Play and pedagogy with designer Mary Featherston. By Jennifer Down.

Designer Mary Featherston

The morning I am supposed to meet designer Mary Featherston is the first of three forecast days of torrential, squally rain, and she phones and very politely asks if we might postpone. She lives right at the edge of a creek, she explains, and is concerned about flooding. In any case, we wouldn’t be able to hear each other over the roar of the rain on the roof. Same time next week, we agree.

Upon setting foot in the Robin Boyd-designed house – his last, she tells me – I better understand why she was keen to reschedule. We stand in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows and look out at the creek, full from the previous week’s deluge. The landscape leading down to the water is speared with stately eucalypts, and even leaf litter on the roof sounds thunderous. “We planted those when we moved in,” she tells me. Trees make good, quiet signifiers of time. These ones are established, and give the illusion of being in a place much more bucolic than the postcode indicates. “I’ve learnt a lot from being in this house with children, seeing how they respond to this space,” she says. Having raised her children here, she’s now watching her grandchildren explore the same environment. “They’re so energetic. They learn through all their senses, and very dynamically. So being in this space, and seeing the way children use it, has really emboldened the spaces that I’ve designed.”

Featherston is design royalty in Australia, where her pioneering practice has focused on creating indoor educational environments for children – “play and pedagogy”, in her elegant phrasing. She is a proponent of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, which advocates participatory, experience-based learning with a strong emphasis on social relationships. When she speaks about designing school environments – and education more broadly – it’s with the passion, warmth and eloquence of someone who has made it her life’s work to continually interrogate and challenge the norm.

“We’re still imposing the same pedagogical approach suitable for an industrial society and not saying, ‘Well, jeez, these kids are coming to school, or to preschool, with heads full of ideas – how can we hook up with that, and bring that together with the things that we value as a society and a culture?’ That’s what the Reggio do, in incredibly sophisticated ways.”

Her latest work, however, is a collaboration with artist Emily Floyd. The Round Table gives functional physical form to an illustration Featherston created 40 years ago for the cover of Ripple magazine, a journal devoted to feminism, social activism and childcare. Ripple – so named for the “ripple effect” and the spread of new ideas – stemmed from “the activist movement advocating for rethinking children and family services”, one of Featherston’s enduring passions. Floyd’s mother, Frances, was Ripple’s editor, and it was through access to her archives that Floyd came across Featherston’s original graphic. As part of a 2014 exhibition at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Floyd reproduced several of Featherston’s cover illustrations as large posters. “Emily lived through that period with a mum who was involved in the movement, and I was involved as a young mother in the same movement. So in a sense, we’ve shared something of the same experience of that time.”

The Round Table is part of Unfinished Business, an exhibition of feminist work at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, until March 25. More than a passive piece of art, it reimagines the illustration as a meeting point and an object of utility. Over the course of the exhibition, it will provide a physical site for lectures, informal discussion and repose. “We’ve revisited that graphic in a sculptural, playful form, but it’s also functional and purposeful,” Featherston says. “The gallery’s intention was to give people the possibility of coming together for the discussions, or just to sit and look at the works. So it’s a cross-generational collaboration that links graphics, sculpture and my intense interest in using design, I suppose, to bring people together in particular sorts of encounters.” The table’s form is a natural expression of both women’s philosophies. “I think the circular form is about bringing people together. It’s very organic. But in Emily’s language, you could say it’s a pure geometric form. She’s using playful forms. I’m also involved in creating forms, but they are more architectural, interior spaces, in order to create possibilities for young people to be creative.”

Featherston was there when, as a young mother, the first neighbourhood houses and community childcare centres were being established. She recalls the “long, long discussions” of the era. “We had educators, lawyers, social activists, all sorts of people, and as we talked, it seemed that what we envisaged was a new way of being that needed new physical support – new environments, new furniture. And that was really intriguing to me,” she says in her characteristically fluent but understated manner. “It was very much in reaction to the nuclear family, the fact that we were relying on individual families to rear children. And that was often one parent, because women had to stop work when they had children. We adopted the notion that it takes a village to raise a child.”

It’s telling that an exhibition such as Unfinished Business is no less relevant in 2017 than it was 40 years ago. “You could say that we haven’t shifted things. We’re still thinking in terms of the individual. Back then it was the individual family, because they were a good unit of consumption. But we’re still in that paradigm. The Scandinavians are not. The north of Italy is not. But we’ve attached ourselves to American culture, so we’re driven by individualism and consumption, and we’re really swimming uphill.”

I’m looking past her at the towering eucalypts, planted generations ago. I’m thinking about change and time. I ask if she considers herself an optimist. She hesitates and laughs. “I often say to my mates, ‘We were incredibly lucky just to live through that early ’70s time.’ Because you did have the sense that anything was possible,” she says. “I still believe that it’s possible, and what’s more, I’ve seen exemplars. If I hadn’t seen that, I think I would be deeply pessimistic. I’d say, ‘Oh, we’re stuffed.’ But I know it’s been done.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2017 as "Lessons learnt".

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