Designers’ furniture rises to fame and up for auction

John Thistleton 12 July 2019

Andrew Whitehead enjoying the comfort of a Featherston chair which is in good condition and will be auctioned online. Photos: Supplied.

For anyone collecting or decorating with Australian mid-century furniture, Fred Ward and Grant Featherston are sought-after names. They are among the acclaimed designers who will feature in a collection of retro and 20th-century items to go on sale from Thursday (July 11), assembled by online auctioneer Allbids.

Melbourne-born Fred Ward won a competition for the design of the furniture and furnishings for the Australian National University. Previously a freelance illustrator and cartoonist for The Bulletin, he began designing furniture in 1929 for his home, when friends quickly bought them.

Fred Ward Armchairs.

Fred Ward Armchairs.

Allbids appraiser Andrew Whitehead says Ward’s furniture was installed at the ANU, University House, and dotted throughout the university.

“A lot of Canberrans who went to the ANU might remember his furniture from ANU housing, not only was it on campus but also used to furnish residences off campus,” Andrew says.

Olivetti Valentine Typewriter Designed by Ettore Sottsass

Olivetti Valentine Typewriter Designed by Ettore Sottsass.

Over time though, much of the furniture was discarded. Recently Fred Ward chairs arrived unexpectedly at Allbids. Andrew chuckles recalling their arrival.

“Someone turned up to the door with one load in the trailer and said, ‘are these any good?’ “We said, yes, these are extremely good, you better go home and get the rest.” He went home and got the other batch.”

In all, 14 chairs were delivered and will be offered for sale.

TH Brown Tasmanian Blackwood Lounge Chairs

TH Brown Tasmanian Blackwood Lounge Chairs.

Fred Ward furniture is a little contentious at times. Like a lot of the earlier furniture from Old Parliament House, it was sold off, tossed out, disregarded, or sent to the tip, causing angst among people who appreciated its value.

Andrew says both institutions had purposely cleared out as much of their old furnishings as they could. These days both are as keen to get the furniture back, according to Andrew.

“The bottom line is, the people who have the furniture have usually acquired it by fair means. It is far from anyone having purloined these things when they were working there. They were sent off to auction and the tip and places like that,” he says.

Cenedese Momento Vase Designed by Antonio Da Ros

Cenedese Momento Vase Designed by Antonio Da Ros.

Fred Ward chairs were made locally at Fyshwick and Queanbeyan by cabinet-making firm Kees Westra. Their workshops have since closed. “Kees Westra would make up Ward designs, Fred would have been involved,” Andrew says.

Some of the chairs have made-in-Canberra tags. “Fred was a handy cabinet maker himself,” Andrew says. “In his ANU days, he preserved his efforts for high-end, bespoke pieces, whereas things made in large quantities were farmed out to Kees Westra who had the mechanisms to make things faster and at a reduced price.” The chairs could fetch about $200 each.

TH Brown Tasmanian Blackwood and Vinyl Coffee Table Suite

TH Brown Tasmanian Blackwood and Vinyl Coffee Table Suite.

Born in Geelong in 1922, Grant Featherston designed lighting and glass panels before serving in the army. Returning to Melbourne he produced the first of his famous plywood shell Contour chairs in 1951. Andrew says it was cutting edge design – like a bucket with wings on it, combined with the latest advances in timber technology, enabling its manufacture with thin, moulded plywood, giving it flexibility and a degree of comfort. The chair was soft, with some give, yet strong. Before its arrival lounge chairs were heavily stuffed with padding and springs make them soft.

A Featherston chair which came in an estate from Fisher will be offered online by Allbids, and could fetch between $2000 and $3000. “This chair is in good condition, it has still original mustard-coloured vinyl upholstery which is 95 per cent perfect, and will be serviceable for many years to come,” Andrew says.

Grant Featherston R160 Contour Armchair Circa 1951.

Grant Featherston R160 Contour Armchair Circa 1951.

Other items for auction in the collection of retro and 20th-century collection will include Tessa furniture, designed by Fred Lowen, another Melbourne designer. Also on offer will be Danish rosewood furniture, which often was emulated in Australia.

“Someone must have lived in Denmark at some period because it is a whole household of Danish furniture that came in to Allbids,” Andrew says.

The 20th-Century Design Auction will continue until Thursday, 18 July. Click here to bid.

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