GRANT FEATHERSTON: Genuis design and the legacy

Grant Featherston - Modern Australia

At the end of the Second World War, designers led the trend for futuristic designs in a bid to forget the horrors of the past. The designs of this period — interior design, industrial design, architecture, advertising, fashion, etc. — showed what the people of that time thought the future should be. Mid-century modern design reflects this optimism and the belief that technology would pave the way to a better society, hence the popularity of atomic symbolism and space age motifs.

Of all the designers that grew to prominence in that era, few can surpass the legacy left by Grant Featherston. Australian by birth, he was born in Geelong, Victoria in 1927. By and large, he had a typical Australian upbringing, complete with backyard cricket games and summers spent down the coast. His father encouraged his interest in design, helping him create his first chair at the age of eight years old.

Featherston graduated from Geelong Technical School, but for the most part, he was self-taught in furniture and glass design. He did not, however, start designing furniture right there and then. He would first serve his country during the war from 1940 to 1944. Upon returning home, he moved to Melbourne and started his career in earnest, releasing his first furniture design series in 1947.

The Relaxation Series

1947 was the year Featherston launched his Relaxation Series. The Australian public loved the collection, making Grant Featherston a household name. The Relaxation Series was designed to be aesthetically pleasing and timeless without sacrificing comfort. The Relaxation Chair, which was the main piece of the collection, was made with a plywood frame on a plywood leg base. Onto the base, an interwoven webbing was attached to create the seat. This chair as well as the rest of the line so impressed renowned Australian architect Robin Boyd that he endorsed it on the newspaper The Age. Robin Boyd would later become one of Grant’s closest friends.

The Contour Chair

From that initial success, Featherston would go on to design more furniture, including the line for which he is best known for. The Contour Series, which came out from 1951 to 1954, was another huge hit for the designer. These chairs were made primarily from contoured plywood and designed to fit the body of the person sitting on it. Pieces in the Contour Series feature slim, splayed legs and distinctive button detail upholstery in natural fabrics. Like its predecessor, the Contour Chair was also designed for comfort, which added to its popularity.

The Obo Chair

The Featherstons collaborated on one of Grant’s last distinctive designs, the Obo Chair. Reminiscent of an exercise balancing ball, the Obo is a circular piece made from polyurethane and covered in fabric. Like a bean bag, the chair conforms to the body of the occupant but assumes its original spherical shape afterwards.

Handmade Furniture

Aside from designing mass-produced pieces, Featherston also did the occasional one-off pieces and handmade prototypes of his iconic designs. The Cord Chair is one such example, made in 1950 out of hand-carved mercanti wood and cotton. It is now part of the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.

The Cord Chair: National Gallery of Victoria

Partners and Collaborators

In 1965, Featherston worked for a metal frame furniture manufacturer, Aristoc Industries. There, he met Mary Curry, an RMIT Interior Design graduate who hailed from England and came to Australia to study. Curry and a few others came to tour the
facilities. When she met Grant, she asked if she could work with him at his office in Aristoc, and he agreed. That was the beginning of Grant and Mary’s professional and personal partnership. In the more than three decades that they were together, Grant and Mary would collaborate on even more furniture designs as well as interiors, exhibits, and graphics. An example is the National Gallery of Victoria, which they fitted out between the years of 1966 to 1968.
There are other notable works that Grant Featherston had done throughout his career. One was the Talking Chair commissioned by Boyd for the Australian pavilion of the 1967 Expo in Montreal, Canada. Featherston created moulded chairs made from polyurethane that had speakers on the headrest, allowing the chair’s occupant to listen to a lecture about Australia while seated comfortably. Boyd would collaborate with the Featherstons on many other projects until his death in 1971. He even designed the house that Grant and Mary lived in, the Featherston House.

Design Philosophy

If one were to describe Grant Featherston’s design philosophy with one word, it would be this: innovative. While his techniques were clearly modernist, his approach was new. Featherston was not afraid to use cutting-edge construction methods and unfamiliar materials. He had an eye for shape, that much is obvious, as contours and moulds are hallmarks of his designs.
Another Featherston distinctive was the emphasis on frugality and sustainability. Each bend and nook were a deliberate attempt to use the least amount of material while maximizing comfort. His partner, Mary Featherston, noted that they both liked Scandinavian and Japanese design. These cultural themes influenced his work, producing practical, minimalist pieces that were nonetheless distinctively Featherston’s designs.

The Featherston Legacy

Featherston received plenty of awards and accolades throughout his career. He received the Good Design Awards numerous times for his works. Currently, his collections are put up for display in museums all around the country. Despite reaching their peak in the 1970s, Featherston’s furniture pieces have definitely stood the test of time.

With the resurging popularity of mid-century design and minimalism, Featherston’s pieces continue to be well regarded by collectors. Nowadays, his original pieces command exorbitant amounts of money at auction while authorized replicas are sold at a premium. Collectors love his pieces and cannot get enough of Featherston’s work.

Featherston passed away in 1995, leaving behind almost half a century’s worth of sophisticated yet enduring designs. He is survived by his wife and professional partner, Mary, who continues their work. Not surprisingly, Featherston is regarded as one of the greatest furniture designers of the 20th century. This prolific designer changed the landscape of Australian design with furniture that are now considered works of art.