‘Nearly everyone living in Australia has sat on at least one Featherston chair in their lives,’ believes Geoff Isaac, author of a new book on the mid-century designer (1922–1995). Grant Featherston and his wife Mary, an interior designer, were a glamorous working duo – the Southern hemisphere’s Charles and Ray Eames. Born into a working-class family in the small town of Geelong, south-west of Melbourne, as a child Featherston was obsessed with nature – its organic forms would be a lifelong influence on his designs. He was entirely self taught. After relocating to Melbourne as a teenager, he produced glass panels, lighting and jewellery before moving onto chairs, which soon became his trademark.
In 1947, the designer launched his debut seating collection: the‘Relaxation’ series, made from ultra-lightweight laminated wood with an upholstered seat that followed the contours of the body. Soon after, he began an important collaboration with the prominent Modernist architect Robin Boyd. Their friendship was vital in winning customers for Featherston’s streamlined designs, which were considered challenging by a conservative Australian audience.
Featherston’s most famous work is the ‘Contour’ lounge chair. Its tall shape was inspired by a tram ticket that Featherston had been idly folding in his hands one day. Several variations followed, including dining chairs and rockers, all based on the same concept of body-hugging comfort. In 1953, he adapted the idea to capitalise on a new craze: his lightweight ‘Television chairs’ were designed to be casually grouped around a TV set.
Featherston’s career moved up another gear when Australian company Aristoc began mass-producing his designs in 1957. Taking advantage of the firm’s technological might, he began to experiment with new-generation plastics. In the 1970s, after designing a series of Pop Art-influenced pieces such as the beanbag-style ‘Obo’ chair, the Featherstons became more interested in the future. ‘New chairs may surprise us with their intelligence,’ wrote Featherston.
He mused about a house where all the furniture rose out of the floor, ‘with built-in sound, heat and light’. The concept was never realised – Featherston died in 1995, but his legacy lives on. In 2016, Mary collaborated with Australian brands Gordon Mather Industries and Grazia & Co to reissue selected designs, available from graziaandco.com.au.