Big news people: the very first book to extensively delve into the iconic Australian design team (and national treasures) Grant and Mary Featherston is finally in the works. First the bad news – no publisher wants to fully back it’s publication (can you believe that?) boo hiss! The good news is however thanks to passionate Featherston collector and writer, Geoff Isaac, we can cut out those impotent know-nothings and get it published anyway!
For the last four years Geoff has researched, collected, interviewed, slaved and now presents us the fruit of his labour – a beautifully presented and professionally produced hardcover book which now only needs a minimal pledge from your, dear reader, to get into your hot little hands. The Kickstarter project is here and well on its way to reaching its goal. We decided to chat with Geoff and get a little more info about the whole thing…………..

So Geoff, what is your background? It takes a lot of passion to take a subject and turn it into a comprehensive study and then seek to publish it –  4 years work in your case. What was your first experience with the work of Grant and Mary Featherston?

My background is not in design it is in marketing. I have written extensively for publication but this is my first book. My interest in Featherston started a long time ago. When I was 30 I separated from a partner and was left with the house, but no furniture and no money! I picked up some furniture from local second hand stores and among these (and unknown to me at the time) were a series of Scape dining chairs, designed by Grant Featherston for Aristoc in 1960. A few years later, my financial situation having improved, I moved to a warehouse apartment and set about buying some decent furniture for it. After several months I realised I could not find any dining chairs I liked more than the ones I had. I set about refurbishing the Scapes and started finding out about the designer. Over the next twenty years my interest grew and I started collecting Featherston chairs, working backwards in his career to buy examples form the Contour series (for which he is most famous). As prices of Contours began to rise I moved forward in Featherson’s career and started collecting examples of the designs he created for Aristoc (the Melbourne based manufacturer he worked with for 13 years) and the chairs he developed working with his wife Mary for other leading manufacturers right up to the mid 1970s. I was amazed by the variety of materials used and designs created over his 30 year career in design. I was even more amazed to discover that, although Grant Featherston is practically a household name very little has actually been published on his life and work. I started to dig around in the libraries and archives and slowly began to think about writing the book.

Who were some of your interview subjects, did you get to meet Mary Featherston and hear some good stories from the horses mouth (so to speak!)? Unearth any gems in your research? 

Mary Featherston gave me access to the press clippings in the Featherston archive and has read the proofs for the book and provided valuable feedback saving me from some potentially embarrassing mistakes. Mary has also been good enough to provide and an endorsement for the book. My first interview was with Terence Lane, the former Senior Curator of Decorative Arts at the National Gallery of Victoria who organised the Featherston retrospective in 1988. The catalogue from that show is the only other publication dedicated to the Featherstons’ work, copies occasionally turn up on line and can sell for $500 of more. Terence met the Featherstons in the late 1960s while they were working on the fit-out for the building designed by Roy Grounds, they designed all the fixtures and fittings, unfortunately most of it has since been ripped out. I also interviewed Babette Hayes, who wrote or edited several popular design books in the 1960s and 1070. Interestingly these books do not feature the Featherstons’ work so it was interesting to find out why! Neil Clerehan, the famous architect also granted an interview. He met Featherston after the Second World War, during which he had met Robyn Boyd. All three were part of a small group of Melbourne-based designers and architect interested in modernism and they formed a close symbiotic relationship, introducing and sharing clients. As I was leaving Neil’s office I asked if there was anyone else I should interview and he suggested Ian Howard, the former Managing Director of Aristoc. To my surprise and delight I found Ian alive and well at over ninety years old and sitting on an enormous archive of previously unpublished material, including photographs, sales brochures and company records. In short, I hit the jackpot! With such a rich archive to explore the project has taken rather longer than I hoped but the end result is much richer for it.

The book, from the sneak peek, seems like a nice combination of index for each individual design within historical/social context, was this always your intention? Did you have any other publications you specifically liked for the way they covered their subjects?

