“Objects simultaneously scripted action and invited manipulation, and could be negotiated effortlessly only through great familiarity, attention, and mastery” (Hellman 422).
The French bureau of the late-18th century epitomizes the celebrated art historian Hellman’s statement that a piece of furniture dictated the action that occurred around it. L’Encyclopédie of 1765 defines the bureau as a “large [table] designed for the labor of writing or study.”
The bureau plat, or writing table, developed from a basic table with a few drawers and shelves for keeping papers to a place where one engaged in affairs of business, law, and the state. Activities conducted around the bureau are evident by the objects placed on it: the writing implements, the book, and the letter (see figure 7.) Rectangular and roughly six feet long, the bureau plat was large enough to accommodate men around the sides in their discussions of business. A secretary would occasionally sit at one end, isolated, taking notes on a wooden board that slid out from underneath the tabletop. As is evident in Moreau Le Jeune’s print, a nobleman would often dictate to his secretary who would be seated at the bureau (see figure 2). The very presence of the writing desk establishes the nature of their discussion as an official matter. As a result of its size, a bureau would dominate the space, establishing its importance; this was reinforced by its placement, in the center of the room, allowing
interactions to occur around it while also emphasizing the writing desk as a very masculine piece of furniture. The writing desk was the symbol of a man that had moved up in the world but did not serve the same purpose for women. Very few women owned writing desks, since they were conventionally associated with the professional world. Marie Antoinette’s personal study features a bureau plat, but this was uncommon and it is distinctly smaller than the ones seen being used by men (see figure 3).
Women were much more likely to work at a secrétaire: compact desks with a slanted top. Unlike the bureau plat designed for full exposure, the secrétaire was intended to be used for personal affairs. Therefore, it often contained secret drawers that opened with a lock, in a way replacing the role a personal secretary played by providing a confidential space for one’s notes. For a woman, owning a secrétaire was both a sign of being literate and of having enough leisure time to engage in personal correspondence.
Men were the primary constructors of writing desks (see figure 4). After assembly, desks were veneered with exotic wood and coated in lacquer. The top was covered in leather so that every part of the desk was visible, to enable everyone to view the subject matter on the table. The sides of the desk had intricate detailing, (see figures 1 and 6) such as accents with European Japanning, a varnish meant to imitate Japanese lacquering details, or porcelain inlays (see figure 5). As it was intended to be a public piece of furniture, drawers, if there were any at all, would be small and shallow so as to keep everything in the open.
The bureau reflects the 18thcentury architect’s ability to
create furniture for the dual purpose of being decorative and functional for a specific purpose. The bureau and bureau plat epitomize “the golden age of furniture design” (DeJean 9).
DeJean, Joan E. The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual–and the Modern Home Began. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009. Print.
Goodman, Dena. Furnishing the 18th Century: What Furniture Can Tell Us about the European and American past. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Koda, Harold, and Edward Bolton. Dangerous Liaisons. New Haven: Yale UP. 2004. Print.
The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, MARQUETRY. vol. 4 (1765), quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/ November 1st, 2012.
Figure 1. Baumhauer, Joseph. Writing Table (bureau plat). 1745-1749. Getty Center of Los Angeles, Los Angeles.
Figure 2. Moreau (Le Jeune), Jean-Michel. Monument du costume physique et morale de la fin du dix-huitième siècle. 1789. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.
Figure 3. Le Cabinet Doré (Gilded Study). Digital image. Chateau De Versailles. The Public Establishment, n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2012. <http://en.chateauversailles.fr/index.php?option=com_cdvfiche&idf=AAE62EBB-73F3-B492-EBA4-128CB2172C07>.
Figure 4. The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, MARQUETRY. Plate I, vol. 4 (1765), quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/ November 1st, 2012.
Figure 5. Carlin, Martin. Writing Table (bureau plat). 1778. Getty Center of Los Angeles, Los Angeles.
Figure 6. Joubert, Gilles. Writing Table (bureau Plat). 1759. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Figure 7. Moreau (Le Jeune), Jean-Michel. Monument du costume physique et morale de la fin du dix-huitième siècle. 1789. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.