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Tony Parker of Parker Furniture

Studio Visit

Tony Parker is an Australian design icon. Now 84, Tony recalls with great pride and enthusiasm the key role he had to play in the growth and success of Australia’s best known furniture brand, JW Parker, later known as Parker Furniture, the company his father, Jack Parker started in 1935.  For over 40 years Parker Furniture was produced in Sydney (sometimes in units of a thousand!), finding its way into countless Australian homes. Today, this well loved Australian brand has been revived by a unique collaboration with  Sydney based retailer Workshopped and the craftspeople at Covemore Designs. The Parker story continues!

24th October, 2014
Lucy Feagins
Friday 24th October 2014

Parker Furniture began as ‘Dagger and Parker’, a partnership formed between craftsman Alf Dagger, and Salesman Jack Parker, after the depression era.  From humble beginnings, selling chairs Dagger had crafted from packing palettes, the company quickly grew to six employees, making government tender furniture and ammunition boxes during the war.

Originally, the company made mainly traditional style furniture – reproductions of antique or art deco styles.  In the mid 1940’s, Tony Parker was plucked out of school by his Father, and after some time spent studying industrial design and accountancy courses, and honing his skills working  at department store John Lewis in London, Tony was put to work in the family business, where he was forever destined to shake things up!

When Tony returned from London, he had big ideas.  He had been involved in setting up a contemporary furniture department at John Lewis, and was full of ideas for more streamlined, modern furniture – with revolutionary ideas to display, sell and market it.  His father was a traditionalist, and saw little value in Tony’s ideas at first, but was persuaded to produce a few pieces.  Blessed with both a strong design sensibility, an innate understanding of marketing, and an insatiable entrepreneurial spirit, Tony was convinced his designs would sell. When Grace Brothers showed an interest, followed by other high end home furnishings stores in Melbourne and Sydney, Parker Furniture really took off.

With Tony Parker at the helm, the company grew to 380 employees by the end, working out of a purpose built factory in Seven Hills, on 20 acres.  Tony recalls these days fondly and with great pride – ‘We were the biggest in Australia, and we sort of set the pace.  We used to make dining chairs in the thousands’.  Tony’s passion for quality craftsmanship and design integrity led Parker to become an iconic Australian brand, which really has stood the test of time.  We still see well loved Parker chairs and tables and sideboards in so many Australian homes!

In recent years, the great history of Parker Furniture has been revived by a unique collaboration.  Sydney based retailer and design incubator Workshopped has joined forces with Tony Parker, exclusively producing select pieces from his mid century furniture range exactly as it was made back in the day.  The range is handcrafted in Sydney by Covemore Designs, a company founded by ex-employees of Parker in the 1990’s.  The partnership is still in quite early stages, but Tony, along with Workshopped director, Raymond Scott, are incredibly excited to bring Parker’s iconic furniture to Australian homes ones more.

And, as usual, Tony’s sights are set on the bigger picture!  Aside from his well loved mid century range, he’s keen to develop new pieces under the Parker name, working with his old research and development team, now at Covemore Designs, to determine a new look for Parker.

It was an honour and so enlightening to speak to Tony about the rise of Parker in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and his optimistic outlook for the future of the brand.  He is passionate not just about great design and craftsmanship, but also about excellence in retail – and though discouraged by the ‘discounting’ model which now drives big retailers, he’s confident the tide is turning, with discerning consumers now coming back to high quality products, designed with integrity and built to last, rather than ‘race to the bottom’ pricing.  Call me old fashioned, but I’m inclined to agree!

Hi  Tony! Tell us a little about your background, and what originally led you to furniture design and to working with your father at Parker Furniture?

Well, life was very different when I was a child, you did what your parents said without question. I always wanted to do architecture, I’d always be drawing plans of homes and interiors and all that sort of thing, that was my interest in those days.  But my father, as he had left school in intermediate, he pulled me out in intermediate and he just said ‘you’re finishing school’ and so I finished school, and I went and got myself a job.

My first job was at Dickson Primer, who distributed building materials and machinery.  But my interest was still in design, so I took courses at night, whilst working during the daytimes.  There was no such thing as ‘design’ as we know it, so I did industrial design, and I also did accountancy and salesmanship courses.   I was doing something at Tech every night almost.  One day, when I was about to be made timber manager, the boss called me in and just said ‘you’re starting with your father on Monday’.  That was when I started working in the family business.

