The book of Featherston – an interview with author and collector Geoff Isaac

Hi Geoff, thanks for your time today.

Q1) I understand that you are in the process of publishing an art book called “Featherston”. Who were Grant and Mary Featherston?

Photo 1 – Book cover of “Featherston” by Geoff Isaac, courtesy of Geoff Isaac.

 

A1)   Grant Featherston was a Melbourne based industrial designer best known for his Contour series of bent plywood chairs produced in the early 1950s and highly sought after today. In fact, Grant designed all kinds of things but, between 1947 and the mid-1970s, he focused on chairs and developed hundreds of designs. Some of these designs were so commercially successful it is no exaggeration to claim that nearly everybody living in Melbourne has sat on at least one Featherston chair. Grant met Mary in the mid-1960s and they worked together in a partnership from 1966 until Grant’s death in 1995. Mary still lives and works in Melbourne although her primary interest is in early childhood learning environments.

Q2) What was so important about Grant and Mary Featherston’s work?

Grant and Mary Featherston at their wedding

Photo 2, Grant and Mary Featherston at their wedding, image courtesy Ian Howard

A2)  The real genius was in developing production techniques to allow a remote and sparsely populated country to experience the Modern look. Over in North America Eames, backed by a large team of design specialists, was producing moulded plywood chairs from machines costing over $25,000 dollars each. With chairs selling for a few shillings it was not financially viable to do this in Australia. Working alone Featherston developed production techniques that allowed moulded plywood chairs to be manufactured locally and enabled Australians to experience this revolution in home décor – a truly remarkable achievement. Throughout their careers – working in wood, steel and plastics – the Featherstons continued to experiment to allow Australia to remain at the cutting edge of innovation in chair design.

Q3) Is the appeal of Featherston design limited to Australia? Apart from the Australian Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo do they have much of an international profile, or are there any non-Australian collectors?

Talking chair

Photo 3, Featherston “Talking Chair” image courtesy of Ian Howard

A3) Interest is primarily centred in Australia and New Zealand although there are collectors in North America and the UK interested in Featherston. Hopefully my book will help secure the international recognition they deserve! One of the secrets of Featherston’s success was that he licenced manufacturing in different states and over in New Zealand. At that time the cost of transport was prohibitive so Featherston succeeded in building a nationwide following when most of the competition were only focused on getting market share in their own town. That strategy is still paying dividends today with Featherston collectors active in every state.

Q4) Why is there a growing interest in their furniture, and why is it becoming so collectible (and expensive)? What is the relevance today?

R160 Contour

Photo 4, Featherston Contour R160 chair, image courtesy of Geoff Isaac, author of “Featherston”

A4)  Well if we look at prices – auction prices for Contours grew fivefold over 15 years from the late 1990s. Interest started picking up after the 1988 retrospective held at the NGV but then accelerated until the GFC. After the crash prices dwindled a little – probably following the whole mid-century sector as it adapted to the impact of cheap copies flooding the market. More recently prices appear to be on the rise again. I think people have sat in those cheap nasty copies and are coming to appreciate the real thing!

Q5) I understand that architect Robin Boyd commissioned 240 Expo Talking chairs for the Australian pavilion for the 1967 Montreal Expo. Where are they now?

Harrold Hold opening the Australian pavilion at Expo

Photo 5, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt opening the Australian pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo testing a Featherston designed Expo Talking chair. Image courtesy of Ian Howard.

A5) I only know of two that survived from the original run. I own one and I sold the other to the Powerhouse museum in Sydney. I bought these from an auction house in New York in the early 2000s. I believe they were purchased after Expo ended and the contents auctioned off – transportation costs making it prohibitively expensive to return them to Australia. (Incidentally I failed to investigate the transport costs before bidding – otherwise I would have realised that they remain prohibitive!) The Talking chair (also known as the Sound chair) fused furniture and technology – when a visitor sat on a chair a tape deck was activated and conversations with famous Australians played through concealed speakers in the head rest.  When released the Talking chairs were the star attraction at the Australian pavilion, most people had never experienced anything like it, and they became the talk of the town in Montreal and Melbourne. Melbourne based manufacturer Aristoc saw the opportunity and produced copies of the Expo chair for the local market and these turn up at auction quite frequently.

Q6) Who is Geoff Isaac, and why write a book on Grant and Mary Featherston?

