Design Catalysts: Mary Featherston

May 4, 2009
  • Article by Jan Henderson
  • Photography by Dianna Snape

JH: Did you always want to be a designer and what were your first memories of design?

MF: Amongst my most vivid memories of childhood are visits to extraordinary spaces: the ominous interiors of the Tower of London, cathedrals dappled with light from coloured windows, a snug Elizabethan cottage. As a student in Melbourne, I discovered the poetry and daring of Robin Boyd houses. These experiences contrasted greatly with the ordinariness of the houses in which I grew up. My parents lacked any training in the arts, but nevertheless valued imagination and the pleasure of aesthetics in everyday life.

During my long partnership/apprenticeship with my late husband Grant, I learnt ‘designerly ways of thinking’ – the systematic and creative processes of problem solving and a deep love of nature and natural forms. For me, it is a joy and a privilege to be a designer.

JH: You have seen many changes in the design scene in Australia over your life-time, which decade or period did you find to be the most creative and exciting for you?

MF: Good design is a continuum – an evolutionary process of finding better ways of doing things. Design is must be concerned with expression of contemporary culture, but also striving to be timeless and enduring. My most creative experiences relate to particular projects – rather than particular eras – longterm collaborative projects together with courageous and thoughtful clients. Grant and I were fortunate to work closely with a number of innovative manufacturers including the use of plastics moulding techniques for furniture. This enabled Grant to explore his masterly ability with form and for both us to achieve our goal of affordable design through quantity production – for example, series of modular lounge units in moulded resilient urethane.

JH: These days it seems that your passion is designing for children in their schools. When and how did this passion develop?

MF: My long interest in design for learning comes, I think, from personal experience and observation of my own and others children. As designers, we know that people respond to their surroundings, but for young people this interaction is vital to their development. They interrogate their surrounding through all their senses and intellect – driven by intense curiosity to make sense of themselves and their world. Many areas of domestic and workplace design have undergone radical re-thinking but schools have remained largely the same for nearly two hundred years. The challenge for design is to create physical environments which truly respond to young people’s social and learning needs in the 21st century?

In 1992 I made my first study tour to the educational project of Reggio Emilia, N.Italy. I thrilled to the way that this community had, over five decades, developed extraordinary schools for young children. Every aspect, including design, grows out of close observation of children and understanding about how we learn. They refer to their approach as ‘permanent research’ and I find this constantly inspiring and challenging. They also regularly collaborate with the Domus Academy in Milan.

For the past ten years I have collaborated with educators who are committed to re-conceptualising schools and schooling. Each design project becomes part of my ongoing action research to tease out the relationship between children, learning and design. One of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects is working closely with young people of all ages – infants to secondary. Children can be so insightful and imaginative; they are also the harshest critics and the most appreciative ‘clients’.

JH: If you had the power to improve the health of the design scene in Australia at the moment what would you do?

MF: It seems that design is currently an overlay rather than a deeply embedded part of our culture. Non-designers generally have little understanding of the potential of design. Since a design student I have been intrigued by Scandinavian design philosophy which is evident in the functionality and beauty of their products and the livability of their interiors. Such design is the result of deep appreciation of the natural environment and manufacturing based on interdependence between craft skills and efficient mass production techniques. Their success in design and production is also driven by strong government policy. Well designed products become an affordable part of everybody’s everyday lives. Perhaps such a design ethos comes with ‘mother’s milk’. (It is interesting to me that the most democratic, egalitarian countries also have best most efficient affordable design).

JH: Which gives you the most pleasure to design today, product or interiors?

MF: I particularly enjoy the holistic nature of designing environments – creating landscapes of possibilities, through organisation of space and products. Adults and children are often surprised that design of the physical environment affects not only the way they function but also how they ‘feel’. I find environments for learning a rich and complex area where design must nurture personal relationships and the dynamic processes of learning in the real and virtual realms.

JH: In retrospect has there been a particular product or project that changed the course of your professional life?

MF: In 1985 I developed and designed ‘EveryBody ‘, -the first of several interactive exhibitions for children and families – it responded to children’s questions about the human body. At the time I read a great deal about exciting cultural projects for children in Sweden and the United States and this helped me to develop a participatory design process that I continue to use today. Exhibition visitors may choose to leave at any time (unlike students in schools!) so design of form and content must be attractive, convivial, relevant, engaging , rewarding and provoke further interest – this has also become my benchmark for schools.

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