Mary Featherston


By Denise Whitehouse

The interior designer Mary Featherston has two public personas: one as the life and design partner of Grant Featherston and the other as an influential and sometimes controversial designer of child centred learning environments. Beginning in the 1970s Mary’s research based practice has focused on the interdependence of contemporary pedagogy and the design of physical environments and identifying what children want and need in their learning neighbourhoods. Her collaborative approach has seen her work with educators, architects, school and early childhood communities, academic researchers and policy makers to develop innovative participatory design processes and models for school interior design. Her work, which is well published, is influential in Australia and abroad providing models for rethinking learning environments and stimulating debate especially during the current wave of education design reform.

Mary Featherston (nee Currey) was born in London, in 1943 and migrated to Australia with her parents in 1952. She studied Interior Design at RMIT 1960-1964 during which time she worked in the design studio that, the industry leader and furniture designer, Grant Featherston (1923-1995) had established for the metal furniture manufacturer Aristoc Industries. On completion of her studies she pursued her interest in space and interiors working with Beryl Mann, amongst others, at the architectural firm, Mockridge, Stahle and Mitchell, until her marriage to Grant Featherston in August 1965 and the formation of their joint partnership (1965-1995). While Grant’s established career, in the production of technically and aesthetically innovative furniture for mass production, shaped the partnership’s focus, interior design and experiential environments also were major concerns: a little known aspect of Grant Featherston’s work is his extensive interior design practice.

The partnership’s first joint project was the commission from Robin Boyd for the Expo Talking Chair (1965-66) for the Australian Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal World Expo. This was immediately followed by the furnishing and fit-out of Sir Roy Ground’s National Gallery of Victoria (September 1966-68). The young Mary worked as an assistant to the older, experienced Grant on these projects developing in the process the meticulous research and development process that characterises her practice. Both projects, which were formative for Mary, involved placing the individual at the centre of a cultural and educational experience conducted within a purposefully designed environment. While the polystyrene Expo Chair, with its implanted sound system, was a research exercise in advanced plastics technology and production it was also an exercise in physically and psychologically shaping the Expo visitor’s experience of Australian culture. Similarly, while the NGV fit-out involved systematic consultation to identify the practical needs of the users (administrators, curators, scholars, general public), it also involved the development of an extensive, modular furniture system that shaped the gallery visitors engagement with the collection; creating and directing traffic flow, the inter-relationships of spaces, transitions and encounters, framing displays and vistas, and atmospheric experiences through the rhythmic play of light and dark, openness and intimacy, public and private. The NGV, in particular, introduced Mary to the importance of the media and publicity and Grant’s commitment to public education. It is within the conduct and publicity of this project that Mary’s public persona as a design professional begins to shape.

The Featherstons found relief from the difficult politics of the NGV project by commissioning Robin Boyd to design a house on The Boulevard, Ivanhoe, Victoria (1967-68). Inspired in part by the spatial interplay of inside and outside of Boyd’s Walsh Street, South Yarra, house (1956) and the functional simplicity of the Eames’ case study house, they asked Boyd for a shed-like space with closely related spaces for working and living together, that could be shaped according to changing needs. They also asked that the interior include a garden in an expression of their belief that design, like life, should be embedded in the nature. Boyd’s design was extraordinary: a rectangular, clay brick box of vast open space in which four suspended, timber platforms float over a garden that flows with the natural slope of the site to meet a cathedral-like glass wall which, together with the translucent roof, floods the space with constantly changing light. With its engagement with the elements and the senses it was what Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra called ‘a natural house’; both Boyd and Grant had been inspired by Wright’s Taliesin houses and Neutra’s work in their early careers.

The Featherstons were delighted with Boyd’s design as a reflection of their personalities and way of being in the world together. They embraced its potential to operate as a totally integrated flexible, work home environment that allowed them to move unhindered between their studio, workshops and living spaces and supported their belief that design was a total way of life. The essence of the house, as an Age newspaper article (November 1971), noted, ‘is space. Fluid space that unfolds as you move about the planes that define it’. For Mary it has been an ongoing spatial experiment and a source of inspiration that began with her fit-out of the house which used a neutral palette to emphasize the functional simplicity and play of natural materials in Boyd’s design, broken only by strategic use of white in wet areas and the occasional warm splash of yellow and orange that has become her trademark. Besides allowing her to observe children at play and their interactions with the environment, the manner in which the spaces are open to change according to need has given Mary an unusual insight into design for flexibility.

