Mary Featherston Modern Melbourne Video
Modern Melbourne is a series of interviews that document the extraordinary lives and careers of some our most important architects and designers. In this interview, we speak with Mary Featherston.
After arriving in Australia from England in 1953, Mary trained in interior design at RMIT. In 1965, she formed a life and professional partnership with Grant Featherston. Over a period of 30 years, the partnership completed many iconic projects across interiors, furniture, and exhibitions. Mary is also recognised for her pioneering work in children's learning environments.
Modern Melbourne is a series of interviews that document the extraordinary lives and careers of some our most important architects and designers. Today, we speak with Mary Featherston. After arriving in Australia from England in 1953, Mary trained in interior design at RMIT. In 1965, she formed a life and professional partnership with Grant Featherston. Over a period of 30 years, the partnership completed many iconic projects across interiors, furniture, and exhibitions. Mary is also recognized for her pioneering work in children's learning environments.
How did you know that design was your calling? What put you on the path to study interior design at RMIT?
Well, I think it started in childhood with memorable experiences-- and as is often the way. Well, in fact I was born near London towards the end of the war, when London was still being bombed. But part of that childhood experience was that we had a neighbour who was an architect. And I remember special treats of being able to go and visit the architect. And for some reason, that really triggered my imagination from a very-- well, I would have been about eight or nine at that point.
But also being in London, I remember being taken to extraordinary spaces like the Tower of London and cathedrals. Though my parents were both tradespeople with minimal education, they had a strong sense of the value of beauty and creativity in life. And so that, that I think really molded my thinking about the world. But we then left England and came to Australia and on the way-- I remember very vividly visiting a cathedral which must have been in Portside-- and this huge, vast space with covered windows and light pouring in through this colour. And again that, so, you know, it's just building up this vocabulary I suppose of space and wonder about space.
So when we arrived in Australia, I went by accident actually to a private school with a heavy academic emphasis, which was not appropriate for me at all. Nobody there was interested in art and architecture, so I think I bailed out of there as soon as I could and went to RMIT to do the interior design course. And then as part of that course, there were two things that happened that were seminal experiences that changed the course of my life. And one was an open day where we could visit Robin Boyd houses. And I remember going to two. And it was a transformative experience.
I realized the possibilities for even residential architecture, the sort of exciting spaces that-- I didn't know it at the time-- but a great architect could create. And so that was one. But the other, we had some quite wonderful lecturers at RMIT. And one of them was extremely knowledgeable about furniture and had a passion for furniture. And he took us to meet important designers around the town. And on one of the excursions, we went to Aristoc Industries, which was metal frame furniture manufacturer who was enormously successful. They were producing hundreds of thousands of designs. This is in the 60s at that point.
And Grant was the design for Aristoc, and in fact he had helped to build the company into the success that it was. So he met this motley group of students and talked to us, took us around the factory, which is extremely interesting. But the thing that really impressed me was Grant's approach to design. It was very-- he had a very rigorous approach to design and very intelligent. And at that point, he was already well recognized as one of Australia's leading furniture designer. He was, you know, technically and aesthetically excellent.
So I then badgered him to see if I could work in his small studio at Aristoc. So those two, you know, coming to know both Robin and-- well Robin's architecture at that point-- and Grant was extremely important to me.
So I'll come back to Grant, and your life and career with Grant, but I'd like to speak about Robin Boyd. He is a reoccurring figure in your life and career, and you've just spoken about him in that wonderful experience that you had at the open day. But then you went on to collaborate and partner on the Expo Talking Chair, on the NGV fit out and furnishings, and then on this wonderful and extraordinary house that we're sitting in today. How has he impacted your life and your career?
Oh, in so many ways. But really to go back to the beginning, Grant and Robin had had a long association. They'd done some important projects together, including a 1949 exhibition, The House of Tomorrow, which promoted the idea that good design can enrich everybody's everyday lives. But also Robin had championed Grant's early contour work, which was highly innovative and experimental, but Robin promoted it in the press, through his con, and used it in his building. So they had developed a very strong mutual respect for one another's work and approach. And I think shared a very similar approach and aesthetic really.
So then we were married in 1965 and formed a partnership because we found that even though we had this 20-year age gap, we in fact shared very similar responses to all sorts of things in life, particularly nature and music, film, visual arts. So we'd formed a life and professional partnership and the first commission was from Robin to design the talking chair for the Australian Pavilion and Expo in Montreal. And though Robin hadn't actually designed the building, he had this remarkable idea for the exhibition within the building, because people get so fatigued in this enormous world fairs that what he wanted to do was to create a very comfortable sort of salon like environment with chairs that as you sat into them, you triggered information through the headphones about Australia.
