Tony Parker’s mid-century furniture designs remain popular with collectors

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The man behind Parker Furniture’s popular mid-century designs is somewhat baffled by the continued demand for his pieces.

Tony Parker grew the company started by his father, Jack Parker, in 1935 into Australia’s largest furniture manufacturer until it closed in 1997 amid the rise of discounters and flat pack furniture.

A Parker furniture catalog showing the showroom floor in 1961.
A Parker furniture catalog from 1961.(Provided by: Tony Parker)

But asked if he was happy that Parker Furniture is so sought-after decades after it closed, the 92-year-old Parker was briefly at a loss for words.

“I think a lot of it is nostalgia,” he said after a pause.

“Nostalgia because of its quality and it represents an era.”

Parker became much more animated when talking about what he would create now if he were still in business; tables for apartments that could be extended, dining chairs that were “light, easy to move and comfortable” and sofas with low backs.

“We’ve gone from the high lounges to sit and watch TV to the lower lounges,” he said.

“Because they don’t want them to dictate their presence in a room. They want a room to be a room.”

The ideas may still flow, but the industry has lost its appeal to Parker.

When he rolled out his first modern line of furniture in the 1950s in Australia, the way furniture was made and sold was very different.

Tony Parker
“Good design is not a wonderful form. Unless it serves a purpose, it is not good design,” says Parker.(ABC Radio Sydney: Rosemary Bolger)

Creation of “dream room”

It was in London that Parker had his big break.

Working as a salesman in the respected John Lewis department stores in the early 50s, he was asked to come up with a more modern range to appeal to the “everyday Pom”.

“It was really the new Poms after the war, and I guess it was because it was after the war that people wanted change, and that’s partly why it was acceptable,” Parker said.

Park furniture
Tony Parker created “dream rooms” to show customers how the furniture would look at home.(Provided by: Tony Parker)

He chose readily available English oak, which was lighter and easier to maintain.

Parker quickly realized that the new assortment would look out of place among the store’s existing dark wood, so he organized new lamps, picture frames, placemats—and anything else in a room—that needed to be made.

“I created ‘dream rooms’ so the person could see the atmosphere and environment they wanted to live in and it captured,” he shared. ABC Radio Sydney.

When Parker returned home to Sydney a year later, his father had doubts about the modern design.

But his determined son created six double rooms full of lighter wooden furniture and accessories for a furniture exhibition at Grace Brothers, which later became Myer.

“We sold nine months of production in three days,” Parker said.

Talking to customers and understanding how people lived their lives drove the designer.

“To me, good design is not a wonderful form. Unless it serves a purpose, it’s not good design,” he said.

Priceless memories

The Parker brand is now highly valued by vintage fans and collectors.

Sacha Staniford restores and sells mid-century furniture in Sydney.

She says the value of Parker furniture — especially the Nordic series produced in the mid-to-late 60s — has increased by 30 percent in the past two years.

“I have people on waiting lists for some of the things like the bedside tables and some of the sideboards. They’re getting harder to find,” Staniford said.

She puts their popularity down to the clean, classic design, good quality and growing desire to live more sustainably.

For others it is sentimental.

Pete Sims' family table
Pete Sims’ mother was always careful to protect Parker’s dining room table with tablecloths and placemats.(Provided by: Pete Sims)

Pete Sims said he was offered $5,000 for his parents’ 1960s Parker dining table. But no amount of money could make him part with it.

“I was one of four boys and when my parents finally bought the house they were going to live in forever. They saved and saved and bought a teak dining table,” he said.

“Mom was so picky. No drinks were allowed on it without a coaster, no hot dishes put straight down.”

In 2009, Mr. Sims’ father died of cancer, and his mother died four weeks later.

“I said to my brothers, ‘All I want is mum and dad’s table so every time we get together we can sit around it,'” Mr Sims says.

Pete Sims
Pete Sims has many memories of his family gathered around his parents’ Parker dining room table.(Provided by: Pete Sims)

‘You have to think about what’s next’

In his North Sydney apartment, Parker has only one of his own pieces – a signature armchair, which he only recently added.

Instead, there is a comfortable sofa and armchair and a round wooden dining table made by his grandfather.

Parker explained that he wanted his late wife Denise to do well in her final years. Denise was diagnosed with dementia in 2016 and he cared for her for several years before she passed away.

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Listen to Tony Parker talking to ABC Radio Sydney’s Cassie McCullagh

Now Parker divides his time between his family – he has three children, including actress Georgie Parker – along with golf and furniture design.

Parker is regularly invited to speak to furniture design students and still plays golf three times a week, walking the 18 holes instead of driving a buggy.

And on Mondays he pretends to be Prime Minister and struggles with the problems of the day.

At 92, Mr Parker is focused on the future.

“I mean, you can’t stop and think, ‘That’s it.’ You have to think, ‘What’s next?'” he said.

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