Grant and Mary Featherston, Speaking for Australia- the 1967 Expo Chair.

By Denise Whitehouse

 

 

Expo Sound Chair Mark II. 1967. Designer: Grant Featherston. Manufacturer: Aristoc Industries.  Materials: polystyrene, polyurethane foam, Dunlopillo foam rubber, Pirelli webbing, fibreglass, hardwood, sound equipment, upholstery fabric. Powerhouse Collection.

The most celebrated and widely reported feature of the Australian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo 67 was undoubtedly the Expo Taking Chair. Robin Boyd’s idea to make a stereo sound chair the central feature of the Pavilion was inspired. It beautifully encapsulated the Pavilion’sSpirit of Adventure’ theme and helped to construct an image of Australia as forward thinking and culturally sophisticated. Designed by Melbourne designer Grant Featherston (1922-1995), the Expo Chair was aesthetically and technologically innovative. As an elegant sound shell with a playful sense of Pop art in its form, it delighted the press and the public, and ensured that Boyd’s aim to create “the most luxurious and civilised salon” at Montreal was a great success.[i]  Such was its popularity a commercial version of the chair, Expo Mark II, was developed for national and international release. For many, then and now, the Expo Chair stood as a symbol of the shift into the swinging sixties. These sentiments were well captured by the Age journalist who described the Expo Mark II, as both a “personal discotheque” and the “swinginest chair of [the] decade.”[ii] Denise Whitehouse spoke to Mary Featherston about her involvement with Grant Featherston in the design and production of the Expo Chair.

DW: The Expo Talking Chair must have been an exciting project for a young designer to work on, especially in collaboration with Grant who was then at his peak of his career.

MF: Yes, the 1960s was an exciting time to become a designer. As I was entering the industry, around 1964, public and government interest in design was on the rise and the Industrial Design Council of Australia had opened its Design Centre in Melbourne, and Melbourne had hosted Australia’s first Design Congress. There was a great deal of debate about the need for ‘Good Design’, in part stimulated by the IDCA’s Good Design Awards and by Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness.  My memories are of a lively scene which revolved around arthouse/experimental cinema and galleries that exhibited local design together with abstract art, such as the Museum of Modern Art and Design, the Argus Gallery and Gallery A. Even the National Gallery of Victoria showcased contemporary design by hosting the touring Design for Living exhibition. Internationally, design was undergoing exciting change which we were tracking through European design journals, Md, Mobilia, Domus and Swedish Form. Publications such as Stile Industiale brought us technical information about developments in plastics production, especially in Italy and Germany.

I began my career as an interior designer working with the architectural firm of Mockridge, Stahle and Mitchell. During my student days I had worked with Grant in the small design department he established for Aristoc Industries. Aristoc was one of the first Australian manufacturers to employ a design consultant -Grant- to develop an integrated approach to design that informed every aspect of their furniture production from product development, to manufacture and promotion. Working in this environment gave me insight into Grant’s rigorous design process: into his pursuit of sculptural, flowing forms that reflected the curvilinear, human body and of the most efficient volume production techniques to achieve affordable furniture.

Grant and I had very similar ways of being in the world and remarkably similar responses to things, even though there was twenty years between us.  We shared a love of nature and contemporary culture, and a belief that it is the human experience that is the starting point for design.  We married in September 1965 and not long after Grant was commissioned to design the Expo Chair, which was the first project of our professional partnership as Grant & Mary Featherston. For Grant, it was an opportunity to test the potential of plastics to create a new chair type. One of the design challenges we faced was to create a chair form that was in character with the voluminous, flowing space and trumpet-shaped columns of the Pavilion that James Maccormick had designed.  My role in the Expo Chair? I was a close observer and apprentice, Grant was the driving force.  

DW: The archival correspondence shows that Robin Boyd sought to contact Grant with the official commission in early January 1966. The brief, he explained, was for 250 chairs, with snug-fitting wings that cradled the head: something along the line of the “very big wing backs” that Grant had made in his “formed-plywood phase”. Later he added that the chair should be at the forefront of design. The tone of their correspondence and of Grant’s meeting notes indicates that their discussions about the chair were well advanced by January, and that Robin had already consulted Grant when he promoted the idea of a talking chair to the Australian Exhibition Organisation in December 1965. [iii]

MF: It is very likely that they had early discussions about the viability of the idea. My first memories of the project are of Grant, with his wonderful sense of form, exploring the idea through sketches and tiny paper scale models – some made in the sand dunes while on summer holidays in January 66!