So this was in fact a very technically and aesthetically challenging project because the form of the chair had to be comfortable like a lounge chair like a wing chair Robin had in mind, but also it had to hold the technology-- the audio technology-- and it had to relate to this vast space. And so the form that the Grant came up with was, you know, I think, ideal. It was, you know, like a tulip shape that held the human body very beautifully. But also technically, it worked very well. So Expo was a technically challenging project in that, well, there was very little time. And these large chairs had to be transported from Melbourne to Montreal in a very short period of time.
So in that case, we worked with expanded rigid polystyrene to create the shell. And that was an excellent solution, because it enabled Grant to work in curvilinear forms, because it's a molded technology. But it was also lightweight to get it to Canada. So it was very successful in that way.
But hot on the heels of that project, we were commissioned to do the fill out for the new National Gallery of Victoria in Swanston Street, because it was moving from the old building and the library down the road to Swanston Street-- sorry, to St. Kilda Road. And Robin was on the steering committee for that project. And it was due to his influence, as I understand it now, that Grant was commissioned to do that.
That was a demanding job in a different way because the scope of the collection is so vast, all the way from tiny object and Egyptian beads through the huge sculptures and enormous carpets, and such a variety. And really, the curators didn't know entirely what was in the collection, because a lot of it hadn't been seen for years. So that was most interesting, you know, doing the initial research with the curatorial staff to understand what the needs were and then to rationalize it into a sort of modular system of freestanding display, more display, study, storage.
During that process, we realized that we actually needed different accommodation. At that stage, we were working in-- we had two little flats that Roy Grounds had designed during the war, in Toorak-- and we lived in one and worked in the other, which wasn't entirely satisfactory. We needed something else. We couldn't find anything suitable to rent, and so Grant reluctantly decided we needed to own a house. And if we were going to own a house, he thought we should ask Robin to design it for us.
By that time, I knew many more of Robin's houses. There were several people that we knew, friends had his houses. And each one of them was beautiful and remarkable in its own way and very much a response to the particular client. So the fact is that Robin was such an empathetic designer, such a delightful person as well. And so curious and in touch with what was happening in contemporary architecture and design, but also across all areas of culture, extraordinary person.
And I guess, like us, he very much enjoyed Scandinavian design, Japanese design. So we asked Robin to design a house on this land on the creek, which is a fairly natural block of land. And we gave him our brief, which was quite odd. But Robin was used to-- that's, I think, what he was about. He was about rethinking ways of living and wrapping an architecture around that.
So he was as much concerned about interior space, perhaps even more concerned about interiors than the external appearance. And I've come to really love that about his work and appreciate it. So anyway,. Well, our brief was for spaces for our work-- you know, the studio, workshop, darkroom in those days, as well as domestic spaces.
But we also loved the Eames studio house, and the idea that you could build a simple space just with industrial components. And we asked Robin, could we, with this brief we have, could we build it or industrial components, and he said, no, actually. Unless you've got lots of money, it's cheaper to build in bricks and timber. As it happens, I think that was a good idea because it's a very organic building sitting in a very natural landscape.
And the way Robin resolved, some might say conflicting needs of personal and professional spaces, has just been so wonderfully adaptable over the 50 years that we've now lived here. It's met the sort of changing needs over time. Sometimes it's been a photographic studio. Sometimes it's been an assembly line for prototypes.
And it's constantly a children's playroom. It's an experimental space. It's just worked so well. And the sense of being immersed in nature. You can hear with, you know, the things falling on the roof, the birds on the roof. It's given us such pleasure over such a long time, because it is constantly changing.
Mm. And now you're preparing to live here for many more decades with your growing family and grandchildren. So it's incredibly adaptable. It's wonderful how it's supported so many decades of a wonderful and rich life.
Yes, and it has to be adaptable to do that. And yes, it is so-- I will move into the flat that was built for my parents originally, a self-contained unit. And my son and his family will move into the main house. So we continue, yes.
Now we can't reflect on your life and career without talking about the ultimate partnership with Grant. You went from working with Aristoc Industries to molded furniture to working with Uniroyal and many other furniture brands and companies. Can you tell me about the trials and tribulations during that period, and also, what Grant's lasting legacy is on your career?
Well, having had a very long association with Aristoc, which came to an end around 1970, sadly, we then had to find other clients, urgently. And we wanted to continue innovating we wanted to continue finding new ways, new technologies, new materials that could be used in mass production techniques in order to produce affordable good design. Grant and I were always very strongly committed to that view that that was the role of design.
But the search for clients, manufacturers, who were courageous enough, but also knowledgeable enough about their technology, that was very, very challenging. And we worked with several different people with varying degrees of success. But the most effective was with Uniroyal, who were then suppliers to the automotive industry.
