was too wide or be-

Neuchâtel) wrote that desks with one

regarding the separate chairs and tables

cause of the inconsistent way in which

seat were the rational development

gradually gave way to a desire for

these patents were then categorised.

but, practically, they did not offer the

greater freedom of movement for the

Despite these shortcomings, this

advantages of desks with two seats. For

pupils. This evolution was reflected in

initial exploration can still shed some

instance, they took up too much space

an increase in patents. As the climate

light on the design of the school desk,

and, additionally, the production costs

became more favourable, this was

albeit the desk in the minds of the

were much too high. At the start of the

manifested in an increase in patents for


twentieth century, separate chairs and

school desks with one seat and school

tables were still not regarded as

chairs and tables. Patent and public


the modern desk defines what we use today 8


contract files relating to school furni-

same questions but their responses

ly resembled the old ones, which had

ture are valuable sources because both

often overlooked financial, organisa-

already demonstrated their suitability

the types and the underlying reasons

tional and other peripheral conditions,

and reliability. The process of elimina-

are presented together. They therefore

which meant that their desks were

tion therefore seems largely aimed at

provide an insight into both the ideal

condemned even as they were being

preserving and continuing the culture.

seen from the design world and the

designed. The models with the best

The related criteria that accompanied

actual object produced, imposed by the

the selection process and that therefore

local authorities. As is usually the case,

determined the viability of the cultural

a major discrepancy emerged between

object are the price/quality ratio,

the two. In contrast to the rapid succes-

the durability of the product and

sion of development forms, resulting

product simplicity.

from the design activities of the eclectic

community of inventors, the school desk

ical�didactic concepts primarily driven

evolved much more slowly in practice.

from the scientific perspective and


Designers and local authorities

The rapidly changing pedagog-

chances of survival were not the most

seized upon by policy�makers

followed the same path but at different

attractive or those that best answered

remarkably enough did not play a

speeds. The inventors focused on the

the questions, but those that most close-

major role in the decision�making

process of the local authorities. These

models were at a standstill compared

concepts did not filter through into

with the rapidly evolving flood of design

decision‐making untill the sharpest

ideas. These are desks without technical

edges of the educational reforms had

gadgets or adjustable components. The

the models with the best chances of survival were not the most attractive.

next step in the biographical process is to examine how these ‘dead’ desks came to ‘life’ and were set ‘in motion’ through practice. How were they incorporated into everyday school life, for example as gymnastics equipment, as dining surfaces, as display tables or as a means of communicating resistance through,

been filed down and certain versions

for example, graffiti?

came within reach, for example as a result of many different technical and material developments. The practical

The School Desk: From Concept To Object Frederik Herman, Angelo Van Gorp, Frank Simon, Marc Depaepe History of Education Vol. 40, Iss. 1, 2011




The Welsh

The wooden “Welsh School Desk” was manufactured in 1920 and featured a double compartment top on an iron base.

by AKANEGBU, ANULI. A Visual History of School Desk. ED Tech Magazine. October 11, 2012

Wander down memory lane, and take a look at the evolution of the school desk, from the late 1800’s to the present.

The Sidney School Furniture Company, began manufacturing the popular “Fashion” school desk. Advertising claimed, “No desk in the market is made with more care, nor of better materials than The Fashion.”

The Fashion



The Adjustable This desk is representative of a new generation of school desks that featured individual cubbyholes, which allowed



The Pouvré

French architect Jean Prouvé created this tandem school desk in 1946. Prouvé was considered one of the most influential furniture designers of the early modern design movement

students to stash their belongings. The desk also included an adjustable seat and tabletop.


Arne Jacobsen developed the Munkeg책rd school desk in 1950. The lightweight desk, made of plywood and chromed steel, featured a hook for school bags and a cubbyhole for schoolbooks.

The Munkeg책rd



Arne Jacobsen developed the Munkeg책rd school desk in 1950. The lightweight desk, made of plywood and chromed steel, featured a hook for school bags and a cubbyhole for schoolbooks.


The Steel-and-Chrome This school desk, manufactured by Heywood Wakefield, represents the steel-and-chrome school desks that became popular in the 1960s. The desk featured a plastic-composite lid that opened up, allowing students to stash belongings.



The Vanguard This late 1960’s wraparound desk features a plastic chair with chrome legs and a fiberboard tabletop that partially encloses a student’s body. Left-handed adults may remember the frustration that came with attempting to snatch the few left-handed versions of this desk in their classrooms.

This chair-desk combination is still in classrooms today. It has taken on many transformations in design, materials used and style. There is also a chrome rack on the bottom for schoolbooks and personal belongings.

The Functional




The Node Chair Global furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. introduced it’s Node chair at NeoCon. The chair features a swivel seat, a large work surface and a base designed to hold students’ belongings. This chair is not yet widely used in classrooms.


The Old is New Again

This school desk is similar in style to the Munkegård school desk of the 1950s and the Heywood Wakefield desk of the 1960s. Its base is made of steel, and it is topped with finished plywood. Similar models can still be found in classrooms today. This shows that what’s old really can become new again.


Desig ing De ks

Unless cited, Text and Illusrations by Robynne Redgrave McPherson



he future of the desk is rapidly changing. It will take many

years to design the most cost effective, learning effective, durable, and easy to use desk station. Once schools start to add new technology, oler styles of desks will be replaced, and the future desk will only be improved on. A desk will always be necessary as long as students physically go to school, and schools are not turned into online schools of higher education. Desk design is the reality of tomorrow, and the desk will revolutionize the future of learning

in school.