Behind the Design: History in Your Lap

Behind the Design: History in Your Lap

In this series, I take you behind the scenes at Levenger to see how some of our most popular products came to life. In this posting, I’ll share the unusual...

Oct 2, 2008

By Steve Leveen

In this series, I take you behind the scenes at Levenger to see how some of our most popular products came to life. In this posting, I’ll share the unusual (and sometimes painful) history of Levenger lap desks.


That lap desks have been with us for centuries is evident by visiting eBay and searching for lap desk. You’ll find antique wooden and brass boxes that open to form inclined writing surfaces, while also holding traveling inkwells and quill pens. Thomas Jefferson designed an elaborate version of a lap desk for drafting our Declaration of Independence. He used his lap desk in his carriage rides from Monticello and at the table in his rented room in Philadelphia. Levenger made a reproduction years ago.


Made of solid mahogany by a talented cabinetmaker named Marshall Petty in North Carolina, our reproduction was a beautiful but expensive showpiece and far too fancy for what most people want today. Commercial success eluded us until 1990 when we asked a simple question: “What would the ideal lap desk be like?”


At the time, lap desks were readily available in chain stores. They were inexpensive little plastic rectangles with beanbag cushions. Useful enough, if a bit small, yet not a bit inspiring. We figured we could do better.


The original kidney bean

Our design team sketched possible shapes and then cut dozens out of foam core. Some odd things resulted, but one pleasing shape, harkening back to antique kidney desks, seemed promising. As the prototype passed from lap to lap, it was met with nods of approval for its expansive size and pleasing, organic shape. Our rough model was large enough to rest on the arms of an upholstered club chair or recliner. From our patent attorney, we learned that the classic shape had never been applied to a lap desk, so we registered it as a trademark for this purpose.


To make it of lightweight wood was our natural inclination—and plywood already had an established place in high-end furniture thanks to Charles and Ray Eames and their pioneering work after World War II. But the high-quality, ultra-thin plywood we had in mind was not something we could buy, so we took a deep breath and wrote a check for custom plywood from Georgia Pacific. The wood had to be carefully cut, sanded and ever-so-smoothly finished.


The 43 customer reviews on our site as of this writing give our Lap Desk an aggregate 4.9 stars out of 5. Browsing the reviews, you can read how the lap desk is used by people of all ages—from college students who like to work on their beds, to the elderly with physical challenges.


People use it for writing letters, paying bills, grading papers, playing Sudoku and telling fortunes with tarot cards. It’s especially popular for people who work out of their homes and have the luxury of working in easy chairs. Other customers use their lap desks to hold their keyboard and mouse and thereby avoid repetitive stress syndrome.  It’s particularly gratifying for me to read that one customer reported using his for 12 years.


Lap desks for laptops


With the growing popularity of laptop computers, the use of lap desks from many manufacturers has increased for the simple reason that while it’s possible to use laptop computers directly in your lap, it’s not particularly comfortable to do so.


Human laps are uneven, alive with movement, and warm. These qualities make them well suited for bouncing babies, but poorly suited for balancing computers. Laptop computers are happy when their little cooling jets are not impeded by clothes, and for us humans, we’re happy not to have hot laptops toasting our thighs.


(The term “laptop computer” was primarily a marketing term. It was invented to distinguish the first truly portable computers from earlier computers that were advertised as portable but were actually the size and weight of sewing machines. Reviewers of these 1980s computers-in-a-suitcase humorously yet accurately dubbed them luggable, but not before the ungainly machines ruined the term “portable” for future use. When truly portable, book-size computers came on the market, the term laptop conveyed the idea well. This didn’t mean, however, that laptop computers were optimally used directly in one’s lap. Laptops were, and still are, used mostly on tables and desks.)


Although our original lap desk works well for laptops, we set out again with a basic question: “What would the ideal lap desk for using a laptop computer be like?”


A flurry of new ideas lifted off the drawing boards of our design staff, and new prototypes took shape to be passed around and tested. The winning design, we decided, should be smaller than our original lap desk, to conform to the small footprint of a laptop. It should allow one to use it inside the arms of a chair, but still have room for a small notepad for hand-writing, which many people like to do. And it needed a cushion to separate the hot little computer from our legs.



Instead of the sharp-edged rectangles of the past, we stayed with the organic theme of our original and came up with something resembling an exaggerated slice of bread. Still made from clear cherry wood veneer over stable substrate, our Laplander launched in 2002. Today, it’s just as popular as our original lap desk, as customer reviews indicate. 


Surf Desk wipeouts and the perfect wave


The above description of how we moved from our original Lap Desk to the Laplander may make it appear that product development is logical and orderly, and that projects move smoothly from idea to finished product. Can you sense I’m about to say this isn’t how it works? You’re right. And no product has so plagued the company—and vexed me personally—as the simple-looking Surf Desk.