With the completion of these major interior projects the Featherston consultancy turned its attention back to furniture and the development of the Stem chair Series (1969) with Aristoc, applying their Expo Chair experience with plastic and moulding technologies to the development of domestic furniture. By this time Mary was holding her own as a designer and her influence was evident in Stem’s youth culture inspired design and in the press coverage that described the partnership as one in which “neither knows who is responsible for any idea.” The secret of Mary’s success, the press reported to a public excited by seventies feminism, was “a completely integrated life with her husband, baby and parents and career all under the one roof”. As a model of the new professional woman Mary’s decisiveness and clarity of vision, Grant reported, had “brought a new purpose to their work together”. (Partners in Design 1971)

Stem was a significant innovation with its playful organic daisy-flower-like made possible by use of rotation moulding. But as it was launched on the market Aristoc, which had backed its research and development, was taken over and reshaped as Australian Furniture Makers and its manufacturing policy shifted from design-led innovation to seasonal styling and the low cost production of overseas designs under licence. What followed was a period of difficulty and disillusionment as the Featherstons sought manufacturing partners who would take a risk and support their continuing development of innovative furniture, particularly using plastics technology. Despite the hardship of these years they produced some of the most aesthetically and technically innovative furniture of that era, including Feathersling 1971, Poli 1971, Numero IV, VI, 1973-4 and Obo 1974.

During these struggles Mary’s attention increasingly turned to her interest in design that mattered; that had a social and cultural impact at a grass roots level. She had long been interested in children and creativity and, with the birth of Robin in 1970, she began to move into the design of child-centred educational spaces, inspired by the Community Childcare movement that was being driven by professional women, such as herself, looking for alternative models of child care and rearing grounded in progressive child psychology and education philosophy. For Mary, the unasked question was, “What do children need?” rather than what adults need. “We know what parents need, but what do children?” Having established there was a lack of applied research into the design needs of children, she and Grant successfully applied for a Commonwealth Government Research Grant to research ‘Children’s Play/Learning Environments’ in 1972. The project took them into the emergent fields of child psychology, sociology and progressive education and resulted in the formation and publication of design briefs and models for community run childcare centres that Mary tested working with interested parties beginning with the Livingstone Street Children’s Co-op in Ivanhoe (c.1973). Working from the principle that children are the heart of a society and require community neighbourhoods to raise them, she developed a model of a home-like enriched play/learning environment: the kitchen at the centre setting the language of care which flowed through a set of interlinked education/play spaces, each of providing a different experience. These models set a pattern language that is still in use today.

In 1976 the Feathersons travelled to Sweden where they were inspired by the simplicity, respectfulness and free play nature of the design for children that cut a sharp contrast to the didactic approach of Australia. Their attempts to develop similar children’s products for the Australian market, beginning with large scale, cloth-covered foam blocks, met with opposition from the conservative directors of early childhood education who expressed concern that they would encourage inappropriate behavior in children: given such freedom children might begin bouncing on furniture at home.

Shifting her attention to the community school movement, Mary became increasingly involved with the Reggio Emilia education movement with its advocacy of children’s need for engaging and sensory environmental experiences that support their natural inclination for inquiry and discovery. In Reggio she found a pedagogical model that argued the importance of considered design to shaping child driven learning. Taking on a role of activism, Mary submitted a successful proposal for a Children’s Museum to the Victorian Ministry of the Arts in 1983, which would consume her energies over 1985-89. Revolutionary in the design of its exhibitions, the children’s museum broke established conventions by encouraging children and their families to actively explore and discover through physically touching and engaging with the displays. The content and approach of the exhibitions was driven by children’s curiosity about the world as told to Mary in conversational groups: the very successful ‘Everybody’ exhibition responded to their requests by including life size, realistic nude figures of adults and children complete with genitalia. In another instance children’s curiosity about how the body works resulted in a model of the alimentary canal that children could trace with their fingers while listening to the sounds of the stomach gurgling. The museum was also revolutionary in the manner it fused pedagogical theory and material environment as spaces and activities were designed according to different modes of learning: spaces for interaction, for making and self expression, for passive information activities, quiet concentration and inquiry, rest and so on.

