Julian Baggini: Is Osborne's dad worth a £19,000 desk?

The one thing you would never do at the desk Sir Peter Osborne has his eye on is write at it

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How much would you spend on a desk? Few would – or even could – go as far as George Osborne's father, who revealed in an interview at the weekend that he has his eye on one that costs "from" £19,000.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of us for whom a good desk is one of our greatest extravagances. I paid three figures to upgrade from a perfectly serviceable Ikea pine corner desk to a solid, vintage one with a leather surface so worn that it has inch-wide holes. It was worth every penny.

But why do so many people form a deep attachment to what is, in essence, no more than a level surface on which to rest a computer, some books, a coffee cup or a glass of something stronger?

In some ways, the devotion some men in particular have to their desks is like the infatuation others have for "kit". Desks may not be flash and hi-tech, but they can be just as powerful in pandering to the ego and self-image of their owners. A good desk is a kind of proof that you take your writing seriously, and hence, by implication, are a serious writer. A decent computer monitor might be just as important, of course, but such technology is not the preserve of the person of letters, and so cannot provide the same kind of psychological support.

Both the kit junkie and the desk devotee will tell themselves and others that the objects of their desire are truly useful, nay, essential if they are to work properly. But the true ergonomics at work here are those of emotion. Material objects, especially expensive ones, are often said to be signifiers of status to others. That may be true, but they are usually even more vital as signifiers of status to ourselves.

For the true desk lover, however, the emotional boost comes from working at it, not just admiring it as an aesthetic object. And so it is with other relationships between persons and things like sheds, cookers and paintings. It's the difference between art investors and passionate collectors, owners of underused range cookers and foodies who work their four-ring stoves to destruction.

That's why what I find most objectionable about Peter Osborne's choice is not the £19,000, but the desk itself. Decorated inside and out with detailed monochrome architect's drawings, the one thing you'd never do with the late Italian Piero Fornasetti's "Architettura" is write at it.

A desk, like any object, is loved for what it means as much as for what it does. But that love is deepest when what a thing means is essentially linked to what it enables its owner to do. Lose that connection and all an expensive desk, car or kitchen would signify is possession of supposedly refined taste and the wealth to indulge it.

Julian Baggini's latest book, co-authored with Antonio Macaro, is 'The Shrink and the Sage A Guide to Living', published by Icon

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