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The sounds of Australia

The sounds of Australia

The Expo Mark II sound chair

The Expo Mark II sound chair, adapted for the Australian domestic market after Expo 67
The Expo Mark II sound chair, adapted for the Australian domestic market after Expo 67 Montreal. Photo: Lannon Harley, National Museum of Australia.

Expo 67 Montreal was an opportunity to showcase Australian innovation on the world stage and a highlight of the Australian pavilion were 240 original Expo Sound chairs.

Robin Boyd, designer of the pavilion's interior and displays, commissioned Melbourne-based contemporary furniture designers Grant and Mary Featherston to develop a 'talking chair' to deliver information about Australia to visitors in seated comfort.

The chairs were upholstered in dark green wool with either a green cushion for English audio, or an orange cushion for French audio.

Speakers installed in the headrests were activated by the pressure of a person sitting in the chair. An audio system controlled from the basement played three-minute segments of well-known Australians talking about Australia and the exhibits surrounding the visitor.

The system, which cost $1 million to produce, was designed so that if an occupant of the chair left in the middle of the tape, it would start again from the beginning when a new occupant sat down.

A total of 2000 tapes were made to withstand the wear and tear of being used 12 hours a day, seven days a week for six months. The estimated life of a tape under these conditions was four to six weeks.

The National Museum of Australia recently acquired an Expo Mark II sound chair, adapted for the domestic market from the original Expo chair design by Aristoc Industries.

These chairs are made for talking

The main floor of the Australian pavilion at Expo 67, featuring some of the 240 sound chairs
The main floor of the Australian pavilion at Expo 67 Montreal, featuring some of the 240 sound chairs. Photo: National Archives of Australia, AA1982/206 43.

The complex sound system controlling the chairs was designed and built through co-operation between government and private enterprise.

The equipment was built by the Rola (Australia) Company while the computerised system for selecting the tapes was designed by Australian post office engineers.

The tapes played through the talking chairs featured the voices of famous Australians including:

  • Sir Robert Menzies on natural resources
  • Sir Hudson Fysh on aviation
  • Sir Robert Helpmann on ballet and the theatre
  • Sir Mark Oliphant on science
  • entertainer Rolf Harris on humour.

The conversations were recorded by Crawford Productions, the Melbourne radio and television production company, before they were dubbed onto tape by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. French translations were recorded by the Royal Australian Air Force's foreign language school at Point Cook, Victoria.

Transcripts of the recordings are held by the National Archives of Australia (NAA A463, 1965/5067 Part 4).