Chair, 'Mark I Sound Chair', polystyrene foam / polyurethane foam / Dunlopillo foam rubber / Pirelli webbing / fibreglass / hardwood / wool / velcro / sound equipment, designed by Grant and Mary Featherston, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1966, made by Aristoc Industries Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1966, used at the Australian Pavilion, Montreal Expo, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1967
Australian furniture designers Grant and Mary Featherston developed the 'Mark I Sound Chair' for the Australian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo of 1967. Moulded from a single piece of rigid expanded polystyrene that is covered in polyurethane foam, it demonstrates the 1960s fascination for plastic, which provided new and limitless opportunities for furniture design.
The Montreal Universal and International Exposition (Expo 67) was one in a series of spectacular world's fairs. The official title of the first expo, held in London in 1851, conveys the scope of these events: the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Countries compete for the right to host expos, and the nations that take part in them compete to create pavilions that attract visitors and effectively showcase their products, places and people.
Pavilion designer Robin Boyd wanted to create 'the most luxurious and civilized salon' at the Expo and commissioned Grant and Mary Featherston because of their extensive experience in chair design. The brief required an elegant wing-style chair that would be modern in appearance, suitable for batch production and able to accommodate an audio system to play programs, in both English and French, about Australian life. These would be narrated by well-known Australians.
After a month of trials, Grant and Mary Featherston developed a prototype that combined unconventional materials with a modern circular form. It reflected the 'Spirit of Adventure' as well as the 'space age' aesthetic that underpinned the pavilion design. Australian-inspired colours were selected for the woollen upholstery: Eucalyptus (charcoal green) for the body; and colour-coded cushions of Eucalyptus and Desert (golden orange) to distinguish between chairs providing English and French narration.
Over the six months of Expo 67, about 20 million people visited the Australian pavilion. The 'Mark I Sound Chair' delighted the press and the public alike.
This success led to the release of the 'Expo Mark II Sound Chair' in Australia. It also began a new period for Grant and Mary Featherston in which they explored the possibilities of using plastic to create innovative seating designs. Mary Featherston described the public response: 'There was a great deal of press coverage about the 'talking chair', as it was fondly called. It seemed to strike the right chord, encapsulating not only the sixties' enthusiasm for new plastic forms and electronic technologies, but also the nature of social and cultural change. It even made its way into political cartoons.' (Denise Whitehouse, 'Speaking for Australia: The talking chair' in 'Modern Times: The untold story of modernism in Australia', Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2008)
Australian furniture designers Grant and Mary Featherston developed the 'Mark I Sound Chair' for the Australian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo of 1967. Mary Featherston described the design and production process in an interview in 2007:
'The 'Expo chair' could not be made using conventional materials and production methods. Both its form and function were the result of extensive research involving experimentation and testing. Working in this manner was formative for me, and it set the pattern for the way we would work in partnership. It involved a process of throwing the net very wide, teasing out all the potentials and constraints, and then interpreting and refining. In this instance, we were investigating the visitor experience, the exhibition context, new materials and production techniques, all to a very tight deadline. While the Montreal Expo didn't open until April 1967, the chairs had to be ready for shipping in late August 1966 before the Canadian winter set in.
'We worked at an intense pace, producing the first prototype within four weeks. The process began with Grant's practice of trialling shapes by bending and slitting paper. Gradually a very simple horn-shaped form evolved which grew out of the floor and wrapped the visitor in an intimate sound shell. It was a form that closely expressed its function. We then made a full-size model in corrugated cardboard, into which we built up fine strips of polystyrene to exactly mimic the final shell. Two partial shells were made to be sent off for acoustical testing. We then continued to test and refine this model, and added a tubular ring to hold elastic webbing for seat suspension. Once we had upholstered and covered the full shell with the dark green wool selected by Robin, we were able to draw up the specifications for the government tender. The cushions, which were loose, were to be colour-coded green for English and orange for French.
'At the same time we were seeking the most appropriate technique to produce the chair. It needed to be robust to withstand a predicted 20,000 users per chair, and lightweight for freight to the other side of the world. It also needed to be suitable for batch production and to seamlessly incorporate the sound system. Plastic furniture was part of the 'shock of the new' in the sixties, and many furniture designers exploited the ability to create startlingly new furniture, from funky pneumatic forms to elegant 'one-shot' moulded shapes.
'For Grant, the advent of plastics in furniture was especially liberating. The curved shells of his Contour Chairs were laboriously created by bending sheet ply, but now he could create complex organic shapes and even vary the thickness of the shell for efficient use of material. With plastic technology the chair could be produced in one piece, straight out of the mould.' (Denise Whitehouse, 'Speaking for Australia: The talking Chair' in 'Modern Times: The untold story of modernism in Australia', Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2008)
This is one of 250 'Mark I Sound Chairs' that featured in the Australian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967. The chairs remained in Canada after the event.
Australian collector, Geoff Isaac, purchased this and another 'Mark I Sound Chair' at a Phillip's auction in New York in late 2007.