Canadian Woodworking

Royal Italian writing desk and chair

Blog by Rob Brown
King Carlo Alberto desk

Although this mahogany desk and chair couldn’t be further from my own personal style, they’re incredible pieces.

At first glance (at least to me, anyways) they’re overpowering designs with highly carved surfaces, deeply curved parts, and something my kids and pets would quickly ruin. Thankfully, taste is subjective, and there are many people who think this piece, including its ornate surfaces and overall design, is nothing short of incredible. This desk and chair were made for King Carlo Alberto of Italy, circa 1840.

The woodworker in me immediately wants to learn more about the pieces, though. Thankfully, the auction house M.S. Rau (RauAntiques.com), which is offering them, also wants people to learn more about them so they made a video showing the pieces in their entirety, including the wide range of hidden compartments and drawers, all the intricate carvings and the incredible inlay work that covers much of their surfaces.

Video courtesy of M.S. Rau, New Orleans

Amazing Antique

This desk and chair were made for King Carlo Alberto of Italy. They’re incredible examples of a craftsperson’s skills and only become more impressive the closer you look.

King Carlo Alberto desk

Hidden Compartments Everywhere

As you can see, there are a few hidden compartments and drawers so you can store your valuables.

King Carlo Alberto desk

Easy to Miss

A finger presses a hidden latch that’s camouflaged by the intricate carving surrounding it.

King Carlo Alberto desk

Take a step back

As I hinted at above, I’m more of a “less is more” kind of guy. I like subtle design coupled with a bit of adornment and some graceful curves. Having said that, I loved viewing the video and seeing all the work that went into figuring out where to put the hidden compartments and details. Everyone loves a hidden drawer, whether they prefer Louis XV, art deco, mid-century modern or Shaker design.

To me, the most incredible part is how they designed and made all the latches, buttons and levers that activated the secret compartments. In many cases, there were buttons that had to be pressed to open compartments, and only then could you press other buttons or latches to open even more compartments. The thought process that went into all the details on the desk is mind boggling.

Maybe my favourite detail is how a tiny portion of the carving acts as a release button for a small drawer featuring a lion’s head carving as its drawer front. The release button is in plain sight, but you could admire this desk for days and miss it. I wonder what was the most valuable thing stored in these drawers.

Other hidden compartments

I’ve only made one piece with a hidden compartment, and it was featured in in the magazine back in 2005. I wrote about a Japanese-inspired step tansu I designed and built, including a hidden compartment in the uppermost section. It was a lot of fun to build and it still gets used daily. To open the front panel on the compartment you have to open the drawer below it and press a lever that reaches up to the panel and presses the lower portion of it away from a magnet. With your other hand you grasp the panel and tilt it open.

Have you seen any other pieces with secret compartments you liked? Email me a photo or include a link in the comments.

My Only Hidden Compartment

This is a step tansu I made almost 20 years ago. The construction process was covered in our August/September 2005 issue.

tansu

There It Is

Once a lever is pressed below it, the panel can be grasped from the front.

tansu
Published:
Last modified: February 11, 2023

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

4 Comments

  1. Hi Barbara. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess on how many hours was spent making this desk and chair combo. It’s pretty unreal, isn’t it?! If you contacted the auction house who’s showing this piece they might have more information about the maker and the desk.

  2. Hi Craig. Yes, I’ve seen Craig T’s work. Between his veneering and his secret compartments / mechanisms, he makes some truly stunning pieces!

  3. Do you have a guess as to how many hours it would have taken to make that astounding, highly detailed, beautiful work of art, the Royal Italian writing desk and chair? Truly amazing craftmanship. Also, would you know who the name of the craftman that carved and built it is? I am wildly beyond impressed with the set. Thank you in advance, for taking the time to answer my inquiry.

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