Brave innovation: the story of the Featherston Stem chair

'Stem' dining setting by Grant and Mary Featherston, 1968 - 1969
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial

In the early 1950s he developed the highly successful Contour seating range, its innovative plywood shell formed using a process that Featherston developed himself in the absence of suitable plywood bending technology locally. In 1957 Featherston was appointed consultant designer to Aristoc Industries, a Melbourne manufacturer of metal-framed furniture. This highly fruitful collaboration resulted in the production of a variety of chairs including the Mitzi (1957), Scape (1960), the Expo 67 talking chair and the Stem chair of 1969.

In 1966 Featherston formed a business partnership with his wife Mary Featherston, an interior designer who had studied at RMIT. Their Expo 67 chair, with its polystyrene shell, was the first of several chairs that, in the spirit of the times, explored the limitless possibilities of plastics in the creation of innovative seating forms:

‘ … the integrated one-piece plastic chair [represented] … the pinnacle of the furniture designer’s aspirations. Plastics and moulding technology expresses the synergetic challenge most eloquently. No other material so inherently speaks of body and process, offering a ‘negative’ of the human body.’*

The rotation-moulded polyethylene Stem chair of the late 1960s took almost two years to reach production stage and was one of the most technologically sophisticated chairs made in Australia at the time. Like other innovative designs by the Featherstons it helped expand the technological capabilities of local furniture manufacturers at a time when their viability was constantly under threat from foreign imports. The Featherstons’ efforts to keep the local industry competitive while supplying the market with chairs that were technologically and stylistically equal to overseas examples resulted in an important body of work that has significantly enriched Australia’s design history. Today Mary Featherston continues to practise the ideals she and Grant shared through her work designing creative learning environments for children.**

*(Grant Featherston, ‘Design reflections’, In Future, no 4, Feb-March 1987. Quoted in Terence Lane, Featherston Chairs, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1988, p12).
** See Jan Howlin, ‘Mary Featherston: design luminary’, Indesign, vol 25, May 2006, pp 136-141.

In this recent interview Mary Featherston talks to Anne Watson, curator of architecture & design at the Powerhouse Museum, about the highs and the lows in the design and development of the Stem chair in the late 1960s.

AW: The Stem chair was released in 1969 after almost two years development. Was it designed for a specific purpose or interior’
MF: No, it was part of our way of working ‘ our drive to create affordable design. So what we were looking for all the time was materials, often plastics, and moulding techniques or manufacturing techniques that would enable us to produce things in quantity. We were never interested in the one off. Grant had always experimented with the materials that were then available to him, such as sheet ply, and developing ways of creating curvilinear shapes out of flat material. His drive was always to create organic forms that mirrored the body’s curves. And to use the materials in the most efficient way. So you could say that looking at all his work, from the Relaxation chair of the late 1940s right the way through ‘ that was always the search ‘ to use a minimal amount of material in the most efficient and the most effective way to support the human body, and to do it in a way that was beautiful and elegant.

So the Stem chair was an experiment using rotationally cast polyethylene, which we discovered was used in making big containers, like big industrial tote boxes. We thought that if you could do that with it then you could probably create chair shapes. So we investigated the technique, which is different to other moulding techniques that we experimented with and that have gone into production. The 1967 Expo sound chair, for example, was of expanded polystyrene which is injected into a hollow mould and expands to fill the void. But with the rotationally cast polyethylene you put the liquid material in and then the whole dye is rotated so that it coats the inside of the mould ‘ so you create a hollow shell.

The Stem was made by Aristoc Industries in Melbourne. Did they commission the chair’
No, nobody asked us to do anything. We were constantly looking for new and better possibilities and then we would develop ideas, forms ‘ then try and get someone interested in taking it up. Now, when I look back, we were incredibly fortunate because people took these ideas up. For example, a little company in Dandenong that was moulding urethane for the automotive industry took the Numero IV seating range up in the early 1970s. The company, Uniroyal, became Bridgestone. So, we were able to do all sorts of things because small industries were very plucky ‘ very adventurous then. You couldn’t do it now!

Do you think that had something to do with the reputation you had ‘ the precedent of the Expo chair for example’
Well there was a very long history ‘ Grant very quickly established a name with the Contour range in the 1950s. It was just the right product at the right time ‘ part of a much more adventurous attitude to design, interiors and architecture. The Contour chairs really worked well in the new, more open interiors and I think he just established a reputation very quickly. Now I am working on a publication and going through all the material we have archived and it is just astonishing how well he was known.

When Grant joined Aristoc in 1957 it was just a couple of guys making carpet sweepers, I think, and then they went into tier-stacked seating and they were interested in going into the domestic and contract market. That was hugely successful ‘ mass production. So that and the work with the Expo chair and the fit-out at the National Gallery of Victoria all consolidated a very strong reputation. And of course you are right, if you go into something with a reputation you’ve got more of a chance ‘ but the fact is today, even if you have got the ideas you would be struggling to have somebody take it up.

