The desk – a small collection

Jake Seliger got me started down this track. His portrait of the humble notebook; the light, mobile, ‘look at me out and about’ essential companion to the poet, the artist, the scientist, the philosopher. The portable, personal dream catcher, the slate of insights, plans, lists, scribbles, drafts, snippets.

The tactile hand-piece of the observers of people and the planets, the chroniclers of events, the interpreters of society and the biosphere, the impassioned crafters of words, the inventive shape makers. The notebook serves too as a reluctant, yet indispensable, friend for we café dwelling time-wasters, we mere scribes and doodlers, we travellers and vagrants.

But what happens when time comes for this great captured stream of consciousness to be distilled? Where do the great minds take stock and space to consolidate, synthesise and add weight to their hyphotheses, their ramblings, the disaggregated workings, the marginal notes, the sketchy diagrams?

The desk remains for many of us that substantive object where we tackle the more formative deliberations, the word-smithing and assemblage of ideas. While there is a strand of thinking (although I suggest this may in fact be over-marketed) which offers us the idea of digital liberation giving us the ever-nomadic writer, the ever-moving creator – for many the desk continues to define a tangible reality necessary for the physical process for the considered production of art, writings and ideas worthy of sharing.

Picasso too has a part here. I recently saw his desk (as oil on canvas at the NGA in Canberra), shattered, exploded and disassembled. His cubist work re-envisioned the desk, like many objects at the time – the guitar, the portrait – with a seeming urgency to re-see and reconnect with these overly familiar objects.

Studio Makkink and Bey's 'Werkstadt-Kabinett' at RMIT Melbourne

Studio Makkink and Bey’s ‘Werkstadt-Kabinett’ at RMIT Melbourne

A much newer work by Studio Makkink and Bey ‘Werkstadt-Kabinett’ on display as part of RMIT Gallery exhibition ‘New Olds’ – sees the desk’s evolution into a new form. By placing a heavy crate like cabinet on top of the classical desk – these interpretive artists show the desk morphing from workplace to marketplace. The desk is now ‘open for business’ and the immediacy of publishing and promoting online attests to this new reality.

The designer and craftsperson still makes the desk (perhaps as a stepping point to the workbench or easel) a place of curatorial exploration, collation and aggregation of ideas and physical objects.

But there remains a certain psychology to step up to the desk and start this process – a ritualized phase of the contemplation, the ‘clearing’ and then the mental dance to commence work.

The New Year provides a fretful moment of opportunity to re-engage with work and the desk is a central element in this struggle. Artist Pam Tanzey hovers over her yet to be organized desk while illustrator Catherine Sarah Young’s desk is already ‘readied for work’ at her K studio. There is still the matter of physically reconciling with the desk. Artist Leanne Thomas shows her desk in an early stage of assembly while crafts woman Diane Wright shows she is already fully immersed in the creative process.

For some the new digital workplace creates a near Jeckyll and Hyde tension for the creative and contemplative person. Writer Kate Donnelly in ‘From your Desks’ has made this fascination for the desk a particular focus.  In her interview with writer, illustrator Austin Kleon he describes his ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’ desks as separate and distinct. No doubt this partition has a real basis in some neuro-physiology as we struggle to mentally translate the physical to the virtual.

The desk as ‘workhorse’ continues to impose its presence and at times plays its role in intimidation. No other domestic object effuses such an aura of authority and expectation of order. Teacher Darren highlights this impending moment in ‘Nightshift’ willing the desk to write his lesson plans while student Madelin writes in ‘Un Happy Ness’ the foreboding of sitting down to face her homework. (For those who wish their desk could be a little more interactive you might like to watch the short film ‘The Desk’

But there is affection too. Madelin still writes of her fondness for the tiny A4 desk which she will no doubt soon outgrow.

Photographers can take us into the intimate world which surrounds the desk. Steve Dwyer’s quietly observed portrait shares the intensity of his partner Alex as she focuses over the desk in her work as a jewellery maker.

The desk can be so revealing of our inner lives that Idresse’s ‘Sacred Space’ carefully decribes the desk of her father-in-law – unsettlingly suggests we have strayed into a space only just vacated by the artist. In ‘School Hall’ Anna Pryzbylo captures the desk as an object in a still life. We can almost sense the desk’s isolation, so readily do we relate to the desk as a part of ourselves.


Despite the rise and rise of mobile computing, the desk remains a point of exploration for the designer. One Hundred Acre’s eclectic restyling to create the Leo desk demonstrates our yearning to balance technological advance with crafted originality.

The desk continues to offer a point of early discovery for the child and who wouldn’t want to be a student in the exquisite desk by Tim Durfee and Iris Anna Regn. And for those of us who fear that days at the desk further disconnects us from an experience with our environment, performance artist Justin Kemp’s sandpit desks ensures a connection is retained.

My personal favourite? As a scrambled brained soul with a shared love of art and science, the historic photograph by Ralph Morse on the day of Einstein’s death is extraordinarily iconic. And the nostalgic charm of Maison Jean Cocteau Milly-la-Forêt described by Michael Nassar shows the desk in situ – embodied within a home of art and style. As close to idyllic as you could wish for.

References & thanks to everyone who offered their desks for this post – sorry if I couldn’t weave them all in so there are some more in the list here too.

The humble notebook Jake Seliger’s post:

maison cocteau from Michael Nassar. Describes the recently restored home of Jean Cocteau which houses works by Picasso, Warhol, Modigliani, Buffet, Blanche, and Man Ray. Nassar describes Cocteau as a self-defined poet who grappled with resolving the contradicting concepts of old and new during the birth of a modernism he helped to instigate. – project desk found at (the Lost Girl) – surfing desk – homework desk – craft desk Catherine Sarah Young -illustrator  Darren – the teacher’s desk waiting for inspiration Leanne -the painter’s desk  One Hundred Acre wood’s beautiful Leo desk – designers

emily sanders- founder/designer

jonnie coutu- founder/builder

StevenDwyer -craftsperson image – photographer Pam Tanzey – the artist’s desk the isolated desk design by TimDurfee & IrisAnnaRegn – photographed by Idresse -desk in the basement -inks and paper

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