The modest scale of most vintage models, neither very deep or wide, makes them especially versatile. Richmond, Va., designer Janie Molster said of the chinoiserie-style piece she bought in her 20s, “I have used it in a bedroom, dining room, living room, kitchen and currently my foyer.” The secretary’s lower drawers can store linens, photo albums or clothes; shelves above, usually enclosed by glass doors, can house books or display anything from pottery to Matchbox cars. Rachel Cannon, a designer in Baton Rouge, La., recently tucked one in a stair landing to create a miniature home office. Kari McIntosh, a designer in San Mateo, Calif., used a contemporary West Elm model in a nursery-cum-office in her own two-bedroom apartment.
Slots, shelves and drawers (and secret compartments, if you’re lucky) store vestiges of pre-digital life such as staplers and pens, and, brilliantly, the desk fronts close up, “hiding contents elegantly,” said New York designer Phillip Thomas, who placed a 1950 green-blue lacquered French number in a corner surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Mr. Thomas favors antique and 20th-century versions, he said. “I am drawn to their history, the fine materials and the craftsmanship.”
That 20th-century pieces are still around testifies to their quality, said Anna Brockway, co-founder of vintage site Chairish, which was hosting 110 secretaries for $1,000 or less in early April. “They’re a great example of a category of brown furniture becoming relevant again,” she said, referring to the traditional wood furniture of the 20th and late 19th century that has fallen out of fashion. “When a piece is the right choice and you match it with accessible pricing, it becomes a hit.”
Beyond practicalities, secretary desks can charm. “They seem to embrace you a little,” said retired businessman George Entin, whose Atlanta designer Melanie Millner found an 18th-century mahogany beauty, now in his study. “You sort of fall in love with them.”