Ben Shewry has fallen in love with a chair
Author: Ben Shewry
I've fallen in love with a chair. Featherston chairs, to be exact: the work of Australia's pre-eminent and most influential Mid-century industrial designers, Grant and Mary Featherston.
In February, as we began a major redesign of the dining room at my restaurant, Attica, the first in its 11-year history, I reflected on its past and where I want it to be in the future. I tried to consider every aspect of our work. We're always searching down the dirt road. Who knows what discovery we might make, what new inspiration may come?
In 2006 we began cooking with local ingredients - some wild, some endemic to our land. I then realised there was no connection between the imported plates we used and the Australian ingredients, so we began collaborating with local ceramic artists to create our own dinnerware. Since then we've gone down all sorts of rabbit holes to find new connections with creative Australians - we now enjoy relationships with blacksmiths, glass-blowers, writers, artists, basket-weavers, fashion designers, and wood-workers to name but a few.
I've gone in this direction because I want Attica to take in a broader level of influence and inspiration than just my own trade, and because I'm searching for the answer to the age-old question of what is Australian. I'm talking about Australian cultural classics that exist beyond the obvious pop-culture darlings such as Vegemite, Tim Tams, footy and utes. For me, the name Featherston should be included in that list.
As prosaic as it may seem, a restaurant chair is not something to be chosen lightly. In fact, it could be the single most influential ingredient in a restaurant meal that you've never thought of - until you sit on one that's bloody uncomfortable.
On average our guests are sitting on our chairs for three hours at a time. A sore behind should not be part of that experience. A dining chair should look beautiful, but more importantly it should be functional and comfortable. My idea was to work with local furnituremakers to design and engineer the perfect dining-room chair for our new-look restaurant.
I wanted to furnish the restaurant with something that was not a throwaway commodity. Something handmade that would be of a quality to last a lifetime, or that might be handed down to the next generation. And something distinctively Australian.
At my first design meeting with our architect, Iva Foschia, of IF Architecture, I mentioned that I planned to collect enough vintage Featherston Scape dining chairs, designed by Grant Featherston in 1960, to restore and use in the refurbished Attica.
Iva's reaction to this idea was so positive I felt certain she was the right person for the job - if you're passionate about Featherston chairs, then you're all right by me.
The problem was that I'd only seen about six Scape chairs for sale in the previous year. But Iva mentioned that Melbourne designers and furnituremakers Grazia Materia and Gordon Mather were manufacturing many of the original Featherston designs, including the Scape dining chair, just down the road from Attica in Highett. Grant Featherston died in 1995, but the venture has Mary Featherston's blessing.
When I met Gordon and Grazia I was really moved by their passion for design and furniture - and their enthusiasm for local Australian manufacturing. (I also lost my mind when we entered the warehouse, which houses many Featherston chairs. To their amusement I kept asking, "Is this for sale? Is this for sale?")
Grazia told me that when Gordon first approached Grant Featherston in the 1980s to seek the manufacturing rights for some of his furniture designs, the designer wasn't interested in Gordon's technical abilities but instead took many notes about his character and personality before giving him the green light. This small piece of information resonated with me because this is how the decisions at Attica are made - on the character and the intention of the person, the integrity of the ingredient or, in this case, the style and story of the Featherston Scape dining chair.
So that's your buttocks taken care of. Now all I have to worry about is the table, the room, the service and the wine. Oh, and the food.
Ben Shewry is the chef and co-owner of Melbourne's Attica restaurant.