My Father had lost his job during the depression in 1930, so he started buying fish at the markets and selling them in the suburbs.  After about 18 months he met another chap called Alf Dagger, who was picking up odd bits of timber from palettes and so on and making kitchen chairs and selling them for sixpence, and this chap thought, well if Dad’s going to the suburbs selling fish, he can take his chairs and sell them there too.  So they formed a partnership and they did reasonably well.  Then they got started making kitchen cabinets, all from markets, no fixed shop.

I might add I was only young at the time, and Dad was also building a house, so you can imagine, having a young child, having lost your job in hard times and building a new home, it must have been quite strenuous for him.

So when I was pulled out of Dickson Primer, and had to start with Dad’s business, which was then called ‘Dagger and Parker’, they used to make government tender furniture. During the war they made desks and ammunition boxes, and parts for the mosquito bomber, so they were quite busy, but they only had six staff.

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 30’s, and there was a bit of, I suppose, ‘cheaper’ reproduction of art deco style furniture, and that’s what we did.

Then I realised I had to get away, so I went to London in 1952 and got a job with John Lewis, the big department store.  They were in in Oxford street, as they still are today, but now it’s much bigger of course.

I was a salesman in the furniture department.  They quickly realised I had done design, so they wanted me to start a contemporary furniture department.  It was going to be on the bridge, going between two buildings, roughly 2500 feet.

In those days they displayed all 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.’

Also, at the same time, I found out that they had no measure of success of one design over another.  So I learnt a lot about that, about selling and training staff and managing  a team. You had to identify your salesman’s weaknesses and strengths and train them accordingly. Return per square foot, gross profit per square foot, salesman’s return, the whole story.   I quickly realised the more information the salesman had, the more helpful they were to a customer, and how to close the sale.

SO you learnt the business sales side as much as you did the design side whilst you were there?

Yes.  But no one taught you, you had to find out for yourself. And I guess being away from home, I had no comfort zone.  I used to walk from John Lewis to my little flat in Maida Vale, to save the bus fare.  I’d save tuppence on the way there, and another tuppence on the way home, so that was fourpence, and by the end of the week that would buy you a meal!  So, I had plenty of thinking time.

How did your time in London influence your work for Parker back at home?

Well, when I was over there I wrote a lot of letters, and I sent back some designs to my father.  He was a ‘tradition’ lover, so he didn’t really understand these contemporary designs, but nevertheless he had them made.  They made it in Queensland maple and coachwood, and stuck it in the corner of a factory, and put a tarpaulin over it.  When I got home Dad said ‘well, it’s over there, but it will never sell!’

Fortunately, a director at Grace Brothers by the name of Reg Paul, who ran the homemaker division, showed an interest in my designs.

Grace Brothers at that time were by far the top homemaker store in Australia.  They had interior designers on site, beautiful presentation of displays, and all this sort of thing.  Reg was very keen to see my furniture.  I set it out in the factory, just on the concrete floor, and he liked it.  He said there was  an exhibition coming up, the first of its kind in Australia, at the Sydney show grounds.  ‘Why don’t you take some space and show this furniture?’ he said.  My father wasn’t keen on the idea, but Reg convinced him.

So of course we had to build our own stand, and I put down a flooring and a ceiling, and painted the walls (I got permission to paint the walls but we had to paint them back again to the original colour afterwards!), and I had to get lamps and rugs and paintings and all that sort of thing.  I met all these budding artists, you know like Roy Fluke and John Coburn. I mean of course they were not known then, so they were very happy to get their paintings on the walls!

We set up ‘dream rooms’ in roughly 27 foot by 12, so in a scale the customer could understand, complete with paintings and lighting and so on.  In 4 days, we sold 12 months production.   People saw how they could live.’

It went off like wildfire.  But then the job really was to get retailers who would give me a space of at least 2000 square feet. Because some people had only bought a buffet or a dining setting, and I realised at the end of exhibition that that wasn’t going to be good enough.  Because unless the retail store looked like our exhibition, it wasn’t going to work.  I didn’t want any failures, I only wanted success.

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.

It didn’t happen all at once, but after a while Grace Brothers came around, and they became our best customer.  They gave me the square footage I wanted, in the middle of their furniture floor, and it was a raving success.  We needed a homemaker like  Grace Brothers, to give credibility to the style.  Sometimes, Beard Watsons would give us their shop window for a week, and that was like gold in those days.  It was the top home furnishing store outside of Grace Bothers, it was in George street in Sydney, and very famous.