A6) I am just a fan. I am not a design academic or professional – in fact my background is in marketing. I started collecting Featherston designs in 1996. As the prices went up I got priced out of the market so I had to find a new way to occupy my collecting gene! Frustrated by a lack of publically available information on the Featherstons I started researching and collecting material on their careers. Mary Featherston and the design historian, Michael Bogle have both read the proofs for my book and written very nice endorsements for the book so hopefully readers can have some confidence in my abilities!

Geoff Isaac in Eleanor Contour chair

Photo 6, “Featherston” author Geoff Isaac sitting in a 1954 Featherston E1 Eleanor chair, image courtesy of Geoff Isaac.

Q7) With such a huge design output why has nobody published or documented the Featherstons’ work previously?

Stem chair

Photo 7, Despite over 18 months of research and development to bring the Stem chair to life the model failed to excite the market and was the last Featherston design produced by Aristoc, image courtesy Geoff Isaac.

A7) I am still amazed that no one has written a book on the Featherstons before. Grant Featherston is, beyond doubt, our most famous and successful mid-century designer. If you look at how many of his chairs are still in use today I believe that only Britain’s Robin Day could claim to be more successful on this measure. We should celebrate our successes!

Q8) Do you own any pieces by Featherston, or do you have a favourite?

Scape dining-NB-1

Photo 8 Featherston Scape dining chair, courtesy of Geoff Isaac, author of “Featherston”

A8)  Yes I have been hooked since 1996 – the deal with my partner now is that I can only introduce a new chair if I get rid of one so it is always a challenge to find a new hiding place and keep moving them around. My interest in the Featherstons work didn’t start with the Contour series for which they are most famous, it started with the Scape series. Designed in 1960 these steel framed chairs with moulded plywood seat and backrest are remarkably comfortable and beautiful to look at from any angle. They still remain among my favourites and are still in use at the dinner table – where no guests are even in a hurry to move from the table. I also have two Scape lounge chairs which are often selected by guests in preference to the comfortable sofa.

Q9) How will your book assist people who are interested in buying an original Featherston?

A9) Grant is best known for just two chairs from the Contour series, the R160 and the R152 (without arms). In fact the Contour series extended to some two dozen designs and they are all presented in the book so this will help collectors identify the less well known models in the series. Everyone who pledges $10 or more to support the Kickstarter project will be sent a print ready electronic copy of an A3 poster that is a handy reference – showing the entire Contour series. The book will also show there is far more to Featherston than the Contour series – with hundreds of chair designs there is something for everyone and the book shows that you can still get a Featherston designed chair for a few dollars – or even less than the price of a coffee!

Grant Featherston Contour range poster

Photo 9 Grant Featherston Contour Range (1951-1955), image courtesy of Geoff Isaac, author of “Featherston”

Q10) I notice from your A3 poster that there is a missing image for the Contour W170, which you have described as similar to the Contour R160, but with a higher back and shorter legs?

A10) I have never seen a Contour W170.  Even Mary Featherston does not have a picture of one either. She does have a pamphlet showing the entire Contour range and the W170 is listed here but not illustrated as the others are with line drawings.  The pamphlet does have a description of it.  So it is possible that it does not exist. It may have been planned but never produced. In the early days they were basically produced to order.  Or there may be one out there, which I would love to know about.

Q11) Your book has lots of beautiful photos of Featherston chairs, where did you source them?

R152 Contour

Photo 10, original Featherston Contour R152 , image courtesy of Geoff Isaac, author of “Featherston”

A11)  I had the most wonderful piece of luck while researching the book. I was just finishing, what I believed to be, the last interview for the book when Neil Clerehan suggested that I look up Ian Howard, the former Managing Director of Aristoc. To my surprise and delight I found Ian alive and well at over ninety years old. Ian had meticulously documented his career and had put together an archive which included an extensive record of the 13 years he employed Grant, and later Mary, as the chief design consultants for Aristoc. This piece of luck added about two years to the project by the time I had finished going through all the material. This means the book includes many previously unpublished period photographs and publicity material developed by Featherston. I also commissioned original photography or my collection and the auction houses, particularly Leonard Joel, have been very generous in allowing me access to their libraries of image of Featherstons as they pass though the market.

aristoc mitzi

Photo 11, Pages 162-163 “Featherston”, Aristoc Mitzi, courtesy of Geoff Isaac.

