Parker Furniture

By Jane Clothier | ISSUES 79

Innovative and iconic, Parker Furniture was at the forefront of Australian interior design for nearly half a century, bringing modernist style to homes across the country. As Jane Clothier writes, with Parker pieces now achieving antique prices and new pieces in production, this is a good time to reflect on a story of innovation and hard work that made mid-century modern design affordable to all.

Parker Furniture rose to prominence in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Australian designers were looking across the world to America and Scandinavia for inspiration. In Europe, countries needed to rebuild both communities and economies. A forward-looking design culture keen to break with pre-war traditions embraced modernist design. Conveniently, its clean lines and simple construction techniques were well suited to factory production at more economical rates. New technologies, materials and methods of mass production were about to yield the styles known today as Mid-Century Modern.

The first major design style of the post-war period was introduced to Australia by Parker Furniture, who established a winning blend of innovation, modern production techniques, quality and affordability. It was the first company to produce modern furniture suites for the dining room, lounge room and bedroom, a fact that seems quite remarkable now.

An interesting series of events had to take place before the Parker family business could pioneer this new design movement at the other side of the world in Australia. The company’s humble beginnings were in the 1935, in the latter part of the Great Depression that had then blighted the world for nearly a decade.

Having lost his job in 1930, former Ballina salesman Jack Parker was making ends meet by buying fish from the markets and selling it in the Sydney suburbs. He met a carpenter called Alf Dagger, who was reclaiming timber from palettes to make kitchen chairs, which he sold for sixpence. It was a small step for Jack to start selling Alf’s chairs on his travels. The venture was modestly successful, and they formed the partnership Dagger and Parker, before moving to Camperdown in 1936.

In the early 1940s, with World War II well under way, they began making furniture and ammunition boxes to sell to government agencies. This provided them with sufficient turnover to start making kitchen cabinets and traditionally styled, reproduction antique and Art Deco furniture. Even then, they operated on a simple philosophy: every piece was original, based on correct construction techniques and the right raw materials.

Jack later wrote, “I spent many hours at store windows listening to people’s conversations regarding furniture to establish where to go with our furniture design.” The company grew to six people. “Often, I would just make the bank before closing time to draw wages,” Jack reflected. “They were worrying times, creditors a real problem, a lot of creditors were paid by promissory notes spread over three or four months. Finance was a continuous worry.”

In the mid-1940s, Jack Parker took his son Tony out of intermediate school and sent him to work with Dickson Primer, a building materials company. At night, Tony studied courses in industrial design, accountancy and salesmanship at East Sydney Technical College. With his interests in modern architecture and home interiors, he was being primed for entry to the family business. In 1949 Tony was brought back into Dagger and Parker, which now numbered 20 staff.

He later recalled this period with Lucy Feagins of The Design Files. “When I joined I was put to work in the factory, and at night I was still doing my courses. In about 1950, he got the services of a designer by the name of Harold McGee and I worked with Harold, on design. I was much younger than he, and wanted more changes… but of course at that time it was all reproduction traditional furniture. Art Deco had also made its mark in the early ‘30s, and there was a bit of, I suppose, ‘cheaper’ reproduction of Art Deco style furniture, and that’s what we did.”

He must have found this situation stifling, for in 1952 he travelled to Europe, where he started as a furniture salesman in John Lewis department store in Oxford Street, London. Here, he found himself working in the completely new field of coordinated interior design. “They quickly realised I had done design, so they wanted me to start a contemporary furniture department.”

Although still in his early 20s, Tony’s innovative approach matched the challenge. “In those days they displayed the sofas all in a row, dining tables all in a row, it looked pretty uninteresting. I realised if I was going to create a different style of living, that I had to show the furniture as it would be used in rooms, in the company of lighting and artwork and ceramics and all the rest.”

His tenure was successful. Not only was he keenly attuned to design developments, but he approached his work with a strong commercial sensibility. He introduced new measures to ascertain the success of design commissions and sales strategies. As manager of a new team, he set about training staff in sales.

In 1953, Tony returned to Sydney and to Dagger and Parker. Suddenly his ideas were not so well received, with his father Jack taking some persuading before he agreed to produce a few pieces of Danish style furniture made from Queensland maple and coachwood. Tony recalled his father’s reluctance. “When I got home, Dad said ‘well, it’s over there, but it will never sell!’”

All this was too much for the traditionalist Alf Dagger, who left the business to father and son. Having renamed the company JW Parker Furniture, Jack and Tony began introducing more new designs while experimenting with teak from Burma and Thailand, and American walnut.

The new styles saw straight, tapered legs with copper or brass plated ferrules replacing bases on sideboards and dressing tables. Other features included recessed handles and brass butt hinges. Occasional furniture exploded with mid-century styling in the form of a boomerang-shaped coffee table and a quadrant-shaped corner table.

However, at this point Parkers still had to secure a major retailer. Following a visit from Tony, Reg Paul, who ran the homemaker division of Grace Brothers, expressed an interest in the new designs and agreed to visit the factory. At the time, Grace Bros was unrivalled as the leading homemaker store in Australia. Tony engaged his proven sales techniques and arranged the furniture on the factory floor so Reg could experience it as a home setting. Reg suggested the company display the new designs at the first Sydney Furniture Exhibition, which was coming up at Sydney showgrounds. Jack resisted due to the costs involved, but luckily was persuaded by Reg.

