The evolution of the desk

Watch Columbo. This is a sound piece of advice that is the solution to most of life's problems, but right now, watch Columbo and pay attention to the desks. Over more than three decades of faux-bumbling homicide investigation, Peter Falk's scruffy detective witnessed the changing role of the desk in a multitude of aspirational offices (and shifting trends in modernist LA architecture, but I'll save that for another day). A masterclass in television set design and decoration, the characters were fleshed out by the make-up of their habitats, and the desktop paraphernalia of the sixties – telephones, in-trays, table lighters – surrounded a clear space ideal for planning nefarious misdeeds and evading capture. Once upon a time, not so long ago, the desktop was a blank canvas. An empty workspace.

Looking back at them now, the emptiness of those desks seems alien to us … particularly as, more often than not, they're gigantic. But keep watching (seriously, get the Columbo box set and all your Sunday afternoons forevermore will be just perfect), and throughout the 80s and 90s, you start to see the appearance of our friend the computer. It pops up every now and then on a discreet table of its own in the corner of the room – no more than an occasional reference tool, a glorified microfiche reader. Gradually it finds its way onto the desk, just perched on the corner. Sometimes its even turned on. And then, throughout the 90s, it creeps, it creeps across the enormous wooden table until, at some point towards the end of Lieutenant Columbo's career, there it is. Slap bang in the middle of the desk. And the desk atrophies and becomes little more than a device to keep the computer off the ground. The empty workspace vanishes.

Skip ahead a couple of decades (alas we no longer have Falk's adventures to document these things), and desks have regained a little life beyond glorified shelves. Just like in those glory days of weighty-looking lighters and paperweights, we are now oh so very proud of how we accessorise our desks. All over the web (and in the pages of certain magazines) there are beautiful pictures of immaculately dressed studios, usually centred around the standard-issue Mac – essentially deskporn. Our workspaces are things to show off, to be proud of. Desk-dressing has become fashion. 

(And, as in all aspects of fashion photography, this comes with all the associated primping and retouching: everybody knows you scraped a pile of receipts and toast crumbs off that desk before you shot it, matey, you're fooling nobody.)

These things being ever transient, last season's must-have look of vinyl toys and action figures has been replaced with token nods to a modernist aesthetic: a Braun clock here, an Eames Housebird there. Anglepoise lamps are all over the place, as are Pantone mugs (the acceptable face of their recent grotesque merchandise blitz), and perhaps a Moleskine or Field Notes notebook or two. Heaven forbid we should have an uncool notebook.  

And there are no cables whatsoever. Anywhere. Our desks have had a Brazilian wax. No wires for us, thank you very much. Or a number pad. Or even a mouse. Certainly not a mousemat.

Of course, beyond all of this other attractive clutter, the ultimate accessory to your Apple kit of choice is usually … more Apple kit. Desks – particularly those of the ravishing types who read MacUser – are becoming mini Apple showrooms. Chances are your Mac is surrounded by other Cupertino products – I've seen some which manage to boast an iMac, MacBook, iPhone and iPad. And that's before we even get to the various brushed aluminium accessories. If only the Apple of 1984, the one that stated "If you have a desk, you need a Macintosh", could see us now … 

The thing is, by turning the Mac into the heart of the desk – and, skeuomorphically-speaking, actually turning it into the desk – we're missing something. We've lost what desks are for. They're not merely platforms for hardware and decorative displays of personality: they're physical working spaces. For people, for ideas. As the computer has crept across from the corner of the room, we've lost that expanse of potential. Our nefarious-misdeed-planning-zone has gone.

To save ourselves from this "workstation" (oh what a horrid little word) homogeneity, we could do a lot worse than look towards one of the greatest stars of desk-fashion, one worthy of a truly diabolical Columbo suspect. Legendary designer Massimo Vignelli once told Design Observer: “I like to start the day fresh. If I start the day with things left over, it’s like starting dinner with leftovers — it kills your appetite.”

In New York's Upper East Side, Vignelli works at a five-foot square steel square table surrounded by four chairs. Over the course of a day, ideas and conversations will spread across this expanse, but at the end of the day all that will be left is a MacBook, mouse, a black Tizio lamp and some white paper and a pencil. All other clutter is ephemeral.

Now have a look at the leftovers on your desk. Of course, we don't all have the space for a desk of this scale, but size aside, looking at what lives on Vignelli's desk tells us a lot about why it works. It's a blank canvas, and the Mac is no more important a part of it than the pile of blank paper or those vital empty seats. Keep that in mind, and clear a space, see if it works. Push the detritus to one side and rediscover your appetite for creativity.

Oh, and one last thing: computers are leaping off the desk and onto our laps and into our pockets and – if Google have their way – onto our faces. You are the new desk accessory. Make sure you're useful, and not just an ornament that gathers dust.