 

Q12) It must have been disappointing to receive so little interest from Australian publishers about this labour of love. I understand that you are looking to self-publish and to get started through a kick-starter campaign.  How does this work?

television series

Photo 12, pages 88-89 “Featherston”, Television Series, courtesy of Geoff Isaac.

A12) Yes I haven’t got much to say about the publishers I approached – most disappointing thing is I believe only one of them actually read the manuscript. Anyway their model is stuck in the 20th century so I have moved on and embraced the 21st century. Kickstarter is a crowdsourcing platform – anyone can put up an idea for a product and people pledge to back the project. If the funding target is met everyone is charged and the money (minus some commission of course) gets passed to the project owner to allow them to deliver the goods. In my cases I have already paid to get the manuscript edited and proofread and for the image and text to be laid out. So now I just need to get enough money to get it printed. It is an all or nothing bet – if I don’t reach the target by April 10 then nobody gets charged, I get no funding and my manuscript goes in the bin!

 

Elastic Suspension

Photo 13, pages 100-101 from “Featherston”, E2 Elastic Suspension armchair, courtesy of Geoff Isaac.

 

Q13) For anybody wanting to see this book published they really need to get behind your Kickstarter campaign and pre-order before Monday April 10th 2017. How big and what format is your proposed book?

A13) Many readers may remember that a few years ago the NGV held an exhibition called Mid-Century Modern and produced a catalogue to accompany it. My book will be the same size, 240 mm wide and 290 mm high, quality hardback, and will feature nearly 300 pages with 250 beautiful photographs. I’ve been working with a fabulous graphic artist in the UK who is passionate about mid-century design and experienced in designing books and she has produced a fantastic result. There will be two versions of the book – with a limited edition of 200 copies signed and numbered and presented in a 3mm cardboard sleeve for protection.

 

photo13

Photo 14 “Mid-Century Modern – Australian Furniture Design”, photo Secret Design Studio resource library.

 

Q14) For anybody that misses the opportunity to pre-order the book as part of your Kickstarter campaign before the cut-off date, how much will it be and where can it be purchased?

Scape Lounge-NB-2

Photo 15, Featherston Scape Lounge, image courtesy of Geoff Isaac, author of “Featherston”

A14) Just as it is an all or nothing bet for me it is the same for potential readers. I don’t want to get stuck with a garage full of books or fiddle about supplying small quantities to book shops and chasing them for payment so I am only planning to basically print what I sell. So if anyone misses out on the Kickstarter campaign they will have to keep their eyes out on the internet for a second hand copy – not that I imagine anyone will want to part with their copy!

photo 11

Photo 16, page 180-181 from “Featherston”, Scape Lounge, courtesy of Geoff Isaac.

Q15) Apart from pre-ordering your book, what advice would you give to anyone who is looking to start collecting Featherston?

A15) No one should be under the impression they can collect Featherstons (or anything) to get rich. The market is fickle and prices have gone down as well as up during the time I have been collecting. If you love it and want it then my advice is to search for examples in good original condition. Keep an eye out for modern licenced reproductions and of course learn how to spot the copies (they are so bad this is not hard at the moment). But mainly I say to would be collectors –don’t start – there are too many already so stay away!

Thanks for your time today Geoff, and best of luck with getting the support you need on Kickstarter to publish your beautiful art book. I really hope to see it gracing lots of mid-century coffee tables in the future. Secret Design Studio will be purchasing multiple copies of “Featherston” for a new client promotion to run later this year.

IMG_20170315_095815

Photo 17 – Pre-publication mock-up of “Featherston” by Geoff Isaac. Courtesy of Secret Design Studio

To support Geoff’s Kickstarter campaign to assist with the publishing costs please visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/grantfeatherston/grant-featherston-book-australian-mid-century-desi/description. Support pledges run from as little as $5, but you will need to pledge at least $65 to receive a book. The campaign is an “All or Nothing” campaign and must reach the target by Monday April 10th for the book to be published. No one will be charged for a pledge towards this book publication unless it reaches its funding goal.

Secret Design Studio is always on the lookout for interesting places and people for Australian mid-century design interviews.  If you would like to be interviewed and have lots of photos that you would like to share please contact me,

Alistair McLean

Principal

Secret Design Studio

0448 579 707

Geoff Isaac in Townhouse chair

Photo 18, “Featherston” author Geoff Isaac sitting in a Featherston Townhouse chair, image courtesy of Geoff Isaac.