Parker: the rebirth of an icon

Restoration work on a vintage table in progress with one of the newly made oak Parker chairs in the foreground.

While there were a number of important furniture brands in Australia offering modernist designs during the 50s, 60s and 70s such as Danish Deluxe and Fler in Melbourne and TH Brown in Adelaide, Sydney’s Parker remains the most well known. A family business right up until the end, in 1995,  Parker is now ready for a comeback under the slightly revised moniker Tony Parker.

Tony Parker today. Still personally involved in the design process, despite being in his 80's.

Tony Parker today. Still personally involved in the design process, despite being in his 80′s.

It is heart-warming that a company which played such a positive role in the Australian furniture industry will receive a second life. When the Parker family finally gave into one of the many offers it received and sold the company in 1995, it seemed that with a new millennium approaching there was to be a new era for Parker Furniture – albeit under new ownership. By this time Parker had been operating since 1935 under the leadership of Jack Parker, then later his two sons Tony and Ross under the name Dagger and Parker, then J.W. Parker and finally Parker Furniture.  But 60 years in the furniture game is a long time – as anyone with any first hand experience of it will tell you and Tony and Ross felt it was time to hand the much loved brand on.  The anticipated injection of enthusiasm and capital needed to keep Parker relevant in the 21st century sadly never eventuated. Within two years of the change of ownership, Bill Humphreys, the new owner, suddenly died and the company was quickly closed.

The high backed version of the armchair in American oak with matching footstool.

The high backed version of the armchair in American oak with matching footstool.

It is strange to think that at the very moment the world was experiencing a surge of interest in mid-century furniture, one of Australia’s foremost proponents of the modern look was closing it’s doors. It has to be said that while vintage Parker items were never regarded as the equal of prestige Danish companies like Carl Hansen, AP Stolen or Fritz Hansen, Parker had been highly regarded around the world as a manufacturer of quality goods and a company with a forward-thinking approach to manufacturing technologies and marketing. Parker also became the first Australian furniture company to actively promote itself in a modern way with forward thinking ideas such as dedicated zones in department stores with their own highly trained sales staff.

It had, in the words of Tony Parker, ‘become subtly sewn into our culture and lifestyle’. As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in March 1971, Parker had even managed to reverse the Danish modern trend when the then Danish Consul shipped his Parker office suites home with him to Denmark when his tenure at the embassy in Canberra came to an end. The company was rewarded in 1984 with a European Award for Excellence for their consistent high quality work and contribution to the furniture industry. Presented to Jack Parker’s two sons (by this time the company’s directors), Tony and Ross at an award ceremony in Paris it was a fitting tribute for a family who had worked for the majority of their lives in building a formidable furniture brand. The eldest, Tony, joined the company as a finisher and polisher in 1948 while completing a degree in Industrial Design at East Sydney Technical College. Younger brother, Ross joined in 1955 after completing a degree in economics at Sydney University and gaining some experience in England at the Furniture Industrial Research Association.

Dining chair upholstered in leather and rectangular extending dining table. The table's extension leaves slide from underneath the main table top. The table also comes in a round version.

Dining chair upholstered in leather and rectangular extending dining table. The table’s extension leaves slide from underneath the main table top. The table also comes in a round version.

It was Tony’s own designs in the new modern style that first launched Parker as not only a manufacturer of quality goods but also an innovator. These designs were inspired by the new styles that Tony had experienced while taking a year out working in London in 1952. Helping to develop a new modern furniture department for John Lewis, the well-known department store, Tony had experienced first hand the popularity of modern designs by British designers  such as Robin Day and Ernest Race. Their work had by this time been showcased as part of the Festival of Britain and it had shaken up the essentially conservative tastes of the British public. Tony also witnessed the growing popularity of Danish design by the likes of Hans Wegner, Børge Mogensen and Finn Juhl and it was this use of solid timber in conjunction with softly organic forms that most inspired him. His ‘Mid–century’ range was presented at the first Australian Furniture Exhibition held at the Sydney Showgrounds in May 1953 and it was an overnight success. Decades of innovative firsts for the Parker company followed with the introduction of Formica to Australia in 1958, Teak as a furniture timber in 1961 and American walnut in 1970. The company was also constantly modernising it’s manufacturing facilities with purpose built factories so that the furniture could be produced to the highest standard for a price that didn’t alienate the Australian public.

The consul table in American walnut. The design features contrasting pale timber internally, a solid walnut base and dovetailed drawers.

The consul table in American walnut. The design features contrasting pale timber internally, a solid walnut base and dovetailed drawers.

Around the time that the company was broken up in 1997, some of Parker’s former staff members established Covemore Designs, a company created specifically to refurbish and repair the thousands of existing Parker pieces that had been sold over the years. A number of former Parker craftspeople were taken on and the company has effectively kept the Parker name alive ever since (along with developing new unrelated furniture pieces for commercial and domestic projects). A meeting between Covemore’s Michael Lewy and Raymond Scott from WORKSHOPPED in early 2012, floated the idea of relaunching the Parker brand and a little over a year later it has become a reality. A selection of the modernist pieces from the early 50s designed by Tony Parker will go back into production – made by Covemore Designs and sold through WORKSHOPPED. Tony Parker has embraced the new chapter enthusiastically and has even made some slight tweaks to his original designs in terms of timber choices, fabrics and in some cases minor detailing. Bringing the designs up to date while retaining all of the key original elements was important to Parker who was never one to rest on his laurels. American Oak and American Walnut have been chosen for their classic mid-century look and consistency of supply, while quality Scandinavian leathers are being provided by Contemporary Leathers. Classic upholstery fabrics like Nanna Ditzel’s Hallingdal, from Danish fabric house Kvadrat, will be offered along with specially selected Australian made wool fabrics. Above all the famous Parker hand-finishing will continue to be a key feature.

Michael Lewy the in the Covemore workshop discussing some details.

Michael Lewy in the Covemore workshop discussing some details.

For those who grew up with the Parker name, the reissuing of their classic mid-century pieces will come as a long overdue delight and may inspire many to invest in items they enjoyed living with when they were children. Other younger Australian’s may not be familiar with Parker furniture and how it represented the crème de la crème of Australian furniture at the time, but the simple, softly organic lines speak a universal and timeless language. As Tony Parker says  ‘Our designs were for today and tomorrow’ and it seems that after a lengthy hiatus, Parker’s tomorrow has arrived.

Examples of the new range in American oak show the soft contoured lines of Tony Parkers designs. The first release will include a sofa, coffee table, armchair and sideboard and side table shown here plus a console table, dining tables and dining chairs.

Examples of the new range in American oak show the soft contoured lines of Tony Parkers designs. The first release will include a sofa, coffee table, armchair and sideboard and side table shown here plus a console table, dining tables and dining chairs.

WORKSHOPPED will be launching the starting line up of the Tony Parker range on Wednesday the 1st of May with more models to follow soon after.