a room full of empty school desks where a small table is attached to a colorful wood and metal chair

Extra Credit

Say Goodbye to the Classic School Desk

Changing needs of students and teachers have led to a rethink of where—and how—kids sit and work in their classrooms

Hope you weren’t planning on carving something cool in your old school desk for the next kid to find—because its days are over.

A roughly 18-by-24-inch writing-ready table surface has topped off the classic stationary nonadjustable seat of learning for many American students for more than a century. Now that desk is changing (and even disappearing) from many K–12 classrooms, replaced by more innovative styles of seating. But don’t cry for the demise of the immobile chair/desk combo. It had a long, benevolent-ish reign in American classrooms.

A visual history of school desks, published in 2012 by EdTech Magazine, begins with the “Fashion” style, which the Ohio-based Sidney School Furniture Company began manufacturing in 1881. That gave way to the ergonomic standing desk in 1899, followed by the double-compartment Welsh school desk (1920), the adjustable school desk of the 1930s, the Prouvé school desk (1946), the Munkegård school desk (1950), the steel-and-chrome school desk of the 1960s, the wraparound school desk of the 1970s, the steel-and-plywood school desk of the 1980s, the New Millennium standing desk of the 2000s, and the Node Chair, introduced by Steelcase in 2010.

What makes the Node Chair a turning point in the classroom experience is that, well, it can turn. Wheels on its feet allow teachers or students to move it around their space as needed. And it’s the desire for that sort of flexibility that’s impacting school desk manufacturers.

“Those ‘old school’ combo desks don’t offer that flexibility,” Kyle Boudreau told Education Week. Boudreau is the educational product marketing manager for KI, a contract furniture company based in Green Bay, Wis. KI has been in business since 1941 and produces desks for the K–12 school market, and Boudreau told EdWeek that the company has seen sales of that “old school” desk—which it calls Intellect Wave—drop to the point that the company will instead serve customer demand for a design that “promotes student engagement and peer-to-peer connections.”

a room full of empty school desks where a small table is attached to a colorful wood and metal chair

Getty Images

That decision is a big deal. According to a 2018 report by Technavio, KI is among the largest vendors in the global school furniture market. Its competitors include Herman Miller, HNI, Steelcase, Ballen Panels, EDUMAX, Fleetwood Group, Hertz Furniture, and Knoll. In a summary analysis of Technavio’s findings about the global school furniture market, Business Wire noted that “based on product, the seating segment held the largest market share in 2017, accounting for nearly 48% of the market, due to its prime importance in all educational institutions.”

The report also found that the U.S. dominated North America’s share of the school furniture market, accounting for a whopping 74% of sales. “This is due to the availability and adoption of innovative and aesthetically appealing furniture,” Business Wire explained. “Increasing revamping activities in educational institutions will also fuel market growth.”

In mid-2019, Heavy.com took the temperature of school desk innovation with its list of the “9 Best Student Desks for Your Classroom.” The top four desks featured adjustable heights, led by the top-ranked the Alphabetter Dry Erase Sitting & Standing Desk. Meanwhile, number five was the Learniture Shape Series Chair Desk, the stylistic heir to the Node Chair.

Thanks to the rising popularity of customizable classroom seats, the thought of sitting through a school day may even become a comfortable one for future students. Or, at least, a more ergonomic one.