It was 1953, and I was 23 at that time.  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.

When did the company switch from being a partnership between Alf Dagger and your father, to ‘JW Parker’ – an exclusively family owned business?

Alf Dagger left the business when I started  doing designs, because he was also a traditionalist, and my designs were too contemporary for him.  So when he left it was just my father, and the business was named JW Parker Furniture.

Mind you, my father didn’t agree with anything I did, so I quickly realised I had to get my brother in, Ross, who was 5 years younger than me, and still at school.  He was allowed to complete his schools certificate and go to university, where he did economics.  He did it at night and worked with us in the day.  He used to do time sheets and things like that, to pay his way through uni.

When he got through uni, Ross went to London and got a job with FIRA (Furniture Industrial Research Association) and this was when he learned about manufacturing and starting getting interested.  In the meantime, we were growing really fast, and I really needed my brother to get my father off my back, but also so I could concentrate on design and marketing, while he looked after the finances.  Because when a company grows so fast that’s often when they’re most vulnerable. You need a finger on the pulse in all quarters.

Fortunately, Ross did join the company, and we grew at a terrific pace.  We had probably about 80 staff at that time, all in production. We outgrew Erskinville, where we were in an old vinegar factory,  and in 1957 we bought 4 and half acres at Regents Park, and built a factory there.

We were growing so fast, so in 1961 we extended our factory and put on a big showroom, the furniture manufacturing showroom in Australia, and that attracted a lot of attention.  We let the public come in, we’d offer sales and interior design service, and that’s when we really expanded.

Well, we outgrew that, and we bought 20 acres at Seven hills in 1973, moved into a brand new factory there in 1975, and had a magnificent showroom.  We were quite large by then, we were employing about 380 staff in the end.  We were the biggest in Australia, and we sort of set the pace.  We used to make dining chairs in the thousands.

The market must look so different today to how it was back then. 

It’s all different now. Discounting started in 1964, and a retailer in those days was putting 50% on, but if he got a third mark up, he was doing very well.  Well, today they put 100% on, because they can, because it’s coming from somewhere else. It’s so cheap, that they put 100% on so they can say 30% off, or whatever.  In our day, if you said ’10% off’, that had to be 10% off the average price for that item for the last 3 months.  That’s a very different story.

We’re really falsely advertising to the market.  And really, the value of that chair, and the construction of it and the quality of the fabric and the way they upholster it, no one cares!  ‘I got that for 50 bucks!’, ‘I saved $25’… it’s the market’s fault.  It doesn’t matter whether your flying in and aircraft or shopping in a retail store, all value and service has gone, we’re down to the bottom dollar.  You pay more if you want an air ticket printed, you pay more if you’re carrying luggage, so it’s at rock bottom.  And you know, now we have to climb back and get people to understand value again.

Do you think we can turn that sentiment round?  Do you think there is a bit of a shift coming where people are slowly starting to understand value again, and crave a higher level of craftsmanship and integrity in what they buy?

Yes, but only if you’ve got the dialogue, and credibility, and that doesn’t happen over night.  I believe Woolworths, who are coming into David Jones, I think they will lead the market back to selling brands that have value and integrity.  I hope so.  You have to realise, the retail managers today have only grown up in a discount market, they have not experienced what good retailing is about, and how exciting it can be.

So, what happened in the end with JW Parker Furniture?

Well, I’m now 84.  In the 80’s my brother said ‘we’re getting on, we can’t go on forever, and the longer we go on the more at risk we are, we have to teach others to move in and take on the company and let them run it their way’. I didn’t agree with that, but still.

So we got a chap to buy the business, Reg Humphries. Unfortunately, he died within 12 months of a massive heart attack, aged 46.  So his widow had it, and his financial director just took it over.  So I said ‘look I’ll do design for you, I’m good at marketing’.  But he wasn’t interested.  He thought he could do it himself.  He sent the place broke in 3 years.  In the meantime though, we got key people out, and that’s how Covemore started. Covemore Designs out in up 1997 by a small group of old Parker Furniture employees.  It originally started a Parker Furniture refurbishment service after we had shut down.  They are the ones who make our licensed furniture now, and they have my old R&D team from Parker Furniture in there.

How did it come about that Covemore Designs started making your furniture under license?

Mike Lewy at Covemore Designs came from Parker.  He used to be a manager in our machine shop.  Through their restoration work, Micheal Lewy saw an opportunity to introduce some 60’s lines back into the market, and whilst taking to Raymond Scott of Workshopped, who he was working with on other projects, the idea came up to get me involved.

