The antique mahogany pedestal desk has undergone many changes since it was first introduced to the libraries of the rich in the 18th century. The first pedestal desks were derived from the feminine form of the kneehole dressing table, and were generally made from walnut. However, a grander, more masculine design quickly developed. Designed to reflect the owners’ stature and importance, these imposing pieces of furniture were also ideal for those with a busy estate to organise.
By the mid-18th century, walnut had become rare, and thus the antique mahogany pedestal desk was born. Lancashire cabinetmaker Robert Gillow is attributed as being the first person to import mahogany into the British Isles, although the style itself is attributed to Thomas Chippendale. In 1754, Chippendale featured mahogany pedestal desks in his “Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director”, the first book of cabinetmaking designs ever published. The wealthy elite were now able to visit Chippendale’s workshop and order desks to their own design, creating a wealth of individual forms. However, as Chippendale rarely signed or stamped his work, his desks were widely copied by imitators. Many antique mahogany pedestal desks sold today are “in the Chippendale style”.
Gillow, on the other hand, preferred to remain true to his own art. His workshop made variations of Chippendale’s designs, rather than out-and-out copies, and proudly stamped each one to authenticate them. Today, an early Gillow’s antique mahogany pedestal desk can be worth tens of thousands of pounds.
All pedestal desks are of the same basic design, two pedestals, or stacks of drawers, supporting a flat top, which is generally inlaid with leather. As furniture styles changed, so did desks. Chippendale desks were ornate and French Rococo in style. However, later antique mahogany pedestal desks were built along simpler, neo-classical lines, as exemplified by Hepplewhite and Sheraton.
Although lighter woods came into fashion, mahogany continued to be a popular wood. Many Victorian and Edwardian antique mahogany pedestal desks mimicked the styles of Chippendale and Sheraton, and are highly affordable today.