If you have ever wondered who designs Oxford's beautiful furniture, meet designer Luke Hughes. He tells Olivia Gordon about working on 300 Oxford projects, and counting 25 colleges as happy customers.
Above: Luke Hughes carefully designs furniture to complement Oxford's architecture
By Olivia Gordon
It was in the early 1990s when the country was in the grip of a recession that furniture designer Luke Hughes first realised that working for Oxford colleges was a good idea. It started out as a clever business plan: he asked himself: “If no one’s buying furniture, who needs it and who will pay for it?”. The answer was clear, Hughes says: ‘those who had survived recessions for 500 years would survive this one. Oxford had good buildings, big endowment funds and a long-term view.’
He had a genuine love for Oxford, too, having fallen for its architecture as a child of eight on his first visit. His great-grandfather was rector at Lincoln College, and many of his family members had studied at the university.
Above: Lighting at the TS Eliot Theatre at Merton
Hughes (himself a Cambridge man) is an architect by training who, early in his career, spotted a niche for architecturally designed furniture, and it has turned out that Oxford, now his client for 25 years, is his perfect match. Above all, Hughes appreciates the fact that the colleges want furniture to last and be of high quality, to match the amazing buildings which house them. ‘It’s incredibly depressing making furniture for people who’re going to chuck it out after 15 years,’ says Hughes. ‘The wrong furniture can kill the architecture of good buildings stone dead. Plastic chairs in Ely Cathedral are one of my bête noirs. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Romanesque cathedral or a modern accommodation block, it’s worth doing it really well.’
Above: One of Brasenose's medieval kitchens with the Newnham chair
To date, Hughes and his team – based in Covent Garden, London – have designed furniture for well over 300 Oxford projects, and can count 25 colleges as customers (other clients include Cambridge University, The Tower of London and royal palaces).
One of Hughes’ highlights has been working on the university church, St Mary the Virgin. The upstairs room – strangely little-known, Hughes says, even by All Souls fellows living right next door ‘who never knew it was there’ - housed the university’s library before the Bodleian, and it was Hughes’ job to equip it for conferences without losing its character – quite a task, and ‘quite a buzz’, he reflects.
Above: Butterfield chairs designed for Keble's college library
Another special memory was upgrading the law library at Christ Church from dated 1970s decor, giving it ‘modern furniture that looks good in a medieval setting’. Hughes recalls bumping into a college alumnus, now a partner at a big legal firm, who had been asked to contribute to the funding. ‘He said: “I’ve given £20,000 on one condition, that we can still play cricket in the law library.” I emailed the development director and said: “This wasn’t part of your original design brief, can I have any comment?” The development director said: “Given England’s performance in The Ashes, we need all the help we can get!”’
As a longtime supplier across the university, Hughes has seen it all and believes ‘all the colleges have a slightly different anthropology. Bursars always behave in the way the college has always behaved – if I was a social anthropologist,’ he says, ‘I could write a PhD on it.’
He explains: ‘Some colleges have a subcommittee of one, others have ten who can never make their minds up. Merton is one of my favourite colleges; they take a long view and always have done. When we refitted the bursary 15 years ago, we designed a fireproof room for the deeds which they still need to refer to, going back to the middle ages.’
Above: Seating for the University Church of St Mary the Virgin
The relationship between the university and colleges strikes him as different at Oxford to Cambridge: ‘Colleges are even more independent in Oxford and architecturally they tend to look inwards into the quads – Cambridge tends to look outwards onto the Backs.’
What has been the biggest challenge in working with Oxford, then? Immediately, Hughes replies, only half-joking, one suspects: ‘Parking! Getting furniture vans in is a real nightmare. And getting furniture up twisty medieval staircases.’ Still, he says, the pros far outweigh the cons: ‘In two square miles you’ve got some of the greatest examples of architecture of any age and the team here love it.’