Parker and Dagger: Thriving in the Depression
Parker Furniture started with a partnership between Alf Dagger and Jack Parker. During the Depression, Jack Parker was out of a job and had to resort to being a fishmonger in the suburbs to make ends meet. There he met Alf Dagger, a furniture maker creating kitchen chairs out of old pieces of wood and selling them.
This became the start of a decades-long partnership.
Starting with Dagger’s chairs, the duo began making and selling kitchen cabinets. Dagger and Parker grew to have a staff of six and began crafting government tender furniture. During the war, they made desks, ammunition boxes as well as parts for mosquito bombers.
Tony Parker, Jack’s eldest son, was brought in to work in the family business in 1948. Before working as a polisher and finisher for Dagger and Parker, Tony worked with the building materials and machinery distributor, Dickson Primer. Tony worked in his father’s factory during the day while taking night courses for industrial design, salesmanship, and accountancy at East Sydney Technical College. Tony worked with designer Harold McGee when their business took on his services in 1950. Back then, Dagger and Parker was crafting reproductions of antiques and Art Deco furniture. Having always wanted to do architecture, Tony also drew plans for homes and interiors.
Tony Parker: The Next Generation
Tony moved to London in 1952 and lived frugally, working as a salesman at John Lewis department store. When people at the Oxford Street department store realised he was a designer, they had him start a contemporary furniture department. Parker’s designs were displayed 2,500 feet in the air on a bridge between two buildings.
It was during his work in London that Tony honed his skills in managing a team and measuring the success of one design over others. He learned that a salesman, with more information, was more helpful to the customers and was more likely to close a sale. It was here that he began to redesign the store display. Instead of the usual way of having the furniture simply lined up, he arranged them in a manner that reflected how the pieces would look like inside a home. He arranged the display complete with lighting, artwork, ceramics and the like.
While staying in London, he sent letters home together with some furniture designs he’d created. His father, though not keen on his son’s ideas, had them made anyway using Queensland maple and coachwood. However, these pieces were covered in tarpaulin and set in a corner of the factory – Jack was a traditionalist who believed his son’s designs wouldn’t sell.
Grace Brothers: A Fruitful Collaboration
Fortunately, Tony’s furniture caught the interest of Grace Brothers’ Reg Paul, Director of their homemaker division. Grace Brothers was the top homemaker store back then. They had interior designers working on site as well as wonderful presentation displays. Paul invited the Parkers and convinced Jack to join an exhibition with Tony’s furniture.
They built their own stand by painting the walls and making their own flooring and ceiling. Tony brought some lamps, rugs, etc. It was how he met the then-unknown painters Roy Fluke and John Coburn, who were more than happy to have their paintings on the display wall. Tony’s furniture was set up in the 27 by 12 feet rooms they’ve constructed. The set up showed how the furniture would look like inside one’s room, showing people how they could live. The exhibit was a success, with Tony selling 12 months’ production in just four days.
Tony wrote to stores that would attract customers who would be interested in their designs. Eventually, Grace Brothers came around and became their customer. Grace Brothers gave Tony the square feet he wanted for his display, and wanting to set the furniture in the same way it was in the exhibit – arranged to appear how it would in someone’s home. This styling was a big factor in the success of Tony’s furniture. Since Grace Brothers was a well-known homemaker, the collaboration lent further credibility to Tony’s work.
Beard Watsons, another famous store in George Street would also give Parker display space for a week. All these happened around 1953, when Tony was just 23 years old. It was difficult to get middle-aged men to listen to someone younger about how things should be run, so Tony would go to them in the guise of working on his father’s behalf. They eventually trusted him and listened to his suggestions on floor stock, when refurbishing was necessary, and the like.
JW Parker Furniture: A Family Enterprise
Alf Dagger was a traditionalist like Jack Parker and wasn’t keen on Tony’s ideas. Eventually, he and Parker decided to part ways. Jack then changed the company name from Dagger and Parker to JW Parker. Even though Tony’s style was too contemporary for him, Jack didn’t argue with Tony. Ross, Tony’s younger brother, also joined the company in 1955 after finishing his economics degree in Sydney University and working in England’s Furniture Industrial Association. Ross didn’t just handle the finances, he mediated between his father and Tony, allowing the latter to focus on design and marketing.