The success of the Children Museum led to a series of travelling exhibitions and curatorial commissions (1983-92) for institutions including the Royal Women’s and Royal Children’s Hospitals (Amazing Abilities of Newborns), Australian Museum of Chinese History, Australian Post, Sustainable Energy Centre and Australian Electoral Commission. In 1994 Mary curated the Reggio Emilia foundation’s travelling exhibition ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’ at the old Museum of Victoria in Swanston Street. The exhibition, the first of five throughout Australia and Hong Kong (1994-2009), was pivotal in stimulating interest in alternative pedagogical practices amongst school communities.

Up to this date Mary had been working informally with small school communities but in 1998 a commission to fit-out the prestigious Bialik College’s new early learning centre enabled her to test her design ideas rigorously on a large scale. Collaborating with the educators she developed a flexible, spatial organisational system, the crux of which is a child scaled, Modular Furniture System that teachers can configure to prompt and guide the children’s engagement in inquiry and discovery. On a practical level this provides teachers with flexibility in designing the accessibility of materials and resources, discrete and purposeful spaces including those for display, discussion, reflection, making and so on. (After Grant’s death in 1999 Mary and Grant were inducted into DIA hall of fame.)

The Bialik project was at the forefront of the current education reform movement that has educators, theorists and governments arguing the need for major pedagogical change and with this the need for a new architectural and interior language for schools. Mary’s next project, the Victorian government funded “Inside Out” refurbishment project at Wooranna Park Primary School, Dandenong (2003-2009), involved developing new types of learning spaces to support the school’s decision to change its pedagogical practice to meet the complex needs of its diverse multi-cultured community. Mary’s design of open plan, learning neighbourhoods with interlinking spaces purposefully shaped and furnished for discrete individual and group learning activities, including a theatre and video studio, was radical. Characteristically, she introduced the language of home as a bridge and developed a language of furniture types and spatial patterns that, in its consideration of children’s different intelligences and cultures of learning, challenged the authoritarian conventions of the traditional school and classroom. With furniture, spaces and the integration of materials and technology designed to respond to children’s physical proportions, movement and interaction, her Wooranna interiors presented a controversial shift of emphasis from adults to children and with this a move to democratize the culture of schooling.

The ‘Inside Out’ project triggered a period of intense activity for Mary as the highly publicized Wooranna became the focus of discussion and controversy while providing inspiration and challenge for those involved in education reform including architects and educators in Australia and abroad. Demand for new school furniture saw Mary’s Modular Children’s Furniture System go into commercial production (1999-2010) and her engagement in design projects with the furniture companies, Woods (2008) and Play+ (Italy 2005). As a national leader in pedagogically informed design, she has been involved in extensive education planning conferences and workshops as well as several Australian Research Council, Linkage Research Grants (2007-2012) that led to her appointment as Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne (2009). With the Australian Government’s Building the Education Revolution Stimulus program creating an urgency for change, there was high demand for her expertise from the private and state school sectors for teacher education as well as the design of learning environments ranging from early learning centres to senior students spaces. A key project was with Hayball architects on the multi-award winning Dandenong High School regeneration project (2007-2009) that built on the lessons of Wooranna, especially the importance of working collaboratively with a school community to build the understanding of how teachers and students occupy and use space, necessary to design environments that support genuine pedagogical and social change. Here, Mary worked with staff and students over a protracted period consulting and observing before developing interior design strategies that contributed to the effective community transition into a campus of radically different school buildings.

While Mary retired from commercial design practice in 2012 she continues to be involved in school design research projects, university teaching and with her advocacy for children and good design through the Reggio Emilia Australia Information Foundation and the Robin Boyd Foundation.