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Ergonomics for a Secretary Desk

11 May 2021

A secretary desk, also known as an escritoire, is made of a base of wide drawers topped by a desk with a hinged desktop surface. This is topped with a bookcase that comes with a pair of doors usually closed. The whole desk is a single, tall and heavy piece of furniture.

A secretary desk is, despite its name, not used by a secretary or anyone who is administrative assistant assistance to the boss. This kind of desk is an antique form which is now very rare in the modern office.

Like a slant top desk, the work surface is a hinged piece of wood that is flat when open and oblique when raised to enclose secondary work surfaces. Such as small shelves, small drawers, and books stacked in front of the user. The fall front desk and others with a hinged desktop, and unlike closable desks with an unmovable desktop like the rolltop desk. Thus, all documents and various items must be removed from the work surface before closing up.

When closed, it’s a cross between a commode-dresser, a slant top desk, and a bookcase. The secretary desk is the most common antique desk form. It has been reproduced and copied for home use in the last hundred years. Among home desk furniture, it is the tallest, biggest, and heaviest, not including the wall units and modular desks which can be disassembled for moving. Some of the biggest of the armoire desks, which are usually delivered unassembled.

There is no single term for this desk, even among experts. In Europe, it has been called a bureau and bookcase and then desk and bookcase. The average person would usually call this desk a secretary, or secrétaire. In general, one could sometimes say that all desks which can close off the working surface are secretaries, while all others are simply desks. To add to the confusion, certain forms of the secretary desk are called escritoire, usually when the bookcase section is covered with glazed panels instead of wooden doors. But the term escritoire sometimes is used to define a very portable writing slope, which is different in terms of bulk and weight.

A secretary desk got its name early in its history. It was derived from the secretary to a wealthy person who writes out bios and does their paperwork on that desk. It can come in many styles in varying degrees from vintage to contemporary.

What are the uses of a secretary-style computer desk?

A secretary-style computer desk combines the construction of the past with a contemporary need: space for storage and getting organized. First, it offers a surface for using a laptop, iPad, or computer and for storing peripherals. In addition to doing computer work, it can be used for its original purpose: writing notes, letters, and checks. Your office peripherals are readily available since the computer desk has several drawers and cubby holes to store the supplies.

Placing a secretary-style computer desk in an office or home

Since its storage space is so discrete, there are several places where to put a secretary-style computer desk in the home where you do your work, which includes the bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom.

It’s best to use a light pastel rather than the traditional dark wood when going for a contemporary look. It allows you to do some work and can close your workspace when guests arrive to visit. This makes the room look tidy. 

When a secretary desk is cut in half vertically to provide a secretary desk half as wide as usual on one side and a glass door cabinet on the other. This piece of furniture is called a side-by-side secretary. The term is also applied to very big pieces of furniture composed of three elements, one of them being a half-wide secretary desk.

On most antique secretaries and on most reproductions the user will pull out two small wooden planks called sliders. This to support the desktop, before actually turning the desktop from its closed, angled position to its normal working position. However, in some antique versions, a system of internal gears or levers connected to the sliders and the hinged desktop automatically pushed the sliders out simultaneously. The user will then pull on the closed desktop to its horizontal position. When the user closes it, the sliders would then retract automatically. That secretary desk is known as a mechanical desk. It has some sort of mechanism pushing out elements of the desk and then pulling them back in automatically.

What traditional designs of secretary desks are available?

One secretary-style computer desk in dark wood has a top-shelf to put books or display photos, a row below has six cubby holes and a drop-down work surface on hinges in the next section. Two chains hold the drop-down action. The bottommost section has brassy ornamented pulls on its two drawers and one cabinet.

Another desk has storage spaces for keeping writing implements, paper clips, Post-it notes, and more above it. Below are two deep drawers. Cabriole legs add refined elegance to this utilitarian piece.

What are the best secretary desks for modern spaces?

The color white for the secretary's desk can be coordinated with modern style. To find the best ergonomics for the secretary desk, it should address the position of your desk, chair, and body to maximize productivity, minimize physical discomfort and prevent health-related issues. 

Although basic ergonomic principles can be used by anyone working on a secretary desk, some adjustments are made to fit your specific height and work assignments. When working on a secretary desk for computer or laptop work, apply the ergonomic policies in your workplace.

Sitting Too Low

When you're sitting too low, it forces your body to sit on the front edge of a chair. This in turn lifts your arms to a comfortable working level. You reach upward to grab things on top of your desk. As well as raise arms, hands, and wrists when you're typing. Reaching up to a desktop when sitting in a low chair causes wear and tear as well as thickening of the bursa and tendons of the shoulder. This can lead to tendonitis and bursitis of the shoulder.

Sitting Too High

If the chair is too high for the desk, you need to bend forward to reach down to the low desktop. This unusual posture can cause undue back stress as well as abnormal positions for your wrists. Leaning forward makes the lower back support the upper body weight, which can reach 50 percent of your total body weight. It can make the back muscles more prone to injury and fatigue.

Just Right

The American National Standards Institute gave recommended guidelines for ergonomically based workstations such as secretary desks. It recommends a height between 27 and 29 inches, leaving room under the desk for legs and knees. A proper ergonomic sitting position at the desk is a 90-degree angle between your lower and upper arms; your hips and lower back; your upper and lower legs; and your feet and ankles. Change the work-surface height for a keyboard to about 2 inches lower than your desk height. Adjust your chair or desk to fit the recommended ergonomic height for your body size.

Additional Tips

Even though a desk and chair height are essential elements of office ergonomics, you can make additional ergonomic ideas to improve your comfort level. For example, place a task lamp on your desk for reading and writing; choose a secretary with rounded edges to prevent uncomfortable forearm stress, and keep the wrists in line with your forearms and palms when typing. On a final tip, place the top of a computer or laptop screen at eye level and a comfortable distance. This allows you to read the monitor without leaning your neck, head, or trunk backward or forward.

Final thought:

A secretary's desk can be an elegant piece of furniture for the office or the home. But it is important not to forego ergonomics just to add décor to the workspace. Having the proper ergonomics can help you in the long run.