The term “Bureau” has several meanings. In Europe, it refers to a writing desk that has a hinged writing flap that is fitted on a sloping angle when it’s closed. When opened, it reveals a tier of small drawers, pigeonholes, and sometimes a small cupboard.
In the United States, the bureau refers to a chest of drawers and is most commonly used in an office space. Whereas in Europe when it comes to furniture, the bureau refers to a desk that has a lid that opens to form a writing surface. Either way, the bureau is used in an office or writing area.
In the United States, there is quite often confusion between what a dresser or a bureau actually is.
When it comes to a bureau vs a dresser you will find the dresser is mostly used in the bedroom for clothes storage while a bureau is used for storage in an office area…
Evolution of Bureau Furniture
Although the definitions of bureau furniture in the United States and Europe seem a bit unrelated, the original meaning of the French word bureau helps explain.
It means “cloth covering for a desk”. At first, bureau furniture gradually evolved to mean “desk” (and ultimately “dresser”). After that, the terms also started being used to refer to an office or a room full of desks.
The 17th Century
Desks in the 17th century were first referred to as bureaus i.e. sloping front desks that have writing surface which you can open and close.
Bureau furniture was basically an adaptation of the chest of drawers on which the surface for writing was fitted.
This type of furniture then became quite popular as a form of the desk for an office or sitting-room. During the 18th century, it was made in great numbers.
Queen Anne Period
During the Queen Anne period (1702-1714), the bureau desks evolved into a kneehole-writing table. A kneehole-writing table is a small desk that has drawers on either side of a kneehole.
Such writing tables also often feature a central cupboard. Writing tables at that time were either constructed of oak or veneered in walnut.
It wasn’t until the 1750s that the partner’s desks and pedestal desks were first seen. During that time, the mahogany wood from the Caribbean islands was used to polish the bureau desks, giving them a deep reddish-brown color.
This wood was a luxury item at that time and promoted by designers like Thomas Chippendale, who worked for notable and wealthy patrons.
Bureau furniture that survived the mid-18th century was mostly constructed for the country house library. Bureau desks from that era are large, decorative, and feature carved embellishments and because of their rarity, they command substantial prices.
Early 19th Century
In the early 19th century at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of a new business class or entrepreneurial class was seen, growing wealthy from the industries they came from.
At that time, the business people followed the current fashions and had a practical use for bureau furniture of all shapes and sizes at home and within the workplace.
Different Types of Bureau Furniture
From small kneehole-writing tables to large partners desks, bureau furniture has evolved a lot and the proliferation of office-based work created an opportunity for furniture makers to manufacture a wide variety of bureau desks for home and business of the new rich class of business people and entrepreneurs.
Today, the term “bureau furniture” refers to basically any type of furniture that is used for office work or in the Unites States a chest of drawers.
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