Selwyn College University Library Furniture

Bartlam Library and Quarry Whitehouse Auditorium

Over the last twenty years, Selwyn College, founded in 1882, has been expanding its accommodation, conference facilities and library into ‘Ann’s Court’ and October 2021 saw the completion of that court as it celebrated the opening of the Bartlam Library and Quarry Whitehouse Auditorium, accommodated in the shell of this new building, designed by Porpyrhios Associates, for which Luke Hughes and Company, has designed all the university library furniture fittings. It’s a Neo-classical building, even faintly post-modern, rather than Gothic Revival (the style of most of the buildings at the College).

The aim for Luke Hughes and Company was to create a new college library interior so it can be a source of pride for the college and a delight to work in, for staff, fellowship, students and visitors. This means not just creating a collection of joinery carcasses but expressing something of what the college wants to project about itself for the next half-century or more. The form of the design language relates to the classical architectural form of the building. Selwyn students are now offered stimulating new workspaces along with a mix of conventional books and digital resources.



The project is the latest in a series of school, college and university library furniture design projects. Over the last 30 years, Luke Hughes and Company has designed and made furniture for nearly 60 Oxbridge colleges and more than 20 major institutional libraries. These include the Supreme Courts in both London and Edinburgh, Yale University’s Sterling Library, the Cambridge University Library and the Institute of Criminology, Pembroke, Downing and Peterhouse (Cambridge) and St Hugh's, Keble, Brasenose, and Christ Church (Oxford). Major school libraries include Bedford, Bryanston, Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Highgate, Oundle, Reigate, St Edward’s, St Paul’s School, St Paul’s Girls School, and Keystone Academy in Beijing.

This project is now dedicated as The Bartlam Library, in recognition of particularly generous donations from Tom Bartlam (who studied Law at the college in the mid-sixties), along with more than 1,000 other individual donors. During the construction programme, it was a great pleasure to welcome the College’s Development Director, Mike Nicholson, and the donor, Tom Bartlam, to one of the workshops to see, amidst saw-dust and leather upholstery, some of the furniture being made and meet those who put it together.

The scope of university library furniture included readers’ library chairs and library reading tables, carrell work-spaces, our streamlined modular bookcase system providing shelving for 30,000 books and periodicals, teaching and computer rooms, task and ambient lighting. It also included some curved sofas that can be easily re-arranged for poetry readings, evening seminars or small chamber concerts.

It is proving highly popular with students and, in the words of the Master, Roger Mosey:

This is a once-in-a-generation project for Selwyn: the creation of a building that complements our history and serves the future needs of our community. It has transformed the northwest of the college – and inside there is now a library fit for the 21st century and beyond.

Luke Hughes and Company fully understand the continued relevance of libraries, particularly in a digital age. Indeed, the promise of a digitised library-world, devoid of books, has proved to be as much of a chimera as the much-trumpeted ‘paper-free office’. Over the years, we have noted that, far from seeing the demise of the book in favour of electronic media, every library project has led to a massive rise in the usage, frequently by as much as 300%. This appears to be holding true for Selwyn, too.


Thirty years ago libraries were hallowed, whispery sort of places; there were no DVDs or talking books; no laptops or internet connections, the catalogue was usually a card index; the lighting was usually with tungsten bulbs. Who then had conceived of eco-consciousness, of LED lighting or even the Worldwide Web? Today, academic libraries have become much more social, with more 'zoned-spaces' such as teaching and rooms dedicated to the retrieval of periodicals. There has also been a huge increase in the traffic from frequent, casual visitors so the need for online access to catalogues or publications has helped transform the way libraries are used. In another thirty years they will have changed again, in unforeseeable ways. What is foreseeable, nevertheless, is that people will still need to sit and work comfortably, in well-lit, inspiring surroundings.

50-80 years is our normal aspiration for life expectancy for these types of projects. In fact, we have many installations around Oxbridge which have already had 30-years’ heavy use and are bearing up very well. It is reasonable to expect a major refurbishment of mechanical services within 50-60 years but there is no reason why the bulk of the furniture should not last much longer than this. There are many college libraries where the fittings date back to the early 17th century or earlier.

The Bartlam Library, with heavy undergraduate usage, can expect high churn. Its interior should mellow with time; the university library furniture should patinate gracefully. It is designed to be functional, modern, comfortable, flexible and, above all, coherent. The veneers match, the mouldings between library tables, library chairs and library bookcases, are co-ordinated; the palette of colours and materials is harmonious.

Future-proofing is also a key design factor. This is likely to be most relevant with changes to services - data, lighting, power (and charging of batteries). For example, LED technology has come a long way in the last ten years and is constantly being updated. Before that, the options were tungsten or fluorescent. Battery technology can also be expected to improve. All these services may be predicted to change again in the next decade, so accessible cable routes (for instance in the library bookcases or desks) are crucial.




Photos courtesy and © David Valinsky 

Working on a Library Project?

Contact us today