But we had found out that they'd just got on top of the technology to mold resilient flexible urethane for car seats. And so we went through them, and said we saw potential to use this material and technology for mass-produced lounge furniture for the domestic market. And they were quite enthusiastic. And so we worked with them for quite a few years and did a number of ranges for them.
And it was a very interesting project, because we were actually able to reduce the chair, a lounge chair to three components-- the molding, it came straight out of the mold, one piece, like a bun; a two-way stretch cover that could just be pulled over and tied around underneath; and a base. And that was it. That was a chair. And they were relatively affordable. It was, I think, a very successful project.
But Uniroyal, who an American company, was subsequently taken over by Bridgestone, which was a Japanese company. And at some point, somebody in a boardroom in Tokyo said, well, what are we doing making furniture in Australia, and pulled the rug on the project. So like the end of Aristoc, it was another-- look, it's been a roller coaster ride, I'd have to say.
But to the question about the legacy that Grant has given me, I think it is in that he was so courageous. He was so skilled in so many aspects of design, particularly in form giving. He had a superb sense of form.
Whereas my interest was more in space, his was in womb. But it was the process that I particularly learned from him, plus the reinforcement of my view that design is about improving everyday life. Not an elitist view of design, but perhaps you might say more Swedish idea of design is part of life, and design must be both beautiful and practical.
So after this period, you moved away from furniture design towards children's learning environments, projects that would positively impact local communities. What motivated you to shift your focus?
I'd always been interested in children and creativity. And when our first son, Robin, who was born in 1970-- Grant and I had established the practice here in the house, and we wanted to continue. But at that point, and it's hard to believe now, but at that time there were really no out of home services, childcare services.
Well, there were kindergartens who would just take children for two or three hours a week. Or there were daycare services which were very health oriented. So you got to split between education and health.
And so a number of us came together. And of course, at that time, it was such a ferment of questioning all sorts of social institutions, the family, as well as children and family services. So a number of us came together to really say, well, we want to continue in our provisions.
And at that time, women largely stopped work when they had children. We wanted to continue. But what sort of services would we like for our-- what sort of experiences would we like for our children out of home?
And so it was a very interesting activist group who were really reconceptualising the form of the service, the sort of relationships that we would want between adults and children and the services, the length of time they needed to operate, how they would sit within the community, all these sort of questions. We wrote about it, published about it, and set up neighbourhood groups to establish their own children's services, little neighbourhood houses. So the idea was that they were embedded in the community close to the children and families that used them. And that they were staffed by the parents, in part, together with professional staff.
So as we discussed these ideas, as a designer, it seemed to me that they were also asking for different sorts of physical environments to those that we knew-- the opened kindergarten space or the separated daycare centres, or singular classroom schools. There was no model that seemed appropriate to this new way of thinking.
And I became intrigued. And we, in fact, got a Commonwealth research grant to look at these new play-learning needs at that point of preschool children. And so a number of these centres were set up with new thinking about the environment.
And I think it was that experience, together with my observation of children in this house, where I came to see children as incredibly curious, active, imaginative. And one would find them you know deeply involved in doing things. And it wouldn't shut down either play or learning. It was all intertwined. So I formed a view about what children were, how they liked to be in the world, and how they were driven to make meaning of their world.
And at that time, I also started thinking about the cultural institutions and how they respond to this view of children. And the fact was, again, it's hard to believe, but at that time, the gallery and the museum had no way of responding to children at all. Everything was behind glass, in cases.
And so then I got together another group, and we started to agitate to the arts ministry, finally to the museum to think about setting up a children's museum. And finally the museum set aside a very beautiful gallery in the old building and commissioned me to develop and design interactive exhibitions for that space. So that that again was a new way of looking at things. It was breaking away from the model of the adult museum to rethink, well, how do you respond to children who learn through all their senses, as well as their intellect? And who have all sorts of experience of life and questions.
How do you bring those together? How do you bring together the fabulous collections and expertise of our cultural institutions together with these wonderful questioning minds? And so the first exhibition was about the human body. We decided that would be a good topic to fix everybody. And from my study of what had been going on in America, where they had developed a lot of children's museums, not so much in Europe, but from that rating, it seemed to me very important to consult directly with children.
And so I set up a process of going to children and talking with them about what they would like to see, in the first case, in an exhibition about the human body. And it was such a wonderful experience, because the children were so full of ideas. And not only ideas about the content that they wanted, but also how it could be interpreted in the museum. So that led to a highly interactive, thematic exhibition, which was enormously successful. I mean one has to say there was very little competition at that point. So there was huge visitor numbers.
And it was just marvellous to see the way children and families interacted with these exhibits, how they would test things out, talk about them. And that led me to then questioning, well, if this works so well for children, if they're so engaged, why are schools so different? And so several decades later, I think I'm still asking that question.
