A casualty of everyday antiques’ fall from hipness, the compact desk is regaining relevance

THE SECRETARY desk has waited patiently for us to notice its clever beauty again. Once rendered obsolete by the space demands of hulking desktop computers and printers, the quaintly compact desks with enclosed storage were stockpiled in attics and used-furniture store rooms. But the stars have aligned to bring these almost-antiques back to relevance.“These vintage pieces are more modern than a desk these days,” said Los Angeles architect Raun Thorp. As more people store documents on a cloud and reduce their computer hardware to a laptop, big working surfaces have become the relics. “Secretaries are like a tiny multiuse building in a room,” said Ms. Thorp, who noted that their height can bring an unexpected dynamism to a room.

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.”