Best Seat in the (Opera) House

Interior designer Diana Luxton in a prototype chair, c. 1970. (Courtesy Anita Levy)

Millions have sat in them, few know their history. Yet like just about everything connected with the Sydney Opera House the theatre chairs, indispensable to audiences’ experience of the building, have their own intriguing story.

When the young Sydney architect Peter Hall (1931-1995) controversially replaced Jørn Utzon on the Opera House in April 1966 he inherited a magnificent shell but a huge dilemma: how to reconcile a changed functional brief with Utzon’s design intentions. The design of all the interior spaces including the Concert Hall and the Opera Theatre, the enclosing glass walls and the auditorium chairs preoccupied Hall and his team over the next five years.

From the outset the seating presented its own unique challenges. Not only did the chairs have to be comfortable for a range of body types, provide good sightlines and adequate row spacings, they had to have a silent tilt mechanism and be acoustically compatible with the interiors. Above all, from Hall’s perspective, they had to be purpose-designed as an integral component of the auditorium aesthetic – and 2800 of them had to be squeezed into the Concert Hall. The latter requirement, insisted upon by the ABC who then managed the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, had been a critical factor contributing to the design impasse that led to Utzon’s resignation. Not surprisingly, the Opera House seating conundrum was on Hall’s mind during his first three-month study trip in mid 1966. Not only did he sketch and record styles and dimensions of seating in the many auditoria he visited in Europe, North America and Japan, he even measured his seat on a Boeing flight from Boston to New York, ‘to the interest and conversational stimulation of the whole plane’!

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Peter Hall in New York, 1966 (Peter Hall archive)

Buoyed by his travels Hall, upon return, immediately approached the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, for additional funding to research and develop chair prototypes. Convincing the bureaucrats to increase the Opera House budget when one of their 1965 election platforms had been to rein in costs was not, however, an easy matter, particularly when the government insisted that readily-available proprietary seating was perfectly adequate. Arguing that this was ‘simply not good enough’ and alluding to the opportunity the project would provide to ‘stimulate the raising of standards of industrial design in this country’, Hall eventually prevailed. By late 1967 Hall – now somewhat preoccupied with other areas of the building – was able to delegate much of the responsibility for the development of the seating to his new interior designer Diana Luxton.

While Utzon had cited the materials to be used in the auditorium seating – plywood, steel, foam rubber – he had not left any drawings. One of Luxton’s first tasks was to develop a range of alternative seating schemes. In April 1968 she produced three designs in formed plywood with options for either platform-pedestal or riser-bracketed steel supports and varying arm and backrest configurations. Not optional was the acoustic requirement of a minimum of four inches (ten centimetres) of exposed plywood above the back upholstery cushion to minimise the difference between the sound absorption of an occupied and unoccupied seat. Functional, smart and modern, but perhaps not very ergonomic, Luxton’s schemes were probably the ‘progressive – especially for Australia’ designs to which she referred in a contemporary newspaper interview. Modern too was the adventurous choice of bright ‘magenta purple’ wool for the Concert Hall seating upholstery. While the chairs were to evolve through several design iterations over the next two years the typically late 60s choice of colour was to remain – and is still in use today.

With the design of the seating underway the choice of manufacturer to produce models and prototypes and develop the all-important tilt mechanism remained a significant decision. Sceptical that Australian manufacturers had the necessary skills or experience, Hall began working with the Canadian Seating Company in Toronto. On a steep learning curve himself he was soon to regret the loss of design control that was inevitable with such a geographical divide between designer and manufacturer. Alarmed at the company’s expenditure estimates and frustrated by their inconsistent communication during 1969, Hall turned instead to a Sydney company, Coordinated Design & Supply. It was to be a productive collaboration through the testing of several prototypes to the manufacture of components for 4981 chairs for the four Opera House theatres in 1972.

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Diana Luxton, working drawing, Auditoria Seating Detail, 1970. (NSW State Records)

The final design, with its Australian White Birch plywood seat and back curved around upholstered polyurethane-foam cushions, references the classic Eames lounge chair and ottoman of 1956; but while Hall and Luxton were Eames enthusiasts, perhaps Charles Eames’ tour of the Opera House with Hall on his first visit to Sydney in 1968 was also a direct catalyst.

Inside the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. Photo courtesy of the Sydney Opera House.

Inside the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. Photo courtesy of the Sydney Opera House Trust.

Controversy about cost escalation had dogged the Opera House project from its earliest days and the chairs were no exception. When their cost – $1.2 million – was announced to the media in early 1971 there was a predictable outcry, but none of the media coverage could match the irreverence of the infamous Kings Cross Whisper. Casting Davis Hughes as ‘Mr Devious Huge, Minister for Working the Public’, its article was illustrated with a typically ribald cartoon of the chair complete with, amongst other novel features, an ‘automatic tiara polisher’.

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Seating inside the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House. Photo courtesy of the Sydney Opera House Trust.

Accompanied by a model elegantly attired in a diaphanous Grecian-inspired gown, the chairs were launched to much fanfare in late 1971. When installation in the auditoria was complete just over a year later the arrangement of the seating in continuous arcs of ‘continental’ aisle-free rows was both visually effective and spatially efficient. 40 years on the chairs, refurbished in the 1990s, continue to look stylish and their hydraulic tilt mechanisms still function well. One useful design feature rarely used by audiences is the ‘perching’ edge created when the seats are upright. Intended to provide more comfortable access along seating rows the feature was a response to the space constraints imposed by unrealistically high seating quotas. Despite these constraints Hall and his team did manage to achieve row-to-row distances equivalent to those of the ‘spacious’ Boeing seats Hall so diligently measured at the very outset of this complex and challenging project.

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Media launch of the chair, ‘Aluminium’, December 1971. (Courtesy Comalco)