Bedroom furniture fit for generations of students

Newnham College, Cambridge

Long-lasting student accommodation

Education & Research


A changing market

Since 1990 Luke Hughes has designed, engineered and delivered exceptionally high quality and robust furniture for more than 2,100 undergraduate and post graduate student accommodation bedrooms.

The work is an exercise in generating and adapting successful design formulae whose parameters are as much about usability, longevity, logistics and minimised maintenance as they are about craft, batch production or aesthetics.

Meeting the needs of foreign students

The UK’s monetarist policies of the 1980’s had reduced university grant money to a trickle. Conferences and student fee income, especially from postgraduates and foreign students, who are in residence all year round instead of the typical 24 week terms for undergraduates, became key ingredients in balancing college books.

In pursuit of the lucrative conference trade, dining halls became ‘profit centres’ and en-suite student accommodation was seen as essential in attracting commercial users. Newnham College was no exception, seeking to provide a home-away-from home experience.

All this had a direct bearing on the quality, versatility and robustness of the postgraduate student accommodation dorm room furniture we designed and engineered.

The Rosalind Franklin block

Newnham College’s Rosalind Franklin block was designed by Allies and Morrison, architects who understood the relationship between architecture and furniture and who recognised the value of a craftsman’s ability to humanise their buildings. The team at Luke Hughes developed a design language that was consistent with that.

Allies & Morrison’s designed, a well-mannered response to the red brick and pitched roofs of Basil Champneys’ original ‘Domestic Collegiate’ style so often mimicked on America’s East Coast campuses, needed student accommodation dorm room furniture for 60 bedrooms. 

The furniture solution was an elegant but robust kit of parts, the items designed for a 50 – 80 year life expectancy and deliberately made to feel as if they were part of the building.

Lightness of colour and simplicity maximised the light in the rooms, as did the hanging shelves with open ends, both letting the light deep into the space and giving the occupants a resting place for their knick-knacks. Our concept was that the more the furniture could be off the floor, the easier it would be to maintain the rooms.

So grooves in the underside of the shelves held them in place on the ‘ladder’ shelving system, which we suspended from picture rails, thus providing versatility and ease of cleaning. 

The desk and loose dorm room furniture were made in solid oak because it is incredibly tough and copes with the knocks of day to day student life better than any other timber. The drawers were all properly jointed. Bracing was put into the underside of the light desks, pinned through the legs and going up to the middle to keep them light but stiff and durable.

The long overhang at each end of the desk accommodates a separate drawer pedestal. Later versions had two drawers hung from the desk surface itself. Good quality pinboards meant students in residence never had to use blu-tac, so the college has not had to redecorate every year.

Everything was designed for easy maintenance, with no modern ironmongery on doors and drawers – the sliding mechanisms as well as the handles – because it goes out of date and can’t be replaced.

The pre-project research extended to how people actually behave in their student accommodation dorm rooms, which is why there are no tub chairs. In our experience. students don’t sit in tub chairs, they just drape clothes over them.

Chaises longue are more popular and used in all sorts of different ways, so a set of variations was designed for users to lounge or curl up on. And lots of wall hooks were installed – an inexpensive way of keeping clothes off the floor.


The Rosalind Franklin Block won an RIBA Regional Award.

Enjoy the article? Delve deeper into Luke Hughes & Company’s place in the Arts and Crafts tradition with the fascinating new book 'Furniture in Architecture' . Available through Thames & Hudson

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