It’s been a while since we talked about a designer that wasn’t entirely American or European. The mid-century modernist movement spanned the entire world in many different ways, as we have mentioned before. In Australia, particularly, there were a lot of furniture designers and architects that adhered to mid-century trends and breakthroughs, even though most of them are now almost unknown. Grant Featherston was born in Geelong, Victoria, in 1922. He is one the most important figures in Australian industrial design, furniture design, and architecture (to some extent).
Early life and works
Born to a common Australian family, Featherston did not engage in formal training, like many of his predecessors and colleagues. According to many sources, he had an extremely Australian upbringing which included regular cricket matches and trips to the nearest coast. Featherston was completely self-taught, and he started working with glass and lighting shortly after finishing secondary education. His first works were produced at the Geelong Technical School, sometime around the late 1930s. He seemed to have enjoyed a distinctively happy life, surrounded by friends, family, and work, until (of course) the war came in 1940.
Featherston enrolled and served in the Second World War until 1944. He returned home a changed man, logically, but he was still young. The 20-something Featherston readily resumed his passions and began designing furniture (formally) in 1947. From these early works came his first furniture line, the Relaxation Series, whose items were championed and endorsed by Robin Boyd, one of the most important Australian architects of the 20th century and a heavy critic of Australia’s common architectural practices and distinctive lack of style. Boyd would later commission Featherston for additional, tailored works, forging a relationship that would last many years.
Featherston produced most of his iconic chairs and design ideas around this period. He designed his signature R160 chair sometime around 1951, naming it the Contour chair. It was met with critical acclaim but did not see the light of day until much later. Featherston met and married his wife and design partner Mary in 1965, and kept working with furniture and industrial design until his death in 1995.
The Contour chairs
Featherston’s most iconic design are, of course, lounge chairs in the vein of what other mid-century modernists had achieved before, and after him. However, this is not to say that he didn’t have a distinct taste and style. He obviously had a preference for high-back chairs and wing chairs, and his early years of hands-on training and craftsmanship imbued his pieces with a certain glass-like curvature. Contour is a good name for his most iconic furniture. He wanted to create a piece of furniture that was a ‘negative’ of the human body: a chair with ergonomic functionality already imbued on the frame.
The R152 chair from 1951 began as a plywood construction that later included upholstery and the wooden base. His preference for the wing chair model had to do with his ergonomic vision, as these types of high-back chairs were meant to embrace a person’s body entirely (apart from the head). He designed two other breakthrough models in 1952, an upholstered single wing chair with a tall base and an accompanying double lounge chair that worked as a modern loveseat.
He later created the iconic R160 chair with an ottoman that followed the same principles and designs, and improved curved depression at the back of the seats to add a more organic recline. The R160 was much sleek and geometrical, and his B230 chair from 1953 featured bigger armrests, a lot more seating space, and an inverted high back design that was unprecedented for the time. Later models included an opening on the lower portion of the chair’s back, inspired by the works of Eero Saarinen and the couple. Following this trend, Featherston designed a line of dining chairs and tables, and even a more traditional lounge chair (with a medium back and curved armrests) in 1960.