A new desk

sat23apr2011—16w113d30%— 15h04m00s—0utc
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I wanted a desk that could elegantly handle (2) computers and its peripherals (3 displays, 4 external hard drives, tens of cables…). I wanted to see as few things as possible, yet keep everything accesible and flexible. Here’s what I ended up with and some of the thinking behind it.

It’s a simple table with a slot and an open drawer on the back. The slot runs all across the tabletop and ends on wider circle holes on both sides. The drawer does not continue to the front and both the slot and the side holes open to it.

The cables pass cleanly through the slot and everything that can be is held on the drawer, out of sight. The wider side holes are both to pass big plugs through and as side outlets for cables (ugliness would be for them to have to bend around the back). Unexpectedly, they also work well as a holder for my lone iPhone/iPad cable.

Deliberately, the desk has no parts (moving or fixed), no hinges, no covers, no knobs, no wheels. It employs nothing but negative space. It obviously wasn’t made that way but you could make it starting from a big block of cedar and just taking volume away. I aimed for a streamlined, minimalistic shape.

I’m no big fan of the corner cable holes in many commercial office desks (an unrelenting blight). A tabletop-length slot is a striking feature but it provides much more direct and flexible cable throughput.

I wanted nothing to hinder the legroom, which is why the table legs are sidewise (not frontwise) and why there are no side drawers. This makes the desk feel even longer, roomier: you can roll the office chair sideways as need be or have another person sit next to you while you showcase something.

The drawer doesn’t have much depth in order to be mostly invisible from the front and to allow for knee room (as per ergonomical recommendations, this is a pretty low desk). The drawer, though, is tall enough to hold the tallest stowaway gadgets I could imagine using and it could even hold books (paperbacks) and DVDs.

Other approaches

Van Mardian’s underdesk DIY is another popular answer to electronic clutter I considered. My engineering half loves it as a cheap, ingenious solution that can be adapted to many desks. My designer half cringes at its unseemliness and clunkiness.

After I had designed the desk and it was being made, I stumbled on Jennifer Newsman’s slot desk. Her desk is made of aluminum and there the slot serves also to pass cables through a hollow tabletop that fully opens only at one side. It seems great for hiding cables but not so much for anything bigger.

As further examples of the negative-space, “no parts” design that I aspire to, see Jane Dandy’s custom stacked book side table, Dave Pickett’s nook table and Scott Collins’ bentwood Urbanlounge.


David Rudolf Bakker’s magical use of binder clips as cable catchers was what first started me thinking about Cable Management Systems. Ironically, this new desk is not quite compatible with binder clips but there’s no longer need for them.

I designed the desk myself and had it made by a superb local woodworker, Osvaldo Flores. The total cost, workmanship plus materials, was US$190. This is Mexico people. Here are some of the sketches I gave him:

Previously, my all-time favorite desk was a black IKEA Vika. It was a simple black, long table, not specifically a computer desk, but I loved it and took inspiration on the measures from it (making my desk longer and a bit wider).

In a very real way, this setup is made possible by Plugable technologies. Their 10 port powered USB hub makes it so that only a single USB cable has to peek out of the drawer. And their USB monitor adapters are what allows a Macbook Pro to easily run 3 external displays. Oh and Dell’s display are just the best.

Write me

This is but my first try at this. In a few years, I’ll tackle the problem again, probably even aiming as high as a standing desk. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, I’d love to hear them at desk@elzr.com (if you want to do it publicly, I’m hanging out at the original Hacker News submission).

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