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Rolltop Desks

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DESIGNING WITH VINTAGE ROLLTOP DESKS

Packrat tendencies aside, the vintage rolltop desk is a very chic piece. Like a pocket-bedecked fisherman’s vest rendered in furniture form, the antique rolltop offers up the sort of organizational efficiency that minimalist Parsons desk owners can only dream about. The trick is, how does one actually use a vintage rolltop desk? Especially a revered specimen like a Cutler rolltop desk or an Oakcrest rolltop desk? Hasn’t tech all but obliterated the need for cubbies and pockets to burrow utility bills and stash stamps?

Born out of well-heeled Victorians’ demand for bigger desks to outfit their expanding homes, the rolltop desk first surfaced around 1870. Rolltop desks instantly dwarfed dainty writing desks, offering spacious writing surfaces that were encased in a bank of small drawers intended for corralling writing instruments, letterhead, and stationary. To keep everything looking tidy, the writing surface and accompanying drawers could be enclosed in a rolling, slatted-wood cover. Some vintage rolltop desks featured a typical kneehole, while others forewent one in favor of a writing surface that could be slid out when needed. The latter resulted in antique rolltop desks that could be easily mistaken for a dresser, if not for their uniquely domed tops.

Rethinking the vintage rolltop desk isn’t actually as difficult as one might initially think. With a little ingenuity and a willingness to employ one in a space other than an office, an antique rolltop desk can feel wholly 21st century.

Antique rolltop desks tend to be shorter than secretary desks, meaning that they don’t introduce quite the same dynamism to a room. In fact, most rolltop desks clock in at an admittedly awkward height—taller than a credenza, shorter than a tallboy dresser. With that in mind, the top of a rolltop deserves some consideration—certainly don’t leave it bare. Use the uppermost surface as an opportunity to display decor that fuses your desk with your surrounding interiors. For options that are as striking as they are functional, consider a small-scale table lamp, mirror, or artwork—the latter two, casually leaned against the wall, will infinitely flatter—as well as eye-catching pottery and vases. Creating a robust, layered vignette will ensure that your old rolltop desk feels like a considered part of your interior, both when the top is open and closed.

3 Modern Ways to Style a Vintage Rolltop Desk

Part of the predicament with a rolltop desk is how to modernize it. A rolltop desk’s hulking form can make it difficult to work one into modern-day interiors where compact pieces typically rule. To help make the integration a bit easier, we’ve assembled a rolltop rubric to making a vintage rolltop feel fabulously fresh.

Especially if you’re partial to a walnut or oak rolltop desk, opting for a leggy model can fight fust. In addition to providing a silhouette that’s more similar to other modern pieces, an open-leg base provides the opportunity to style a rolltop desk with a chair. Rather than settle for something pedestrian, seize the chance to make a stunning statement and team an antique rolltop with a strikingly sculptural stool. Whether it be a ceramic drum stool or metal tabouret, a shapely seat will soften an oak or walnut rolltop desk’s old fashioned overtones. To lend cohesion in a more casual space, a funky ottoman or pouf could also be procured.

Rolltop desks, with their bank of itty-bitty drawers, pockets, and pigeonholes, do suggest a certain hoarder mentality may be at work. Rather than fight the notion, embrace it, and use a vintage rolltop to display an expansive collection like potted plants, stacked hats, or colored glassware. Used in excess, any collection will work in cohesion with a rolltop's drawers to cue up a vignette with avant-garde appeal. True, the look may be a bit polarizing, but it’s a wonderful way to use eccentricity in your favor and usher in a feeling of unexpected cool. If a cluttered workspace sounds like the equivalent of low-key torture, consider surrounding an antique rolltop with a gallery wall made up of small-scale paintings or photos. The paintings’ square shape will visually tie into the rolltop’s myriad of tiny drawers, creating instant cohesion, not to mention, maximalist splendor.

Yet another way to make an old rolltop desk feel uniquely modern is to recast it as a piece other than a desk. For instance, use a vintage rolltop desk as an entry console, or as an end-of-the-hallway credenza. Choose a striking burl wood number—a blocky Biedermeier model would certainly wow—or something stately like a mahogany Georgian rolltop to make your set-up feel designed with intention. A central location like a hallway encourages a vintage rolltop to be used as odds-and-ends storage piece—an ultra-chic junk drawer of sorts? Diminutive drawers can be used to stow everyday equipage, by which we mean the nuts and bolts that everyone needs to have readily on hand, but no one actually wants to see. Designate a drawer for batteries, old phone chargers, metro cards, flashlights, thank you cards, sunglasses, stamps, extra sets of guest keys. The trick is to keep drawers restricted to a singular-use—no mixing pens and pencils, for instance. To intermingle would be to defeat the organizational mastery that only an antique rolltop desk can offer.