Alexander von Humboldt’s desk

The Piece of Furniture

A table made of wood and brass – neither baroque nor heavy but of engaging simplicity. On slender legs with elegant wheels, as mobile as its owner. This is what Alexander von Humboldt must have needed when he returned to his hometown after a youth marked by restlessness and wanderlust, his spectacular five-year expedition to the primeval forests of America, the peaks of the Andes and the high plateaus of Mexico, and after long years in Paris. Not only as the most famous Berliner, which he probably still is today, but as the most famous person of his time, worldwide, after Napoleon.

In 1827, he did not give the task of creating a perfect piece of furniture to prepare the ground for further great deeds to one of the stars of artistic carpentry – of which there were several in Berlin. He commissioned a master who knew how to implement the ideas and needs of the illustrious client without any vanity of his own. The name of the cabinetmaker has been lost to posterity, but the precision craftsmanship and simple elegance with which he created a space for the great polymath’s future ideas is timeless.

Alexander von Humboldt did not need a desk of monumental weight in his Berlin flat in Oranienburger Straße; he did not need it to emphasise his social consequence. The fine brass cut castors, indeed the lightness and mobility of the table, will rather have supported him in continuing to travel in spirit. Amidst maps, mountains of manuscripts, collected natural objects and books, “in my Oranienburg wilderness” – as he wrote himself.

According to his own account, Alexander von Humboldt wrote around 2000 letters a year to his correspondents at this table, “a fine, invisible network covering almost the entire living world”. It was here that he condensed his profound knowledge of many sciences, his dictum “Everything is interaction” and the experiences of an eventful life into his epic work Kosmos – written down in his characteristic upwardly flowing lines, published in five volumes and still read all over the world today.

The shape of his writing table also reveals a secret of his working method: The research literature and working tools are relegated to plateaus on the sides. The covered flat of the table top itself is reserved for the creative process: the countless larger and smaller papers, protected from any draughts by the raised sides, on which Alexander von Humboldt constantly rearranged his notes, excerpts and drafts, finally bringing them together to form his complex scientific narratives – a masterpiece of organisation and overview, supported by a cleverly and functionally designed piece of furniture.

The Rediscovery

The replica of Alexander von Humboldt’s desk is linked to its rediscovery. For over 150 years, the piece of furniture was practically lost. At least to the perception of the international public, which from Bogotá to Berlin to St. Petersburg cherished the memory of the cosmopolitan and master of the world’s scientific narrative.

How did this come about? Upon his death, Alexander von Humboldt bequeathed his estate of works of art, his library, scientific instruments and natural history objects, including the desk, to his long-time valet Johann Seifert, as a kind of old-age provision for his family. In 1860, a good year later, interested parties from all over the world bid at an auction for the memorabilia of the world star Humboldt. As number 489, the catalogue also offered “Alex. v. Humboldt’s desk, at which he worked daily and wrote the Cosmos, including inkwell and other writing implements”, “birch wood covered with waxed canvas”, the text specifies.

At this point the Prussian State should have seized the opportunity to create a monument to its most famous citizen by purchasing the entire collection. But Alexander von Humboldt, who had never shied away from speaking unpleasant truths and pleading for a society based on freedom and equality, was too uncomfortable for the politically powerful of his time.

And so the elegant piece of furniture went on a journey itself. An admirer of Humboldt, the Portuguese-Dutch collector and patron of science David Henriques de Castro, acquired the desk for 150 thalers and shortly afterwards presented the sensational piece to the amazed Dutch royal couple in the zoological gardens of his home town Amsterdam.

In September 1865, the desk travelled on to the Louvre in Paris, more precisely to the director’s study. After all, Paris had been Humboldt’s adopted home for over a quarter of a century, and it was here that he had written most of his works – in French. Henriques de Castro, the owner of the desk, saw the Louvre, already the world’s largest museum at the time, as the appropriate place to commemorate Humboldt.

However, the desk finally found its worthy place not between the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, but rive gauche, on the other side of the Seine: in the elite Institut de France, temple of the French sciences and arts. Hundreds of times, Alexander had spoken there about the adventures of his journeys and their significance for the sciences; on the occasion of his last visits to Paris, he had even lived in the building where scholars and interested people from all over the world now stood in front of the polymath’s writing table.

In 1883, the desk rolled on once again, to the Paris Observatory, the centre of surveying the world and the heavens, where Humboldt had spent many nights working with his closest friend, the physicist and astronomer François Arago. Since then, between gigantic telescopes and surveying instruments, the desk on which Humboldt wrote his “Kosmos” has been closer than ever to the cosmos itself. Hidden away in a great place of research, highly secured and rarely accessible. A treasure under the sea of stars that first had to be unearthed.

The moment of public “rediscovery” was the 250th anniversary of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth: in 2019, the desk returned to Berlin for the first time, as the star object of a major exhibition on the Humboldt brothers at the German Historical Museum. Here, in the centre of Berlin, for a few weeks it  stood only a few metres (720, to use Humboldt’s penchant for precision) away from its original location: the study and thinking space of arguably the most prolific of all the 19th century’s busy scholars.

The inspiration to recreate the work desk on which Alexander von Humboldt compounded his ideas for 30 years and until his last breath, stems not only from its absolute uniqueness. Humboldt’s desk manifests the guiding principle that emerged in his time, according to which form follows function. We go even further with Humboldt and say: thoughts follow this form.