Through my interest in Scandinavian design and a wonderful magazine that we used to get called Form, from Sweden, I read about an amazing project in Reggio Emilia in the north of Italy. And this is a system of schools that had been established in the '60s, who were really very much taking the view that children are competent and curious. And how do you design a pedagogy and physical environments to support that?
And so I went to visit Reggio Emilia in 1992. And that was such an affirming experience to see that this community of people, there was a whole community, a whole city, supporting this network of schools that were doing such wonderful things with children. And from the very beginning, they realized, particularly, the director Loris Malaguzzi, he realized that you cannot change the pedagogy. You can't change the relationships and experiences within the schools unless the physical environment supports that. And so that was an enormous learning experience for me.
And I then helped to set up an information exchange in Melbourne that linked to Reggio. And through that, I met wonderful educators who were in various schools, early childhood, primary, secondary, who all felt it a better way of doing it, but that we needed to work together to find ways of doing it within the Australian context. And that led me to Bialik College, with then establishing a new early learning centre. And they were enthusiastically taking up ideas from Reggio, because it was very compatible with their approach.
And so, with them, I developed a system of modular furniture that was very adaptable and that could be used within relatively traditional spaces to create different sorts of environment, and that subsequently has been sold all over Australia and in New Zealand as well. And then I worked with Wooranna Park in Dandenong, which is a government funded primary school in a very different socioeconomic group to Bialik and with many different nationalities. But with passionate leadership, a leadership team who were very committed to re-examining their theory and practice and could see, again, the need to change their approach to the physical environment to support that.
And we were able to do a little research project that again involved the children very actively in exploring possibilities and taking them on excursions to see a great variety of spaces for them to really think about how they would like to do things differently. And so we worked together. It was a very collaborative project, and arrived at very different environments.
So the thing that is different about them-- but you could say that there's a whole history of progressive schools going back over 100 years where the approach to children and learning is much more about recognizing that children need to learn actively, they love to work together, to learn together, that they like to form strong relationships, the importance of experiential hands on learning, the need for choice and spontaneity means freedom of movement. And so these spaces are very fluid, a bit like a house. And in retrospect, I can say, oh, it was living in this particular spaces of this house that made me realize that you can create very discrete settings that have a particular-- that support particular kinds of experiences but within one overall space. So that you're always constantly linked to other spaces. But once you are in the space, you have a sense of containment.
And so I think that the house has actually been very influential on my thinking. It's emboldened me to work in a different way. So over the years, I've worked in early childhood, primary, and secondary, with the same approach, but across all levels.
Whereas, in fact, the traditional model is-- the traditional formulas are very different for early childhood, primary, and secondary. So the ideas have had some currency. They're now influencing the form of new government funded schools.
So reflecting on the past 50 years, what do you see as the opportunities and challenges in contemporary learning environments? Are we close to reaching the ideal of pedagogy and physical environment working in harmony, or are we far apart from that?
There's a long way to go. There are some beacons on the hill. There are remarkable projects like Reggio Emilia that continually evolve over decades. They just get richer and more wonderful.
And then, more recently, there's a network in Los Angeles, the high tech high schools, which now have a primary and secondary that I would say are working with similar ideas and practice, where kids are involved in really long term inquiry projects. And very, very active and very relevant-- they're really calling on children's interests and experience, linking it with passionate and knowledgeable teachers. So I think there are beacons on the hill.
But overall, and this is internationally and not just Australia, education is a very conservative area that has really changed a little over decades. But the fact is that the contemporary world is moving so quickly and the needs for the competencies of graduates is changing so dramatically-- technology is changing, business is changing-- that there is a very great need to re-imagine the education system. And of course, many luminaries across the world are saying just that. We must change.
But unfortunately, I think too much of the change is in more in the nature of reform. You know, just tweaking little bits of the system rather than transforming it. I suppose the irony is that design of the physical environment has moved further than the pedagogy. So we've now got spaces that are being created, which hopefully will support a very different way of learning and relating. But the pedagogy needs to also change.
So looking in retrospect at your rich and collaborative career, what are you most proud of?
Look, I think I'd have to say the thing that-- I don't know about proud of, but the thing that's given me most pleasure has been the work in education. But it's to do with working with teams of people, it's the collaboration. It's being able to work on these projects that require social activism. It's about changing social norms. It's about cultural change.
And that can only come about if people from very diverse backgrounds come together with something of the same values and beliefs, but different skills. So that you bring that together in a collective project. And it's the thrill and the pleasure of moving forward with a group of like-minded people.
Thank you, Mary. It has been absolutely delightful to speak to you today. Thank you for making the time.
Thank you, Emma.