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What is a Roll Top Desk?

By Megan W.
Updated May 17, 2024
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A roll top desk is a desk that usually has a built-in set of drawers, cubbies and shelves on top of the writing surface which is covered and locked away by its defining characteristic-a tambour. A tambour is a rounded sliding door made of thin slats of wood that are attached to a piece of cloth or leather. The structure of the tambour is flexible and can be rolled up into its hiding place via an s-shaped track.

The roll top desk is a variant of the cylinder desk. Created in France in the 1760s, the cylinder desk also had cabinets rising vertically from the surface of the desk but was covered by a large, inflexible carved wooden cylinder that slid into place on a fitted c-shaped track.

The cylinder desk was quite popular in France throughout the 18th century, but was plagued with several design flaws that created difficulties both for the builder and user. For one, the wooden cylinder that covered the desk had to be precisely fitted in order to slide into place; in order to avoid warping and becoming unusable, it had to be treated with extreme delicacy for the duration of its use. In addition, the wooden cylinders required skilled handmade craftsmanship, which made them impossible to mass-produce. The wooden slats of the tambour on the roll top desk remedied both of these problems. They were not only easy to create and assemble in volume but their flexible foundation made them less likely to bend irreparably out of shape.

The reproducibility of the roll top desk made it a friend of the industrial revolution, which spawned its heyday in the 19th century. During its prominence in the United States, the roll top desk became much larger and more substantial than its French forbear, widening its surface and cabinets and replacing its carved legs with ample side drawers. By the late 1800s, roll top desks were a mainstay of the American office, although they eventually fell out of favor for more utilitarian steel designs.

Today the roll top desk is enjoying a renaissance: many furniture manufactures currently produce them and they are heavy hitters in the antiques market. The lockable tambour, which has always been useful for storing sensitive documents, now has the added benefit of protecting computers and other expensive desktop equipment from theft. Additionally, the tambour is a handy tool for those too busy to keep up on clutter management—its ability to hide the work area instantly neatens a room. A truly all-in-one piece—a work area, a storage device and a room-centering work of furniture art—the roll top desk makes a fine centerpiece for any office.

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