Friday, November 6th, 2015

Celebrating the Australia’s first design icon: Florence Broadhurst

When Florence Broadhurst returned to Australia in 1949 after running a fashionable dress shop in London, she was appalled to find a country that knew little about interior decorating and was “afraid of colour”.

During a speech in 1975 she recalled, “I realised that it would not be an easy task to persuade them to be a little more adventurous with the effects of bold colour and colour harmony, and in addition to try the effects of three dimensions and colour vibration as well as using metal papers.”

She had done so much more than persuade. Broadhurst, who died 38 years ago this month, made a major contribution to Australia’s reputation for design and remains our most successful wallpaper designer. Celebrity homes and hip nightclubs across the world continue to decorate their walls with Broadhurst designs. As Australian as the sails of the Opera House or Howard Arkley’s images of suburban Melbourne, her wallpaper designs from the sixties and seventies are part of our culture.

From Brisbane to Shanghai: the world’s first globe trotter

Florence Maud Broadhurst was born in 1899 in Mount Perry in Queensland and from an early age pursued a career as a singer. In 1922 she left Brisbane for a tour of China with a troupe called the Globe Trotters, which presented a variety of acts including female impersonators. Fifteen months later, the show wrapped up and along with some of the troupe Broadhurst founded the Broadhurst Academy in Shanghai. Dancing, elocution, deportment and short-story writing were offered to the children of American and British expats; Broadhurst added another string to her bow by teaching dance.

photo Florence Broadhurst photographed in 1926 in a painstakingly embroidered Manton de Manilla or Chinese shawl_zpsaxbdkwpv.jpg

Caption: Florence Broadhurst photographed in 1926 in a painstakingly embroidered Manton de Manilla or Chinese shawl

After living in London for a decade, where she married engineer Leonard Lewis and ran a dress shop as “Madame Pellier”, she returned to Australia, aged 60, and founded Australian (Hand Printed) Wallpapers Pty Ltd behind her husband’s car yard in St Leonards, Sydney. She painted, exhibiting in galleries in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra, became involved in Sydney’s artistic scene and was a foundation member of the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

In 1969 the wallpaper business was renamed Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers, its headquarters relocated to Paddington where she continued to create her “vigorous designs for modern living”.

Bringing Australian design into the 20th century

With her red-hennaed hair, flamboyant clothes and captivating appearance, Broadhurst had as much visual appeal as her wallpapers. As a designer she drew from an eclectic range of influences, including the flowing classicism of 19th century British textile designer William Morris. But whereas Morris’s designs sometimes have the flat, muted look of medieval tapestry, Broadhurst’s vision soars beyond the confines of English taste to reflect her Australian nature and Asian experiences. Silver, bronze and gold backgrounds, black and white Chinoiserie puzzles, abstract patterns, parrots in silhouette, massive tangerine peacocks, bamboo stems in gold and green – nothing is out of bounds. Even her most subdued designs are bold in their conception.

Her omnivorous artistic appetite came from her love of the exotic; Broadhurst travelled extensively at a time when travel was expensive and not the commonplace activity it is today. While most white Australians stayed at home, saving up for a trip to visit Mother England, Broadhurst was in Shanghai or Paris or Bombay, always snapping with her camera, capturing motifs she would later develop in the vibrant lines of her wallpaper.

Florence Broadhurst’s continuing legacy

So inspiring are Broadhurst’s designs that in 2010 Adelaide artist Emma Hack produced a sumptuous book of body art featuring subjects semi-camouflaged against Broadhurst wallpaper. Hack’s work attracted international attention in 2011 when she worked on the video for musician Gotye’s number one hit ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’.

Broadhurst’s legacy is the 530 hand-drawn wallpaper patterns she produced over nearly two decades. At the height of her fame in the seventies she was fielding commissions from Estée Lauder and Qantas, while Sydney social identities Jill Wran (the premier’s wife) and Sonia McMahon (wife of former PM, mother of actor Julian) chose her Peacock wallpaper for their homes.

After a quiet period in the monochromatic eighties, a revival of interest in Broadhurst since the late 1990s – thanks to the restoration of the Broadhurst design library by Signature Prints and the management of the licensing of the archive by custodians Signature Design Archive – means a new generation is being introduced to this remarkable woman’s work.

Her designs have been licensed to fashion designers including Akira Isogawa, and in 2001 British magazine World of Interiors published a seven page feature on her work.

Given her love of travel, it’s appropriate to express her designs in a the new line of luggage from Tosca Travelgoods that celebrates her legacy.

The Florence Broadhurst Patchwork range includes a 48cm, 64cm and 74cm four-wheel spinner line, as well as a cabin bag, trolley bag, tote and beauty case. Each has a striking, black and beige geometrical pattern with red highlights.

photo Florence Broadhurst Patchwork range_zpsm6pep8zv.jpg

Caption: The Florence Broadhurst Patchwork range

The Spanish Honeycomb line offers similar versatility, with a fluid black pattern and tan detailing.

photo Florence Broadhurst Spanish Honeycomb range_zpsw5dpkzyf.jpg

Caption: The Spanish Honeycomb range

There is also a range of stunning accessories each with their own Florence Broadhurst streak. Strikingly different from the common boring solid-coloured laptop cases on the market, Tosca’s Broadhurst accessory line includes the famous black and white Japanese Floral print and her eye catching coral print. You can even rock an iPhone or iPad with Broadhurst prints to truly make a statement.

photo Florence Broadhurst Notebook Sleeves Japanese Print on left Coral Print on right_zpsoc4hbn43.jpg

Caption: Florence Broadhurst Notebook Sleeves; Japanese Print on left Coral Print on right

Florence Broadhurst put Australia on the international design map at a time when nobody cared. In the seventies, fashionable homes from Melbourne to New York were decorated with her distinctive designs, and today celebrities and designers continue to seek them out. Thanks to the enduring relevance and sheer brilliance of her designs, Broadhurst’s legacy lives on.

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Moby Siddique

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Florence Broadhurst, Australia's first design icon



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