Despite the Aristoc stamps on the Stem chair Terence Lane credits Furniture Makers of Australian and ACI Plastics with its production. Did Aristoc work with these two companies’
Aristoc was taken over about the time the Stem went into production ‘ 1970 I think was when it became effective. So the guys who had run it for a couple of decades and had established this very strong and viable manufacturing organisation – and this is no small thing to do in Australia – suddenly had been taken over and had a board to answer to and started losing confidence. The board asked themselves why they were spending money on Australian design when they could go to America and bring in things that had already been proved as successful’ Why experiment when they could import designs that had been tried and tested’ The company collapsed quite quickly ‘ they lost confidence. It was an extraordinarily difficult period. So Aristoc became Furniture Makers – same company. The Stem was one of the last things we did with them. We worked directly with the rotational casters ACI plastics.

Did you have to make a lot of compromises a long the way in terms of design of the Stem’ Or is what you started out with, what you ended up with’
Design is an iterative process ‘ we were exploring the rotational casting technique which had its own discipline ‘ and so you have to work within that discipline. That is, what informs the work in that way of casting and how it will ergonomically support the body. That largely determines the form. Grant built cardboard models (little and big and full size forms) that were used to make drawings which were then used to make the aluminium mould. That’s the process. Then it was quite tricky working out the connection between the inner supporting metal column and the seat shell.

It’s a very interesting chair in that it almost looks too small. And what you have said about minimal use of materials is really true for the Stem because you look at it and think it’s too small for the average bottom. But in fact when you sit on it ‘ it’s just right. It’s really comfortable! It’s a very subtle design.
And of course we had to introduce lumbar support into the curve as well. And then the base had to be moulded separately and the circular cushions had to be specially moulded. I convinced Aristoc to go to Weatherhead & Stitt who were really interesting Melbourne graphic designers. They did this very sweet fold-out advertisement for it with people sitting in the shells at different angles. (See T Lane, Featherston Chairs, Melbourne, 1988, p 59). It’s very much of its time and really suited the chair. Grant also took some lovely photographs.

Was it a popular chair at the time’
I actually don’t have any memory of it being on the market. I think that time was so painful in our lives and I don’t think I ever got over it because these two guys who we worked so closely with to build this wonderful organisation were not telling us what was happening. As consultants Grant and I weren’t staff but we were so much a part of the organisation that we had an office there. So we would go there almost every day, but there was less and less work to do ‘ it was a large part of our income. We frantically had to find other work and it was at that time we were having our first child. It was a horrible time and we had recently moved here (their Robin Boyd designed house in Ivanhoe, Melbourne) as well.

So, the ‘Stem’ chairs were your sort of swansong of Aristoc’
Yes, I think they must have been.

Who were the Aristoc people’
Ian Howard ‘ he established Aristoc along with Lindsay Jenkins, the sales director. Grant was designer and there was Bernie Mears, an engineer. Bernie and Grant never got on. It was a difficult relationship because Bernie always wanted to do things in a very conservative way ‘ Grant always wanted to experiment. Ian and Lindsay understood that’s what was needed. It was a remarkable relationship for a while ‘ very exciting. And of course now, when I look back over my 40 years in design ‘ it was just a rollercoaster. When things are good you think this is the way they are always going to be. Then the rug is pulled and the whole thing falls in a heap!

The 1960s and the 70s were very turbulent times, socially and culturally…
It makes today look so boring!

The four chairs recently acquired by the Powerhouse have cushions covered in a red fabric that looks to be original.
Yes, they were produced in a red and a yellowy wool fabric.

We also acquired a circular table with the Aristoc label and a similar base to the chairs.
The table was produced at the same time ‘ we have one here.

Was the Stem well-received in magazines at the time’
Yes, I think it was. It was used in some very futuristic settings. I remember photographs of curved spaces and the Stem just sat so well in them and looked so contemporary. But I don’t think there were all that many made, probably because of the change in management at the time. The board may have just thought they were too experimental ‘ And plastics did go out of favour in the 70s. We used to try and work with the plastics industry and educate them about quality but nevertheless plastic products had a bad reputation in Australia.

And presumably there would have been a lot of competition from cheaper imported plastic products at the time’
Yes. That was one of the problems we had with the spherical moulded polyurethane Obo chair of the early 70s ‘ one of the first projects we got into after Aristoc. It was up against beanbags ‘ they were a third the price! If we’d done the Obo in Europe it would have had a much bigger market and that’s part of our huge problem ‘ the market is so small. If you want to do anything in volume you really have to look at an international market, but then you are up against transport costs.

The Stem was produced about the same time as the Sebel ‘Integra’ one-piece plastic chair was being developed in Sydney.
Yes. You’ve reminded me of another miserable story! We were trying to work with Harry Sebel ‘ Grant desperately wanted to do a one-shot injection moulded chair. There was no way Aristoc, now Furniture Makers, were going to take it up. So we started to work with Harry who commissioned us to design a moulded office furniture range ‘ but in the end he gave that job to Charles Furey in Sydney. Grant was very upset about that!

Thanks to Mary Featherston for her recollections and to Melanie Pitkin for her transcription.

Mary Featherston Design
Weatherhead & Stitt