Miniature models for the Expo 67 Chair, 1966, on the desk in Grant and Mary Featherston’s studio which was located in Roy Grounds’ Quamby Flats, 3 Glover Court, South Yarra. Featherston Archive, Ivanhoe, Victoria.

Grant and Robin had a history of collaboration that reached back to the 1949 Modern Home Show and the Contour Chair years when Grant would load his new chairs into his car and take them into the Small Homes Bureau to discuss them with Robin. They also collaborated on many Grounds, Romberg and Boyd projects. More importantly, they shared a commitment to developing Australian contemporary culture – often through risk-taking innovations and this led to a strong mutual respect.  Looking back, I realise that this was a most fortuitous collaboration for a project that was to showcase Australia to the world; Robin had an idea and trusted Grant to realise it successfully.

As I understand it, Robin came up with the idea of a talking chair in response to a suggestion made by the technical advisor to the exhibition committee, Mervyn Williams, that electronic sound be used to enhance the visitor’s experience in the Australian Pavilion.[iv]  Robin’s idea was that chairs would be informally arranged on luxurious, white woollen carpet to create a Salon-like atmosphere. Here foot-weary Expo visitors could rest, cocooned in individual sound shells, while listening to tape-recorded stories about the Australian way of life, the arts, sciences and development. It was typical of Grant and Robin to place the human experience at the centre, in this case to create easy and comfortable access to information. Both believed that the spatial and sculptural properties of a chair could create not only physical comfort but also psychological comfort. Grant expressed this with great clarity when he wrote in one press release that, he,

wanted this chair to belong to the occupant, not the building, that is, to look right in any position, and surround the listening sitter. Its shape should grow out of its function - be comfortable, and produce a stereo sound perfectly. … Another objective - in theme with contemporary life and the Pavilion itself - was that the chairs should have an apparent casualness.

As always with Grant he also wanted “a high degree of visual joy, clean lines, with a sense of play.” [v]

DW: Mary, you said that with hindsight you now realise that the chair was an astonishing technological accomplishment, especially given that it was achieved under considerable pressure in a very short period of 24 weeks.

MF:  Yes, and this was largely due to Grant and his drive for innovation. The Expo Chair could not be made using conventional materials and production methods. Both its form and function were the result of extensive research involving experimentation and testing. Working in this manner was formative for me, and it set the pattern for the way we would work in partnership. It involved a process of throwing the net very wide, teasing out all the potentials and constraints and then interpreting and refining.  In this instance, we were investigating the visitor experience, the exhibition context, new materials and production techniques – all to a very tight deadline.  While the Montreal Expo didn’t open until April 1967, the chairs had to be ready for shipping in late August 1966 before the Canadian winter set in.

We worked at an intense pace producing the first prototype within 4 weeks. The process began with Grant’s practice of trialling shapes by bending and slitting paper. Gradually a very simple horn-shaped form evolved which grew out of the floor and wrapped the visitor in an intimate sound shell.  It was a form that closely expressed its function. We then made a full-size model in corrugated cardboard into which we built-up fine strips of polystyrene to exactly mimic the final shell. Two partial shells were made to be sent off for acoustical testing. We then continued to test and refine this model, and added a tubular ring to hold elastic webbing for seat suspension. Once we had upholstered and covered the full shell with the dark green wool selected by Robin we were able to draw up the specifications for the government tender. The cushions, which were loose, were to be colour-coded green for English and orange for French.


At the same time we were seeking the most appropriate technique to produce the chair. It needed to be robust to withstand a predicted 20,000 users per chair, and lightweight for freight to the other side of the world. It also needed to be suitable for batch production and to seamlessly incorporate the sound system. Plastic furniture was part of the ‘shock of the new’ in the sixties and many furniture designers exploited the ability to create startlingly new furniture from funky pneumatic forms to elegant ‘one-shot’ moulded shapes. For Grant, the advent of plastics in furniture was especially liberating.  The curved shells of his Contour Chairs were laboriously created by bending sheet ply, but now he could create complex organic shapes and even vary the thickness of the shell for efficient use of material. With plastic technology the chair could be produced in one piece – straight out of the mould.

We decided to use rigid expanded polystyrene, which is light but strong. Danish De Luxe had the Australian licence for the Norwegian Plastmobler process that involves introducing styrene pellets into a hollow aluminium mould; with the addition of heat the pellets fuse together. The result is a shell with structural strength and minimal weight. Grant produced full size drawings for the production of the mould using our prototype model: it was the largest moulding of its kind produced in Australia.

