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Grant Stanley Featherston (1922–1995)

by Denise Whitehouse

This article was published:

Grant Stanley Featherston (1922–1995), industrial designer, was born on 17 October 1922 at Geelong, Victoria, eldest of three children of Stanley Ernest Featherston, pharmacist, and his wife Eva May, née Catterall, both Victorian born. His parents made beautiful, simple objects for the home, helping to foster an ethos of social and environmental awareness. Grant attended a private primary school at Newtown and Geelong Junior Technical School, before studying architecture (1938) at the Gordon Institute of Technology, Geelong. At sixteen he became an apprentice draughtsman with the Melbourne glass manufacturer Oliver-Davey Glass Co. Pty Ltd. He then joined (1939) the lighting firm Newton & Gray Pty Ltd, where he was exposed to modern design.

On 14 August 1941 Featherston enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces and served as a draughtsman in the Cartography Company at Army Headquarters in Melbourne. In October he was promoted to corporal. From December he was stationed at 7th Military District headquarters, Darwin, before returning to Melbourne in May 1942. Suspected to be suffering from a peptic ulcer, he was discharged as medically unfit on 18 September 1943. While working for the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation at Fisherman’s Bend, he studied modernist design, following the Bauhaus movement’s philosophy. He found direction more broadly in humanism.

At the Presbyterian Church, Healesville, on 15 June 1945 Featherston married Claire Frances Skinner, an artist; they would divorce in 1958. The couple began a glass jewellery business, its success financing the development of his Relaxation chairs, showcased by Robin Boyd in the Small Homes section of the Age newspaper in November 1947. That year Featherston became a founding member of the Society of Designers for Industry (Industrial Design Institute of Australia from 1958). As an office bearer and spokesperson for the society, he worked to promote good professional design and persuade Australian manufacturers and consumers to support local innovation.  Handsome with thick wavy hair and smartly groomed, he cut a striking figure. The press was captivated by his engaging personality and enthusiasm for design.

In April 1948 Featherston launched his practice in the magazine Australian Home Beautiful, promoting his furniture as exemplars of machine design for contemporary living. He achieved prominence in October the next year, with his furniture for Boyd’s ‘House of Tomorrow’ at the Modern Home Exhibition, Melbourne. A period of exploration followed, leading to the development of his Contour chair range (1951–54). Acclaimed for its aesthetic and technical innovation and modular production system, the series featured in design publications in Britain, Europe, and the United States of America. In 1955 an R152 Contour chair became the first Australian piece of industrial design acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) as a ‘unique icon’ (Featherston Chairs 1988, 7) of postwar aspirations.

During 1956 Featherston designed the ceremonial furniture for Wilson Hall at the University of Melbourne, served on the City of Melbourne’s Olympic civic committee, and opened Featherston Contract Furniture (later Featherston Contract Interiors), arguably Australia’s first modernist furniture showrooms. Working with architects and clients including Qantas Empire Airways Ltd, Australia and New Zealand Bank Ltd, and Brighton Municipal Council, he led the development of the contract furniture and interior design industry. In 1956 he had also joined Aristoc Industries Pty Ltd as a consultant developing general purpose, steel-framed furniture. Under his guidance Aristoc became a model for design-led, mass manufacture, producing two of the highest selling Australian designed chairs, Mitzi (1957) and Delma (1963), and dozens of Industrial Design Council of Australia Good Design award winners.

On 18 September 1965 at the Office of the Government Statist, Melbourne, Featherston married Mary Bronwyn Currey, an English-born interior designer. Their first joint project, the Expo ’67 chair with its built-in speakers, featured at the 1967 Montreal Expo Australian pavilion. Engaged to fit-out and furnish the NGV (1966–68), their approach focused on ease of use for curators and visitors. In line with Grant’s quest to simplify manufacture and minimise the use of natural resources through plastic (moulding) technologies, they designed some of the most sophisticated furniture of the era: Stem (1969), Poli (1971), Numero IV and VI (1973–74), and Obo (1974). The 1970s, however, were years of struggle as the heavy reliance on overseas patents by furniture manufacturers reduced opportunities for local designers. With the decline of his practice, Grant channelled his energies into environmental and consumer activism. He also supported Mary’s design of learning environments including the Children’s Museum at the Museum of Victoria.

At the Industrial Design Institute of Australia (president, Victorian chapter, 1966–69), Featherston had helped to establish the Australian Design Index (1963) and the Design Centre (1964), Melbourne, and lobbied for a national design policy. In 1988 a retrospective exhibition by the NGV highlighted Featherston’s successful integration of aesthetic excellence into the mass production of furniture. On 9 October 1995 he died at Heidelberg West and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, the son of his first marriage, and one of the two sons of his second. In 1983 he had been elected a life fellow of the Design Institute of Australia and, with Mary, was posthumously inducted into its Hall of Fame in 1996.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Featherston Chairs: National Gallery of Victoria, 30 March7 August 1988. Curated by Terence Lane. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1988. Exhibition catalogue
  • Featherston, Mary. Personal communication
  • Featherston Papers. Private collection
  • French, Helen. Personal communication
  • Grant, Kirsty, ed. Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2014
  • Howard, John. Personal communication
  • Jenkins, Lindsay. Personal communication
  • Whitehouse, Denise. ‘Encountering Art in the People’s Gallery: Grant and Mary Featherston and the Interior Furnishing and Fit-Out of the National Gallery of Victoria, 1966–1968.’ Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria 54 (2015): 9–24 Whitehouse, Denise. ‘Speaking for Australia: The “Talking Chair”.’ In Modern Times: The Untold Story of Modernism in Australia, edited by Ann Stephen, Philip Goad, and Andrew McNamara, 186–91. Carlton, Vic.: Miegunya Press with Powerhouse Publishing, 2008

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Denise Whitehouse, 'Featherston, Grant Stanley (1922–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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