The Parker Knoll chair is the Marietta biscuit of mid-century furniture: boring at the time but now strangely nostalgic.
Unlike most of what you see in mid-century modern auctions, which is largely brought in from Europe, Parker Knoll furniture was actually found in Irish homes.
Everyone’s granny had a Parker Knoll chair. It was made in England and widely available in Ireland, north and south. In terms of design, it was a mixed bag.
“There were some pieces that were groundbreaking and some that were not so nice at all,” says Geoff Kirk of Kirkmodern, a dealer in 12th-century design. “A lot of them have the look of the nursing home about them.”
While the discovery of a vintage Parker Knoll classic will not make you rich, some of the designs have resale value. The most iconic is the Statesman, a deep-buttoned high-backed swivel chair in black leather or vinyl on a pedestal base, dating from around 1970.
With the imposing manner of a chair designed for the board room, it’s the English answer to Arne Jacobsen’s famous Egg chair (only a great deal more comfortable).
If you have a Statesman in the family, don’t throw it away. “They’re certainly worth hanging on to,” Kirk says. “Check that the tilt and turn mechanism is working. Some them have been completely banjaxed.”
This September, a Statesman suite of a three-seater sofa and two chairs made a hammer price of €1,400 at Hermann & Wilkinson. Kirk recently bought a pair of them with a footstool. “They were manky — they looked ready for the skip,” he says.
The original 1970s black leatherette was removed and the furniture reupholstered in saffron velvet. The refurbished chairs sold for €950 each.
“There’s a lot of work in the refurbishment,” Kirk says. “It can cost €500 for the fabric alone. A lot of upholsterers won’t even go for it.”
The Statesman has much in common with the G Plan 6250 winged back vinyl chair in which the criminal mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, sat with his white cat in the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Both are British designs, but the G Plan looks more villainous and is harder to come by.
Other Parker Knoll designs are also popular for upcycling, preferably with blonde wood and plain arms.
One of the commonest is the PK 973 Ringwood armchair (c.1965), a straightforward light armchair with straight front legs, angled back legs and wooden armrests. It was also made as a two-seater sofa and a rocking chair, the PK 974 Rockwood, which is now very rare.
Other likely candidates for refurbishment include the ladder-backed PK 1016 Florian chair. Wing-backed chairs, like the PK 750 Froxfield (c.1955), are currently less fashionable.
If you think you own a Parker Knoll chair, lift the seat cushion. The name of the brand is taped on to the side of the frame. Then turn it upside down. The wooden frame on the underside of the chair should be marked with the name Parker Knoll and a model number.
As you do so, listen out for the twanging of springs. These are the feature that made the brand famous.
Parker Knoll has its roots in a London-based furniture manufacturing business, started by Frederick Parker in 1869. In 1931, the company went into partnership with Willi Knoll, a German inventor who had served as a fighter pilot in the First World War.
The uncomfortable seats in fighter planes convinced him that there must be a better way. Knoll created a patent system of sprung furniture with a coiled steel wire string system across the seat and back and travelled to Britain to find a manufacturer.
Parker Knoll was launched at the British Industries Fair of 1931 and Knoll’s system became their selling point.
The next big thing, in terms of Parker Knoll furniture, is the PK 1006 Novara, a recliner that dates from the late 1960s. An advertising campaign of 1969 boasted that the upright chair was a gloriously comfortable armchair. The “Teleview” position was the perfect angle for watching television and the full recline offered total relaxation — “even 10 minutes in this position will put new life into you”.
According to Kirk, the 1970s recliners have started to take off internationally. If you have one, mind it like a baby, right down to its fully-rotating chromium plated castors.
See kirkmodern.com and hermanwilkinson.ie.