If you’re among those who adhere to the policy that real desks have curves, you’re likely already acquainted with the rolltop desk. For the rest of us, the curvaceous workstation is worth getting to know. A close cousin of the secretary desk, the rolltop features a work surface that can be eclipsed from view by drawing closed a retractable domed lid. Flick the lid up and you’re greeted with a writing space and a host of apothecary-like drawers. Roll the lid down and you’re privy to the sort of contours that—while common in the auto industry—rarely make appearances in the furniture one. Without question, the rolltop is a thing of specimen-like beauty. Hence, there’s no reason to squirrel one away in your basement workspace. Here, we delve into the rolltop’s history, plus engage in a little “roll-playing” to uncover some unexpected ways to style a rolltop in your home.

Classic wood roll top desk with metal desk chair and tufted gray armchair
Photo courtesy of Spencer & Wedekind

The History of the Rolltop Desk 

Rumor has it that the rolltop was born out of a royal request. Louis XV, looking to frill out Versailles, commissioned his cabinetmaker to design him a desk. The resulting design is similar to what we today call a Carlton desk. Designed in the 18th century, the Carlton desk sits atop tapered legs and features a writing surface surrounded on three sides by a low wall of diminutive drawers. The only difference between the Carlton desk and Louis XV’s was that the king of France’s had an inflexible cover that could be pulled down on a track shaped into a circular arc to encase the drawers. Reputed to be among the most clandestine of kings, this cover could also be fastened with a lock to preserve privacy.

Today, Louis XV’s desk falls into a subcategory of rolltop desks known as “cylinder desks.” Cylinder desks are identified by their rigid covers or “hoods.” These stiff hoods are in opposition to the flexible tambour doors that equip most textbook rolltops today. Although cylinder desks proved popular in France and were later adopted by the English, they were costly to produce. Because the hoods were crafted of a single piece of wood, cylinder desks were prone to warping—a fate that could only be warded off by highly skilled labor and premium hardwoods. 

THE NEXT GEN: Cutler Rolltop Desks

Convinced there had to be a more efficient way to fabricate the cylinder desk, Buffalo, New York furniture maker, Abner Cutler, reimagined the domed door as a tambour door in the mid 1800s. Tambour doors are retractable doors constructed of thin, stacked strips of wood which are mounted to a flexible backing. By implementing tambour doors, Cutler made it possible to mass produce rolltops. Cutler also refashioned the base of the rolltop. Rather than tapered legs, he opted for a blocky double-pedestal base. (Essentially, two banks of drawers supporting either side of the desk with a kneehole in between.) Far more tankard-like than its royal predecessor, this workhorse was an icon throughout the Industrial Revolution well into the 1950s. 

Traditional wood roll top desk with wicker accent chair and blue and white striped ottoman
Design by Gauthier~Stacy Inc. / Photo by Sam Gray

OOO: How to Style a Rolltop Desk in Any Room

Drop the phrase “antique rolltop desks for sale” into your search bar, and you’re likely to be steamrolled by the results. While Cutler’s tambour door model may be the rolltop poster child, there are plenty of iterations—from cylinder desks to dresser-like models with fold-out writing ledges—to stir the pot. Add in the multitude of stylistic styles, from Neoclassical to Craftsman to Danish Modern to George Nelson’s minimalist Action Office feat, and the plot thickens even more. What models are right for what decorating scenarios? Here, we outline three ways to decorate with different style rolltops throughout the house. 

Hallway with wood roll top desk with floral armchair and wood sideboard
Photo by Perry Mastrovito / Alamy Stock Photo

In the Dining Room

If you’ve ever been put off by the rudimentary nature of bar carts, consider a rolltop desk to host your spirits. Yes, dry bars provide a similar purpose. But is there anything as luxurious as sliding up a rolltop to tee off your cocktail-crafting ritual? To ensure your rolltop doesn’t look like it’s obviously moonlighting, consider a model that presents more like a dresser. (i.e. no legs or very abbreviated legs.) By nature, these models will usually possess a flip-out or pull-out writing ledge so there’s no need for a kneehole. Details to look for that will effectively raise the bar? Look for marquetry or inlays—especially on the desk’s hood or cylinder portion. Secondly, keep an eye out for embedded velvet or leather writing blotters. Either acts as an ingenious bar mat. 

In the Bedroom

Key to the success of the rolltop desk in the 21st century is its hybrid nature. Perhaps nowhere is that pivoting prowess better on display than in the bedroom. With no disrespect to the classic Cutler rolltop desk, you’ll again want to opt for a dresser model here. A stack of drawers provides extra wardrobe storage while the pull-out writing portion allows the piece to be function as an official desk—whether your work from home cadence is occasional or habitual. Need to squeeze a TV into the equation as well? It’s possible. Just look for a model with a flat top or ledge. While you may need to downsize your screen size for the sake of scale, a rolltop can handle the task of media center with aplomb. 

In an Entry

Like bedrooms, entryways often require a jack-of-all-trades piece that can function as a console and an organizational unit. Space limitations frequently dictate that these pieces be compact as well. Up to the task? Petite, writing desk-sized rolltops. Rolltop advocates often herald the design’s warren of storage which can include drawers, pigeonholes, and letter racks. Once used to stash stamps, quills, and letter openers, these hideouts can now be co-opted for other uses. Today, they can be used to corral chargers, car keys, nylon grocery bags. (Basically anything you need to grab on your way out the door.) Unless your entry is grand, opt for a Carlton desk-inspired rolltop. Carlton styles typically forgo blocky drawer bases in favor of dainty cabriole legs. In an entry, an open base will feel less imposing, more like a side table than a cumbersome filing cabinet.

Shop Vintage Rolltop Desks >>

Lead image by The Interior Archive x Trunk Archive / Photo by Simon Upton


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August 6, 2021

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