A chronological approach was really the only solution explored. Featherston designs evolve and change with the times. The work can really be divided into three groups – wooden designed and produced between 1947 and 1957, designs in steel (1957 -1966) and his work with Mary, primarily in plastics, from 1967 though to the mid 1970s. To appreciate the context a brief reminder of the historical and social pressures and events that shaped the times was needed. I have also tried to look around the world and see what was happening in the world of chair design and to try and tackle head on critics who accuse Featherston’s work of being derivative

I was inspired by Marilyn Neuhart’s excellent publication The Story of Eames, a highly detailed account of the Eames Office including verbatim interviews with many of the designers who worked to create the chairs. Neuhart’s book also includes the parallel story of the entrepreneurs who supported Eames. When I met Ian I realised that the Aristoc story is a very important piece of the Featherston story and so I have included a detailed account of the rise and fall of the manufacturer.
I was also impressed by Lesley Jackson’s book Robin & Lucienne Day, Pioneers of Contemporary Design and the way the words and images were combined to evoke the period. I do have a lot of mid-century design books and many of these have inspired me along the way.

For better or worse the Featherston armchair chair (#R160) (like the ubiquitous Eames Chair& Ottoman) has become marketing shorthand for MCM design. So now on one hand we see it reproduced (sometimes very poorly) en masse as replicas all over the place, what are your thoughts on this?

I find the copies depressing. People are paying a lot of money for a poor quality, uncomfortable product with only the semblance of the look of a real Featherston. I take that back, they don’t even have a semblance of the real thing, the curves are usually wrong, and the padding is over stuffed so they look dreadful as well. Featherston Contour chairs are made from plywood, when you sit in one it flexes to adapt to your weight and shape and provide support to your body. When you sit on a copy the rigid plastic shell remains a rigid plastic shell, ten minutes later and you will want to stand up. Charles Eames once said, “You hope that someone will come along and take the central idea and improve on it. I don’t mind that. But what I do mind is somebody who copies the most miserable aspects of an idea … A copier will emphasize the area in which the designer failed to solve the problem, rather than where he succeeded in solving the problem.” This is certainly what appears to have happened with Featherston’s Contours.
Interestingly though the reason that the copies are so bad is that Featherston’s Contours are really a cheat. Featherston developed a production techniques that allowed sparsely populated Australia to experience the Modern look. In North America, Eames was spending enormous amounts of money developing presses to curve his plywood, the local market could not sustain that investment. Featherston created a solution to manually cut and bend plywood to get a similar result. Modernism was all about embracing modern production methods and the machine age, therefore it could be said that Featherston cheated by using tradition production techniques to achieve the Modern look. Even today the cheap copies prove that you can’t produce Contour chairs using mass production techniques

It seems Gordon Mather with Grazia and co have the ‘offical’ rights to, and make a selection of Featherston chairs these days, are there any specific designs you’d like to see being manufactured again, which presently are not? Which is the most underrated Featherston furniture in your opinion?

Yes Gordon Mather and Grazia have teamed up to reissue a wide range of Featherston designs. It was interesting to see that the Obo has been included, reportedly at Mary’s request. The Obo was the Featherston’s response to the bean bag – its advantage being that it holds its spherical shape – making it visually more appealing than a traditional flaccid bean bag. The Obo was expensive when it was originally release and was not a commercial success so it will be interesting to see how it sells now.  I would like to see the Wing chair and the Curl-up chair added to the reissued Contour range as originals are very hard to find and both these designs are under appreciated by the market more generally.

We are astounded that there are no books on the work of the Featherstons and that you have had trouble getting a publisher to take on this project. Tell us about what you’d like to achieve with your Kickstarter campaign.

The search for a publisher has been even more depressing than the Featherston copies! I was repeatedly assured by experienced professionals that I would have no trouble finding a publisher for this work. However, it appears unless you are writing a recipe book or want to get snap shots from a celebrity’s  travels  published the local market is not open to you. I think only one publisher even read the manuscript and they wanted a significant upfront investment, really turning  it into a vanity publishing job. Personally I think it is a very poor show that I could not find one publisher willing to support the first work on our most famous mid-century designer and arguably our most successful industrial designer. Having put so much time and effort into the job I have decided to see it through. I have basically financed all the research and writing myself and have invested funds to get the design and layout complete. To get it printed will cost around $25,000 so allowing for the Kickstarter fees I need to raise $28,000. Ideally I would like to raise around $40,000 to get some of my money back – but that is all sunk costs now so the primary goal is to get it printed and out into the world. As I write this I am only at $10,000 so I have a long way to go, but still just over a month before the campaign ends (on April 10) so I remain hopeful of reaching the goal.

So there we have it, a project any self respecting Modernist Australian should be backing. Order today and ensure it’s publication. For not only does that reward you with a beautiful, hardbound reference tome, but it manifestly declares to the wider world that the pool of love and money for our own MCM identity grows bigger by the day.