So, it’s a three way thing between Covemore Designs, Parker and Workshopped.  It’s the first time Parker furniture has been produced again, since our factory closed down.

I go out to Covemore every Wednesday morning, and I’m available to them at any time.  Now, because I have got to get them from their own comfort zone into my comfort zone, that’s a journey, and it might take a little while, but we’re making progress.

We want to grow Parker, now.  I’m getting some of the old team back in to do some R&D on some new designs.  We want to make not just our retro designs, but new designs too.

The Parker furniture pieces that Covemore are making now, are they being made now exactly as they were back in the day?

Yes, exactly.

Parker Furniture has such a strong history of manufacturing within Australia.  Do you find that a challenge, to be competitive whilst maintaining your manufacturing here?

Well frankly, this time I’m not interested in price point, otherwise you wouldn’t be making it.  But, in principle I’m not against manufacturing overseas.  But, first of all, let’s make the product. Then, see where we make it.  It doesn’t have to be a Parker Factory necessarily, but the R&D has to be Parker. But you do have to do it where you can be sure you have safety and security over your designs, and they’re not going to be copied.

We photograph Australian homes every week, and I constantly see Parker furniture, and young people referring to it by name. Did you ever think, way back when you were 25 or 30, that you work might be considered ‘iconic’ when you were  building the business back then?

No! But there was an American interior designer by the name of Jim Schwartzman, who was out here, and he said ‘Tony, you know your stuff’s going to be the antiques of the future’.  I laughed at time, thinking ‘typical American baloney!’.  But he’s probably been pretty right. He could see it, but at the time you don’t.

Do you have many of your original designs at home?

I don’t have any!  My family does.  My kids have taken it all.  But I’m going to re-do my apartment in the new Parker designs!

Can you give us a little insight into what a normal week looks like for you these days?

Well, I play golf Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.  When you get to my age you, too, can play golf three days a week.  Wednesday I’m out at Covemore.  I also run a few Golf tournaments, so that takes a bit of work too. And on the other days I do my thinking on design.  It doesn’t sound much, but I’m flat out!

I also have two daughters and a son.  Georgie Parker is my youngest daughter, the actress one.  So I see her.  I’m ordered for coffee on either Monday morning or Friday morning, whenever she’s not shooting.  I’ve also got a son, Michael, in Newcastle, he’s 6 foot 5 and has two kids.  And I’ve also got another daughter Vicky in the country, down at Harden, she’s got 3 children.  They’re all bigger than I am.

Are there other designers either of your era, or more contemporary ones, who you really admire?

Well, of course, in my time, those were the days of Grant Featherston and Clement Meadmore and some of those people.

So, did you admire their work too?

Well… ah.. don’t print that!   Grant Featherston’s work is more popular now that it was then.  Because it was shell construction.  I wouldn’t have bought them, if I was a customer, because they weren’t that comfortable, but they were very unique at the time.  And now they are very popular, because it makes a statement.  It is something that fills a void, it has a lot of personality, that shell chair.

What media do you tune into on a regular basis – newspapers, radio, TV or others?

Well, I listen to ABC radio, that doesn’t necessarily make me boring.  I find the morning shows are quite educational.  I don’t watch that much TV, but my wife likes watching murder mysteries. I like Insight. I watch Grand Designs, I learn a lot from that.

The press is a bit boring, you could throw away the first few pages of the paper.  No longer is writing an art, they just want to sell headlines.  When you sell headlines, you miss the point.  It’s a bit like saying ’50% off’!

What are you looking forward to?

The reawakening of Parker.

Sydney Questions

Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?

Well, I lived in st Ives all my life until I was 65, so the North Shore, with the trees and all that, is still where I really feel at home.  I mean I spent 60 of my 84 years there, so, well, it’s obvious where your roots are.

Where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?

I’ve had some good meals in my time.  Rockpool some years ago was a bloody good meal.  But what makes a good meal is the flavours, the company, the ambience of the place.. there’ a lot of things that make a good meal.

Where would we find you on a Saturday morning?

Elanora Golf course.

Sydney’s best kept secret

Six of us started Bilgola surf club back in 1949. I’ve always liked that, it was an intimate beach, between Whale Beach and Avalon beach, up on that Palm beach peninsula.  That to me has always been a wonderful spot.  Looking at water always relaxed me.

Tony Parker of Parker Furniture at home in Sydney.  Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.

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