 Together with Mervyn Williams and the Commonwealth Acoustical Laboratory we were also developing solutions for the delivery of sound. The solution was to integrate two small speakers into a separate moulded headrest that brought sound very close to the ears. This, together with the wrap around ‘wings’, reduced distraction from nearby chairs. The action of a visitor sitting into a chair triggered a pressure switch in the seat suspension that activated the sound story. Each chair was fixed in place and cabled to a central bank of tape players.  This was technically complex and the headpieces were being redesigned right up to the last minute, as late as mid-July.

DW:  There was a great deal of press coverage about the Talking Chair, as it was fondly called.  It seemed to strike the right chord, encapsulating not only the sixties’ enthusiasm for new plastic forms and electronic technologies, but also the nature of social and cultural change. It even made its way into political cartoons. There were a couple of potentially embarrassing controversies. A South Australian dentist claimed that the ‘talking chair’ infringed his patent for introducing ‘white sound’ to patient’s ears through a headpiece in dental chairs.[vi] And there were accusations of favouritism when Aristoc won the government tender to manufacture the chairs.

MF: Robin kept us informed of the copyright issue, which he handled together with Mervyn Williams and the Attorney-General’s Department. The tender was another matter. It required that the manufacturer sub-contract the production of the shells to Danish De Luxe, and the application of the polyurethane covering to Olympic Tyre and Rubber Co, and then assemble and upholster the chair before finally attaching headrests. Given the time constraints experience with innovation was essential.

Grant had to argue long and hard that Aristoc were the most experienced and best equipped to do the job. He argued that they were inventive and experienced with new techniques and processes, and had skilled assemblers capable of producing exacting detail, especially for the complex upholstery. Also that their factory had the capacity to produce the volume of chairs required in a very tight timeframe. Aristoc had also won the separate tender to produce the headrests/speakers, so in the end it was logical that they should do the total job as the efficiencies were considerable.[vii]

 

Expo Chairs being assembled ready for upholstery in Aristoc Industries’ factory at Glen Waverley, Victoria. c. July-August 1966.  Featherston Archive.

Looking back, I think we were so intently focussed on the urgency of the project that a great deal of the excitement and controversy that accompanied the lead up to the Montreal Expo passed us by. Once the project was completed, we had to move rapidly on to the fit-out of Roy Ground’s National Gallery of Victoria, which occupied us until late 1968. We also began designing our house with Robin. And as always, Grant was seeking the next challenge and this would lead us to further exploration of plastics and the development of new furniture ranges including Stem (1969), Poli (1971) and Numero (1973).

It was rewarding when Montreal Expo opened in April 1967 to hear reports that vast numbers of people, up to 15,000 per day, were queuing to visit the Australian Pavilion and experience the ‘soft spoken’ chairs. It seemed that we had successfully captured people’s imaginations. There are several stories about the after-life of the Expo Chairs that I enjoy. Some ended up being used in the Language Laboratories at Point Cook for the education of migrants and others went to the Parkes Observatory. We later discovered from a Canadian friend that the McGill University also made innovative use of them. At home, the Expo Chair won a Good Design Award from the IDCA, and Grant and Aristoc went on to develop a commercial version which was released onto the market in October 1967.  Named Expo Mark II, it was promoted as a personal stereo-sound chair that could be plugged into the radio, television, record player and tape recorder.  Very Sixties


[i]  This article was first published in Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara eds, Modern Times. The untold story of Modernism in Australia, Miegunyah Press and Powerhouse Publishings, Sydney, 2009.

Robin Boyd, ‘Australian Pavilion Expo 1967’, Grounds, Romberg and Boyd Archive. State Library of Victoria, MS 13363: PA95/128. Box 85.

[ii] The Age, October 20, 1967, Press Cuttings Book 1. Featherston Archive. Ivanhoe, Victoria.

[iii] Correspondence Robin Boyd to Grant Featherston, Jan 11, 1966, Grounds, Romberg and Boyd Archive. SLV: MS 13363: PA95/128. Box 85.  

Correspondence and notes from meetings between Grant Featherston and Robin Boyd beginning December 1965, Expo File, Featherston Archive. Ivanhoe, Victoria.

[iv] M. E. L. Williams, ‘Australian Pavilion: The Universal and International Exhibition, Montreal, 1967. Preliminary Notes on the use of tape recorded music and sound effects.’ November 1965, Expo File. Featherston Archive. Ivanhoe, Victoria.

[v] Grant Featherston, ‘The Designer of the Expo Chair’,  Expo File, Featherston Archive. Ivanhoe, Melbourne.

[vi] Press Cuttings Book 1, Featherston Archive. Ivanhoe, Victoria.

[vii] Correspondence between Wycombe Industries, Commonwealth Treasury, Robin Boyd and Grant Featherston, Featherston Archive. Ivanhoe, Victoria.

 

 

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