With a larger staff of 80, the Parker business outgrew their Erskineville factory, so they bought four and a half acres at Regents Park in 1957. They then extended their factory and added a showroom in 1961. The furniture manufacturing showroom was open to the public and attracted a lot of attention. The company also offered interior design and sale services. With their continued growth, the Parkers then eventually bought 20 acres at Seven Hills in 1973. Their new factory and showroom were moved there two years later, with enough room for a staff of 380.
The Parker Style: Innovative and Iconic
Tony’s stay in Europe was a great influence on his designs. Working at John Lewis exposed him to the popular modern designs from British designers like Robin Day and Ernest Race. Their works, having been part of the Festival of Britain, have rocked the British public’s conservative tastes. Danish designs were also growing in popularity back then. Designers like Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen used solid timber combined with soft organic forms which became a great inspiration to Tony. This brought about the birth of “Danish Parker style” furniture range. This style, together with Scandinavian designs continued to grow in popularity throughout the 1960s.
Parker incorporated the innovations and iconic designs of the times. These included features like recessed handles and brass butt hinges. Parker was one of the few companies that incorporated the use of Formica into their furniture when it was introduced in Australia in 1958. New wood choices were also part of their innovations. The choices range from Queensland maple to teak and American walnut, with Burma and Thailand as the preferred source for teak. They were also the first manufacturers to upgrade their machinery and techniques. Despite the innovations and modernisation, Parker made certain that their products maintained the same quality and attention to detail their brand was known for.
Covemore Designs: The Parker Furniture Revival
In the 1980s, the brothers decided to sell the company to Reg Humphries. Unfortunately, Humphries died of a heart attack within 12 months of the sale. It was then taken over by Humphries’ widow and financial director, who did not share the creative vision of the original Parker family. As a result, the JW Parker business failed soon after the change in ownership.
Covemore Designs was established in 1997 with a few former Parker furniture employees, shortly after Parker Furniture closed. They originally offered furniture refurbishing services, but over the years transformed into a furniture company that offered more comprehensive services to public and commercial sectors. Their services include bespoke furniture and custom joinery. They are also the exclusive importer of German elite brand, Hülsta. The team includes qualified interior designers for small decorating projects to large-scale jobs for both residential and commercial sectors.
Covemore saw the opportunity to reintroduce some of the 60s design to the market through their restoration work. This initiative was spearheaded by Mike Lewy, a former machine shop manager at JW Parker. Covemore also collaborated with Raymond Scott of Workshopped on other projects, bringing Tony Parker on board for a revival of his family’s designs.
Console Table # 203
This three-drawer console table has solid timber edges, drawer boxes and handles. It is made with select timber veneer and has solid underframe, legs, and rails. Customers can choose between white oak or black walnut. The hand rubbed natural finish is available only for the white oak model.
The Showood armchair’s cushions are made from high resilience foam. The reversible seat and back cushions have a firm core, soft overlay and encased in stockinette. It has a cane back support and hand-shaped flared arm. The durable frame is made from solid timber.
Ottoman/Side Table #120
This piece can serve as an ottoman or side table. Its sturdy with its turned legs and solid timber frame. Place its high resilience foam cushion for a comfortable ottoman. The cushion with its shaped edges is encased in stockinette and possesses a firm core and made with a soft overlay.
Perhaps one of Tony Parker’s most popular items was his buffet. The buffet comes in three models: three door module (buffet #83), two-door module (buffet # 82) and the four-door module (buffet #84). All three models are made with select timber veneer. Its edges, handles, drawer boxes and runners are made from solid timber as well. It has a sturdy underframe, legs, and rails.
To bring them up to date, the Parker furniture range, while retaining their key original elements would include a few tweaks for its revival, such as new timber and fabric choices and some minor detailing. Quality Scandinavian leathers as well as classic upholstery fabrics like Hallingdal by Nanna Ditzel from Kvadrat, a Danish fabric house will be offered. Choice Australian wool fabrics, as well as American oak and American walnut, will also be used. Of course, the Parker hand-finishing will remain a key feature.
If one were to choose an umbrella term for iconic Australian mid-century furniture, it would be Parker Furniture. With its revival, Parker furniture has reached almost cult status, standing together with Hans Wegner, Eames and other mid-century designers of note.