Everyone in Australia has sat on one at some stage. At school, the hospital, the CWA meeting, the work shed, the scout hall, even the officials and timekeepers at the Sydney 2000 Olympics swimming pool. It's the Integra chair by Sebel, a furniture manufacturer still in business, having made countless of these chairs in 46 years.
Harry Sebel was the son of Bessie and David Sebel, who had been a Russian emigre to the UK and set up a wheelwright business in 1910. Harry left school at 15 in 1930, during the Depression, to work in his father's business that had transferred into steel and ironmongery after WW1.
Sebel trained as a draftsman and iron work designer and after WW2 he persuaded his father to move from architectural work into toy manufacturing. The business was successful but given the Dickensian state of factories in England the family gradually moved to Australia and Harry arrived with his wife Queenie in 1951.
The company moved from toys into furniture, investing in early plastic moulding machines to assist in using light steel and plastics to make cheap and durable furniture, that could be found in schools and offices, an area where they had the market to themselves. Hence Harry was soon successful and rich.
Harry Sebel diversified into property: in the late fifties he planned a block of bachelor flats in Elizabeth Bay, but being thwarted by a planning dispute he changed it to a hotel in 1963, becoming the famous, and infamous, Sebel Town House. Designed by Lipson and Kaad it became a legendary hangout for glamourous Hollywood stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor, and rock and rollers including Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart and Elton John, who married there in 1984.
Less well known was his choice of Ken Woolley, Sydney's best architect in the second half of the 20th century, to design The Penthouses in 1967, one of his best works and outstanding architecture as it steps down the steep hill in Darling Point.
In 1974 Sebel started manufacture of the ‘Integra’, the world's first single piece moulded polypropylene chair, with clever engineering, that has never been out of manufacture. It was the largest plastic product at that time (and until mass-produced automotive bumpers), and it was extraordinarily successful.
Sebel sold the hotel in 1981 and the furniture business in 1982 but left his name on it. He resumed manufacturing of plastics, using moulding processes to make unbreakable crockery. He was awarded an OAM for services to the design industry in 1999 and passed away in 2008 at the age of 92.
After all that you probably think that his most successful item, the Integra chair, was designed by Harry. But it wasn't. Maybe Sebel discovered his limitations in designing the earlier plain chairs, and so he hired Charles Furey, at that time one of Australia’s most prolific and most important industrial designers, but mostly unknown, despite every Australian having used something he designed.
Furey was Australian born in 1917 and had an early passion for drawing. After studying art at the School of Mines in Bendigo, he became a maths and art teacher and was an accomplished musician. Being medically unfit for WW2 Furey retrained as an engineering draftsman and discovered industrial design by reading Harold van Doren’s seminal 1940 US book, Industrial Design, A Practical Guide.
In 1947 Furey and other Melbourne practitioners, including the legendary Fred Ward, formed the Society of Designers for Industry, the SDI. Industrial design was little known, and work was scarce; most manufacturers had a cultural cringe for overseas designs. Furey worked by himself in the early fifties, his best-known design being a Speedy Electric Iron; included in the 1956 Olympic Games Arts Festival Industrial Design Exhibition (you didn't know we had one).
He designed innovative radios for AG Healing before he became the initial in-house industrial designer for Crown Crystal Glass, a subsidiary of ACI, where he introduced simple glassware designs. When the firm became Crown Corning, he designed a range of glassware in 1963 that was set aside until 1978, when launched as Pyrex casserole dishes.
Establishing his own industrial design consultancy in 1964 he designed an extraordinary range of products: The Willows Styrofoam Portable Cooler, television cameras, electric welders, earth moving equipment, ballpoint pens, lighting, kitchenware and household appliances. In 1972 he designed a child's safety seat, a world first before mandatory seatbelt regulations were required. He designed consoles for the NSW ambulance service and later for the Sydney Opera House in 1982.
Furey was driven by two principles: firstly ergonomics, and secondly the sense of purity that lies in the “less is more” ideal of Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus. He described his aesthetic as simple and purist. And he was a great proselytiser; his belief in ergonomics led to his presidency of the Ergonomics Society of Australia, later the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, which promoted the physical wellbeing and effective operating systems in design. Later he helped found the Industrial Design Institute of Australia, IDIA.
But it is for the design of the Integra chair for Harry Sebel that he is best known amongst designers. His ingenuity, creativity and understanding of ergonomics and engineering solved the issues of integrity and strength with inverted legs (that aided stacking) and the V-ribs under the seat, with simple and clean lines. The chair was stackable up to 15 high, could take a load of 450 kilos, and was manufactured in resilient polypropylene in a huge range of colours.
The original chair was later redesigned by Furey with arms, one slightly smaller than the other so it could be nestled inside to create a continuous line of chairs. The design has stood the test of time (bad pun) for 46 years, and it's still manufactured and available on the Sebel website.
Unlike Sebel, accolades to Furey largely remained inside the design community, being awarded a Life Fellowship of the Design Institute of Australia, the DIA, in 1992 and a gold citation in 2002 in recognition of a life's work in the profession. The irony is that the DIA grew out of the IDIA that he helped found.
But in the interim he had spun off a secondary organization, The Society for Industrial Design in Australia, because he believed that the DIA was being infiltrated by too many interior designers. His opinion was that the concerns of industrial design - functionality, ergonomics, cost effectiveness and longevity - were at odds with the “ephemeral nature of trends and fashion that can be paramount in interior or graphic design”.
Both men lived to the same age of 92 and died within nine months of each other. One is a celebrated household name, rightly so if you encourage Phyllis Diller, Dire Straits, Bowie and the Pelican that starred in Storm Boy to misbehave in your hotel, knowing that the pool chairs couldn’t hurt anyone.
The other, a curmudgeonly difficult man whose design talent was crucial in making Australia a successful manufacturing country, should be better known. This is a little tribute to keep his name alive.
plus 1 / plus one / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian design. You can contact +one at [email protected].