With her husband, famed furniture designer Grant Featherston (1922-1995), Mary Featherston has been an influential force in Australia’s design world since the 1950s. She and Grant have often been compared to another high profile husband-and-wife team of the same era, America’s Charles and Ray Eames. Today, Mary continues to be involved in education and consultancy in the design industry, with a focus on child-centred learning environments.
Mary has occupied her home in Ivanhoe for almost 50 years. The main house was a much-publicised project for Robin Boyd, and a house far ahead of its time. A voluminous, open-plan space constructed in Boyd’s signature brown brickwork with a translucent roof and very few internal walls, the Featherston House was a bold experiment at the time – and it still feels strikingly contemporary today.
The new addition replaces a previous, much smaller apartment attached to the main house, which Mary’s own parents originally occupied. Though clearly contemporary in its style, this new update represents a new take on Boyd’s original design, complete with a ‘wall-less’ open-plan layout, a flexible floorplan where work and leisure are seamlessly integrated, a strong connection to nature, and even a translucent ceiling!
Mary worked closely with her son, Julian Featherston, on the design for her new home. A technical consultant in the building industry, Julian revelled in the opportunity to create this remarkable new home for his Mum – a project that will also eventually enable his own family to move into the main home, keeping three generations of Featherstons under one roof.
Rigorous in their approach, Mary and Julian devised a detailed design brief before embarking on the project. ‘One of the things that we wanted to define was the ambience – what is the essence, the character of the space?’ Mary explains. Articulated as an ‘elegant conservatory’, it was decided that the new home should have the character of a glass house, and, like the original house, should very much connect with the natural environment in which it sits.
Designed to be as simple as possible, the house also reflects Boyd’s design philosophy, as set out in his 1970 book, ‘Living in Australia’. ‘The object of a design, in architecture, as in anything else, is to say or do the essential thing as simply and directly as possible’ Boyd said, adding ‘…the essential thing is the higher quality of living for which the building provides, the something more that turns a building, however slightly, into an expression of the human spirit.’
For Julian and Mary, this collaboration has been a joyous challenge spanning almost five years, and an incredible opportunity for experimentation. Julian is particularly proud of the glass staircase – a feat of engineering, consisting of two layers of 12mm toughened glass, totally custom designed and built (requiring a particularly brave glass contractor!). His custom developed climate control system is perhaps the most innovative inclusion though – an intuitive system that forecasts the weather and then prepares the building for various conditions, controlling the blinds, mechanical ventilation, and reverse cycle heating / cooling. ‘The concept is of an active building rather than a passive one – a different way of approaching an energy efficiency’ Julian explains.
For Mary, this project represents a sensitive merging of old and new, and crucially, enables the house to continue to serve its purpose, remaining relevant and functional for her family in 2018. ‘I Love the feeling of light, and space, I love its directness, its simplicity, and yet its complexity’ she says. ‘It just works so well, and its beautiful, to me that what good design is all about’.
‘The great sadness of the project is that neither Robin or Grant will see it, I would give anything to show them,’ she muses. ‘I know that Grant would be absolutely thrilled with it. And I believe Robin would be too!’
Grant and Mary’s remarkable contribution to Australian design is celebrated in ‘Design For Life : Grant and Mary Featherston‘ which opens at the Heide Museum of Modern Art this Saturday, June 30th. The exhibition runs until October 7th, 2018.
Julian is keen to acknowledge the amazing work of key contractors, in particular builder Frank Rossi of Leeda Projects, software development for his customised climate control system by Julien de-Sainte-Croix, steel fabrication by Shaweld Engineering, and engineering by Dale Simpson of Perrett Simpson.