Deceptive furniture design

Deceptive furniture design

Gillow’s Denton Hall desk – Image by

It’s proven fact: I adore a good mystery. In fact, as I’m writing this article, “And Then There Were None” is playing in the background. There is just something in how I’m wired that makes me aspire to be like Miss Marple when I grow up! This love of intrigue started when I was a young girl. I always had my head in the clouds imagining twists and turns in my make believe worlds.

For me, Barbie’s life was less like a California dream and more like a telenovela, unfolding with plot twists galore. One fateful year I received “The Eleventh Hour” as a gift. With every page turn came the fulfillment of my Sherlock dreams! Even flipping through it now, as an adult, my feeling is the same – the book is utterly fantastic. Every page is illustrated with all manner of clues and hints, sucking you in completely and forcing your mind to scour the pages for answers. Yet the joy of a good mystery isn’t limited to written work or cinematic feats, deceptive furniture design had a real presence in the antique world. Let’s put on our best gumshoe-worthy fedora, grab a sidekick, and get down to the facts…

While designing secret compartments is not relegated to a specific era, it really took off in the Regency period. During this time it was common for desks or book cases to have concealed storage spaces. The thrill for any designer was to blend the deception seamlessly with the rest of the piece. The desired effect was to hide something in plain sight. Pieces were commissioned largely by the noble class during this time and I can’t help but wonder why the demand? Was there an abundance of distrust in society at this time?

Want to start investigating your own furniture collection? Check out these tips on finding secret compartments.

Regency England was a time of great turmoil and change. Economic and political shifts brought the good and bad of society to the forefront. This public display of morals and manners, mixed with the sharp contrast between the haves and have nots, and sprinkled with an unapologetic flair for luxury and scandal – it all summed up to pave the way for the stern Victorian era.

Deceptive furniture design

Wooten Rockefeller Desk

Think of Regency as great chaos and great class. The world may have been falling apart around them, but darn it if they weren’t going to look fabulous throughout it all! Given this context, it makes sense that people would have juicy secrets to squirrel away or a desire to secretly stash some cash in case the banks failed. I can almost picture it – the lady of the house sporting a coy smile as her husband writes letters at the very desk hiding perfumed letters from an ardent admirer.

Furniture design reflected the attitudes of their patrons and perhaps no firm better captured the desired quality and vision than Gillows of Lancaster and London. Founded in the mid 1700s and known for mahogany creations, their deception table is perhaps their most renowned product. Meant to look like a drop leaf table, the front panel hinges out to reveal a hidden storage cubby. Sneaky indeed.

Deceptive furniture design wasn’t limited to the Brits – Americans got into the spirit too. The Wooten Desk Company of Indiana, lovingly referred to as the King of Desks (take that British royalty!), may not have reigned as long as Gillows but its star shone just as brightly.

Fun fact: The Wooten desk design boasted a dizzying 110 compartments!

Their patented desk design was customized for each client and I can only imagine how fun that would have been to order one. Neighbors could have the same desk on the surface, but the hiding places wouldn’t match! How cool is that?

Deceptive furniture design

JFK, Jr. checking out the secrets – image from Pinterest

While these private desks are famous in their own right, perhaps no singular desk is more famous than the desk in the White House. The Resolute Desk was given as a gift to President Hayes from Queen Victoria and takes it name from the shipwreck it was crafted from. Yep, perhaps we have the first famous case of reclaimed lumber for chic design use!

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to say Queen Victoria had it going on – not only did she set the fashion world on fire (white wedding dresses and haute couture, to name a few) but she also understood the value of reuse, reduce, recycle. Truly a woman ahead of her time.

I digress, back to the desk! FDR fitted the beautiful piece with a hidden panel to hide his polio-affected legs. Given the time period of this piece’s creation, I can’t help but wonder what other secret compartments might be within its structure. Fun to ponder, no?

Did you know the Resolute Desk isn’t the only furniture resident with some secrets? The Wilson desk, used by Nixon, was filled with secret microphones that were later used in the Watergate trial.

Dear readers, now that we’ve taken a brief tour through deceptive furniture design do you find yourself wondering what secrets your furniture guards? Let me know what you find in the comments… as Sherlock would tell us, “the game is afoot.”

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