Celebrating Australian Made – furniture and focus

In today’s installment of Celebrating Australian Made – our two-week editorial series sponsored by Australian Made – we catch up with Sebel, which has manufactured a place to sit for countless people. Brent Balinski speaks to Shane Fellowes.

In 1974, the world’s first monobloc plastic moulded chair, Sebel’s Integra, went into production.

Engineer Harry Sebel had moved from England to Sydney in 1951 and began making toys and chairs, but from the 1960s furniture was the focus.

The Charles Furey-designed Integra was a smash hit. As was the follow-up, the Postura: the first school chair to replace wood with polypropylene plastic.

“A focus for the company was supplying school furniture and their ‘Postura’ chair is the world’s biggest selling classroom chair,” explains a listing from the Powerhouse Collection.

Furniture, industrial design, schoolrooms, our relationship with plastics and much else has changed in the last half-decade or so. For Sebel, a focus on school furniture has not. 

Integra chair. (Credit Sebel/Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

“Some of those products – like the Integra, for example – have been around for 50 years, almost,” explains Shane Fellowes, Product Manager at parent company Resero Group.  

“It’s gone through a couple of iterations… where a product may need to be strengthened or colours will change. Or you’ll add different mixes to make them fire-retardant so they can be used in prisons and things like that. So a lot of legacy products still, today, sell very well.” 

He adds that a sustained commitment on classic products also comes with a few tweaks, beyond what’s mentioned above. 

While injection moulding remains a core competency, production has evolved to meet sustainability demands.

In November last year, the company released the Recycled Postura Max, its first post-consumer waste-based product (with 97.5 per cent recycled plastic.)

“So anything that goes into your yellow lid recycling bin with the number five on it – usually things like ice cream containers and yoghurt containers and things like that – are all chipped down and we actually now make chairs out of it,” explains Fellowes.

Before that, Sebel started recycling its own plastic – such as injection mould purgings – in its products. One use of this is in internal components in Ottomans and lounges.

Fellowes has been Product Manager for Sebel since 2017, the same year it found a new home at Resero after entering voluntary administration. The acquisition saved the factory at Minto, which has been operating since 2014.

The Airds Road site includes the only NATA-accredited testing site run by an Australasian furniture manufacturer.

It includes “about four or five” injection moulding machines of various sizes, says Fellowes, as well as assembly cells for soft seating products, upholstering, and warehousing.

Sebel categorises what it makes as either education furniture or community seating. (The latter includes stadium seating. The company’s Podium seats were originally developed for the Sydney Olympics, and have been installed at countless locations since.)

Unsurprisingly, Sebel has seen its fair share of overseas-made knock-offs. 

According to the company, its Postura is “the most popular but also the most copied school chair in the world”.

The Recycled Postura Max (credit Sebel)

“The old iteration, the Postura Classic, has been absolutely flogged to death by everybody in the market… The patent on that has lapsed, because we had a new model for the Postura Max, which is what we have now, which is far superior,” explains Fellowes.

“And usually when it comes out of China, it’s an old style, it’s relatively inexpensive as well. So there’s a bit of price pressure there on that product.”

Frustrations linked to the sincerest form of flattery are one thing, but building on a history iconic Australian design is another. We don’t ask which is more important, but we can guess how Fellowes might answer.

“It’s all about the heritage of Sebel, an Australian company. Harry Sebel, who founded Sebel back in the day – one of the things he wanted to do was produce good-quality Australian-made education furniture,” he says. 

“And it continues. 60, 70 years later we’re still doing the same thing. Obviously the products are changing, technology is changing, the customer has changed. But that whole way of doing business and producing in Australia is still happening. It’s something we’re very proud of.”

Main picture: credit Sebel

Celebrating Australian Made is an editorial series by @AuManufacturing, created in cooperation with the Australian Made Campaign Limited for Australian Made Week.


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