Parsons Green Furniture
Neil Hopkinson grew up on the west coast of the South Island “surrounded by timber”. Little wonder, then, that he would gravitate to craft design in his tertiary studies and, later, furniture making as a career – as Michael Smith reports.
Left: Neil Hopkinson: “Seeing projects come together and making the key items are still the most satisfying aspects of what I do today.” Centre: Stone top fitted to a bronzed steel base with high-gloss black lacquer mirror surround. Right: Custom bronzed steel base and American ash top.
“As a family, we lived in a house my architect father had designed and built predominantly using timber – from the ‘board and batten’ cladding, joinery and cabinetry to the rimu ceilings and exposed black timber beams. We also had a workshop where I would help Dad with his projects.”
Neil’s interest in wood soon extended to working after school and during the holidays for a local furniture maker on the coast, helping him with his range of rimu furniture.
When Neil finished his schooling he was accepted into Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology’s craft design course, a three-year diploma. He would go on to complete a bachelor of design … “in which I focused on furniture and three-dimensional design, working with timber and metals”.
While studying, he also worked at a snowboard and skateboard retail shop, and became interested in one-off interiors and shopfittings/bar fitouts. “After graduating, I visited the UK and started doing fitout projects before working for a high-end property developer making and installing joinery.
“We had a workshop in Parsons Green opposite the tube station. A workmate and I used to spend a lot of nights and weekends there on our own projects and we would jokingly call it Parsons Green Joinery.” (Neil’s current business – Parsons Green Furniture Ltd – is a nod to his fond memories of the time he spent in London.)
“There was a boom in the property market going on. In the first year London property prices went up by 23% and there was a lot of money to be made.”
He would spend two years working in the capital’s inner suburbs renovating heritage buildings. “The company had a full-time designer and it was great to be part of the whole project, fitting out high-end homes with cabinetry and joinery. Seeing projects come together and making the key items are still the most satisfying aspects of what I do today.”
Left: Dining room cabinet with matt black steel feet. Centre: Reclaimed French oak table featuring parquet panels – from a building constructed circa 1840. Right: Bedside cabinet in European oak with large soft-close drawer and polished nickel base.
On returning to New Zealand in 2001 he took on some cafe and bar fitout work before starting at Ashton Grove Furniture as a cabinet and furniture maker. “The manager had moved on and I took over in 2003, running the workshop in Christchurch. There were six staff in the workshop, a local showroom and one in Auckland. The firm expanded to three retail outlets in New Zealand and two in Australia, and production was eventually moved into an 800-square-metre factory with manufacturing and finishing teams.
“We used fill 20-foot containers every three months – mainly with dining tables and chairs, cabinets and hall tables – and send them to Australia. It was all solid timber, high-end furniture in French oak, walnut and cherry. They were busy times!”
After Ashton Grove closed its workshop and showrooms in 2015, Neil set up Parsons Green Furniture, sharing a workspace and showroom with a friend. “I had always wanted my own business and machinery, and my own client base. Initially I was designing and making furniture, but after being introduced to some really talented interior designers and architects, I started working with them to realise their ideas.
“Beyond constructing their designs, we sometimes help them with redesigns to suit a customer’s budget or to take into account material limitations.
“We’ve been doing a lot of steel and metal fabrication, with paint, powdercoat and plated finishes. These create the most challenges … trying to match a sample or just an image found online. After spending countless hours on a project you only get one chance to achieve the right finish!”
Currently Neil has one employee and would like to take on another just to keep up with the workflow and the inevitable office work that comes with running a successful business. He continues to concentrate on residential work, but is not averse to taking on commercial projects if the timeframes allow him to complete a quality job.
At some stage he would be keen to develop his own designs … in between the commissioned projects that keep him busy. “I’d like to develop two distinctive ranges. One would consist of tables, consoles and media cabinets with a mix of metal and solid timber that could be customised with different stains and various metals or plating options – matt black or natural oak tops and matt black steel or patina-finished brass bases. Furniture that would tie in with the architectural components of modern homes that we visit regularly and which has great proportions, details and balance.
“The second range would have a more traditional aesthetic with parquet and hand-planed and patina-finished surfaces – using solid European timbers that let the natural grain and colours tell the story. Furniture that can sit in a contemporary home as a statement piece or fit in with a traditional renovation.
Left: Black-stained American ash dining table with ash ‘cube’ legs: every second cube is on a 45-degree angle with the corners cut off to maintain consistent spacing. Right: American ash extension dining table.
“Early on in my career I was influenced by the minimalist style of the Bauhaus movement right through to mid-century design. The exposed materials, simplistic forms and sculptural aesthetics were a completely different way of approaching furniture design.
“Later on, after seeing and working on luxury interiors in London – with customers and designers willing to create their vision with a decent budget – my focus changed.”
When it comes to material selection, Neil mainly uses oak and oak veneer. “I favour American oak for contemporary work and French or European for rustic items or parquetry because of the interesting grain. Oak is excellent to stain and is a great base to achieve consistent and even colours when finishing. I also use veneered MDF for cabinetry, especially when you know timber movement will be an issue.”
He says his knowledge and skills are constantly put to the test when working with a design brief. “That includes items involving intersections between timber and metals which require allowances for timber movement and finishing of multiple materials. Plus having to construct, finish and assemble while retaining strength and tolerances … and fitting moving components such as extension tables and bi-folding pocket doors.
“All finishing has its challenges, especially when trying to find a suitable colour which can be achieved across a range of grain patterns and densities – right through to achieving a balance between durability and gloss level or finish ‘build’ without it looking plastic coated. The other concern is pricing the job … you can train anyone to make something perfect, but very few can make it perfect and on budget!”
For more on Neil Hopkinson and his work, go to www.parsonsgreen.co.nz
– Michael Smith