Tony took on the project with his characteristic energy, designing, building and decorating the stand. His then revolutionary ‘dream rooms’ were around 27 feet x 12 feet in size, and were complete with rugs on the floors and paintings on the walls. Visitors could enter the displays and physically experience a new style of living.

As we now know, Jack was wrong on the point of whether the designs would sell. The exhibition was a huge success: in four days, the company sold nine months’ worth of furniture production. This success also presented Tony with a conundrum. In demonstrating how the ‘real life’ furniture setting could enthuse customers, he recognised that the same settings were needed in the stores if customers were to buy entire suites rather than individual pieces. The store display areas needed to be at least 2000 square feet to ensure success.

“I only wanted success,” he said when interviewed in 2014. “So I didn’t tell my father, but I cancelled the orders, and wrote a letter to the six stores that I thought would attract our style of customer.” His efforts eventually paid off. Grace Bros found the square footage in the centre of their furniture store and the sales flew in. The store became the company’s best customer, which added huge credibility to the designs. Other stores followed, including the famous Beard Watsons in Sydney’s George Street.

Not all store staff appreciated the young man’s precocity. “That was a problem, so I used to go under the guise of operating on behalf of my father, because that gave me more credibility. Because at 23, telling middle-aged men how to run their business was not exactly their cup of tea. But they got to trust us. In the end I used to give them what their suggested floor stock would be, when it needed refurbishing, and we would service it on the floor.”

The company’s success seemed assured, and Tony’s younger brother Ross joined them in 1954. Having spent some time employed with the Furniture Industrial Research Association (FIRA) in London, he concentrated on the finances, freeing Tony to focus on design and marketing. The company’s growth accelerated. In 1957, with 80 staff, they bought 4.5 acres at Regent’s Park and built a factory. In 1961 it was extended and a manufacturing showroom, the first in Australia, was added. It was an extension of the original exhibition concept and it meant the public could be invited in.

By now, the company was making fully upholstered sofas and chairs as well as television cabinets made in teak. The enormously successful ‘Stuart’ lounge suite was designed by Tony Parker, along with a colonial furniture range made in European beech. This featured Windsor styled dining chairs and tables with colonial-styled, turned legs.

Parker’s concern for materials was intrinsic to their success. The teak designs were enormously popular, on account of the wood’s character and the practicality of its oil finishing. From the manufacturing point of view, it was easy to work with, being gentle on the machinery. The teak had a prominent grain and even colour, meaning there was little wastage. Sometimes the teak was stained to walnut or mahogany tones, and in later years it was used as a laminate.

In 1962, ill health caused Jack Parker to semi-retire. He continued as chairman of the company, with Tony and Ross as Managing Directors. Around this time, the company was forced to meet fresh challenges in the marketplace with the introduction of Australian manufactured particle board (CSR Pyneboard). This forced innovation in methods such as carcase jointing using assembly fittings and PVA adhesives. Parker led the way in importing new machinery to use with the new board.

The company expanded to offer a combined sales and interior design service, thus powering further growth. A further move came in 1973, this time to 20 acres at Seven Hills, where they built another brand new factory with a huge showroom. The staff totalled 380 employees. “We were the biggest in Australia, and we sort of set the pace,” says Tony. “We used to make dining chairs in the thousands.”

So it was that Parker became an iconic Australian brand, based on quality craftsmanship and design integrity. Although he says he never imagined his styles would achieve this status, Tony was always clear about the values that underpinned this success. “My philosophy is simple: things should be well designed and well made, to last a lifetime. The mid-century range is beautiful and simple, functional, and expertly crafted. It’s incredibly satisfying to see it being made again half a century after we first introduced it. Furniture should be made to fit the way we live, not the other way around.”

Nevertheless, by the late 1980s it was clear that Tony and Ross Parker could not continue at the pace they were working. With some reluctance, they found a buyer for the business who would enable them to continue working. His name was Reg Humphries. Unfortunately, he died within a year and his successors made a clean break from the Parker brothers. Within three years, the company failed.

Fortunately, in that period Tony and Ross had recruited enough key people to start a new business: Covemore Designs. Established in 1997, it began as a restoration service for Parker Furniture, before going on to make licensed furniture.

In the 2000s, some earlier 1960s styles were reintroduced by Covemore’s Mike Lewy, a former Parker manager. A new venture was set up between Covemore Designs, Parker and Workshopped, a Sydney-based design retailer. Parker designs continue to be handcrafted, although gently updated, with some new designs introduced.

Today, Parker’s status nears that of cult among design afficionados and collectors alike, taking its place close to Eames and Hans Wegner, and in Australia, Grant Featherston. It is testament to the superior design qualities and high production standards that Parker pieces are not only valued as antiques, but remain relevant and not out of place within today’s design interiors.

Jane Clothier is a regular contributor to Antiques to Vintage magazine.
Items courtesy Tangerine & Teal, Brookvale, NSW.