The idea was born after the success of our classic Lap Desk, when I was visiting a surf shop. If you surf, or have ever lifted a modern short surfboard, you know how shockingly light it is, yet with a strong exterior—and the colorful designs are beautiful. What a perfect material to make a lap desk, thought I. All we have to do is find a surfboard manufacturer to make our design.


Who would have guessed it would take us 12 years and many limping retreats to the Tiki bar after particularly bad wipeouts? But finally, in 2008, we got it made.


“I can’t believe you got it done!” exclaimed Laura Bond, a Levenger alum who spoke to me after she spied the Surf Desk at our Boston store while on a business trip. Now living in Binghamton, New York, Laura recalled her time on the hunt eight years ago and her attempts to find vendors for prototypes and production.


“Most of the surf shops were small if not one-man operations, and they had no interest in such a thing, being quite busy with their custom business,” Laura told me in an email. “They were also proud of their craft and frankly saw no reason to delve into surfboards as lap desks. (Such limited vision!) I also recall that some of the larger shops worked strictly under contract for a particular brand and would not even talk to us. I got used to people thinking I was crazy during those initial phone calls.”


Laura, a most imaginative product manager, failed to land the Surf Desk before she moved away for family reasons. The Surf Desk project acquired a certain jinxed reputation and languished as dreams in dark file cabinets for a couple of years.


In 2003, our son Cal took up surfing, which sent me to surf shops on a hunt for a board for his Christmas present. Surrounded by all the gleaming boards, I was smitten again with the old idea. But leery of resurrecting the Surf Desk project at work, where our staff had plenty of other more sensible products to manage, I decided to see if I could get Cal and his surfer friends to help me secure the prototype we needed to prove the concept.


Zach Levitetz, an accomplished teenage surfer and good friend of Cal’s, steered me toward a reliable shop in Deerfield Beach called Bird Surfboards, where surfers took their boards to get repaired. It also had its own small production of custom boards. I called proprietor Mike Pechonis and arranged to visit under the pretense of ordering a custom board.


When I pulled out my CAD drawings and artwork, Mike was taken aback by my strange request. But he agreed to make the sample, cautioning me that it would take a few weeks, given all the work he had backed up. My hefty deposit would make the bargain stick, I hoped, and we shook hands.


Weeks turned into months as my phone messages went unreturned. Finally, about six months after our first visit, Mike said we could come and pick up our board. Cal and I drove there with me feeling like an expectant father. It was beautiful! Mike’s son had done the airbrushing of a hibiscus on the yellow background. It was dreamily light, yet with a surface hard as nails. I thanked Mike profusely and Cal promised to always bring him his dings to repair.


Uplifting help from Down Under

That original Surf Desk prototype kindled excitement again at headquarters and proved the concept internally, yet it would take us another four years to get the board manufactured. As we sent our drawings, specs and our prized original prototype to various surfboard makers in the U.S. and overseas, the reactions were discouraging. Prices were higher than regular surfboards, and most factories wouldn’t even quote it. Only one went so far as to make a sample, which, when we opened the box, was heavy and rough—utterly lacking the appeal of real surfboards.


Finally, about a year ago, our resourceful product manager Eileen Forde was sharing a meal with one of our Taiwanese suppliers of wooden products, when he mentioned he was a surfer. He’d learned while at university in Australia. When Eileen shared how frustrated she was with trying to find a suitable surfboard maker, he relayed how his old surfer buddy from Australia was making boards in a small factory in China for the Jaanese and Australian markets.


The factory, now run by his friend and wife and daughter (also a surfer), received Eileen’s package with our well-traveled prototype, and in short order sent us the most beautiful sample we had seen. I almost cried when she brought it to me—it was just as I always dreamed: incredibly light, beautifully glossy white, and smooth as a new surfboard in the showroom. It even had a wooden stringer inside, just like some of the best surfboards. At long last, with the help of dedicated surfers from around the planet, the Surf Desk was a reality.


Slightly larger than our classic and our lightest lap desk per square inch, the Surf Desk has found a loyal market among customers who enjoy its lighthearted functionality.

And here’s my early-morning “surfing” on the desk at home.



More lap desks with history


As useful as these three lap desks are, they don’t meet all needs. Many customers asked for a surface they could tilt up for reading—a design feature evident in some of the oldest desks shown in medieval illustrations—and so we developed Lapalot, introduced in 2007. 


Lapalot has storage inside and a deep pillow to raise the surface higher. It’s a modern version of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence Desk.


Also looking at history, you will find many bed tray designs developed, especially in the last 100 years. We adopted good design feature of the past—folding legs and tilting tops—and using our trademark kidney bean shape, created the Lapster, introduced in 2008. In its flat position, Lapster works well for writing and laptop computing, while putting no weight at all on your legs. It also tilts to several angles for comfortable reading.

All Levenger lap desks fit our mission of creating products to help customers read, write and work with ideas. They balance good design ideas of the past with new needs associated with our use of technology. Like many useful products, they seek to balance freedom with constraint, softness with firmness, traditional natural materials with modern synthetics.


What will be the lap desks of the future?