The revival of her wallpaper archive uncovered the rich legacy of this creative chameleon, writes Chris Pearson.
The rediscovery of Florence Broadhurst, chameleon and wallpaper-designer extraordinaire.
Back in 1959, at the age of 60, a feisty henna-haired Florence Broadhurst set about shaking Australia out of its beige postwar complacency. In a shed behind her husband’s truck showroom in St Leonards, Sydney, she set up a design business, Australian Wallpapers.
The vibrant, handprinted designs she created were the last incarnation for this master of reinvention, and would ultimately come to define her.
Broadhurst was born in Mount Perry, Queensland, in 1899. As a young woman she toured Asia in a comedy troupe as Bobby Broadhurst and in the 1920s, opened the ambitiously named Broadhurst Academy, a school of music, dancing and journalism, in Shanghai. In the 1930s, she surfaced in London as a supposedly French couturier called Madame Pellier. Upon her return to Australia in 1949, she passed herself off as English and achieved some measure of success as a landscape painter.
No less intriguing were the fascinating wallpaper patterns that emerged from Broadhurst’s shed, ranging from oriental birds and exotic flora to swirling geometrics and ornate tapestries.
How many she designed herself is debatable, but no one doubts her entrepreneurial spirit and discerning eye.
In the late ’60s, with her business on a roll, she renamed it Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers, expanded into fabric and moved to larger, more stylish premises in Paddington. Broadhurst exported her vivid visions, many in mylar foil and vinyl, around the world. Then, tragically, came the biggest unsolved mystery of all: in 1977, the designer was murdered in her studio. Broadhurst’s collection was sold off and the archive might have languished in a warehouse but for Helen and David Lennie, founders of Sydney firm Signature Prints. Specialists in handprinted wallpaper and fabrics, they pounced as wallcoverings again found favour at the end of the ’90s. The pair revived Broadhurst’s designs, updated with fresh colours. Patterns such as Horses Stampede, The Cranes, Circles and Squares, Japanese Fans (left) and Cockatoos (top) found new fans, including interior designer Greg Natale.
“I was blown away – there was nothing else like it,” says Natale. “She took traditional patterns and played up the scale, which made them so modern, and they still feel modern today.”
WHAT IT MEANS TO US
“Broadhurst was the genius behind one of Australia’s most exhilarating design archives,” says Mark Smale, CEO of Signature Design Archive, which acquired the commercial rights in 2004. Broadhurst’s bounty now appears on bedding, towels, jewellery, dinnerware, appliances and stationery in 53 countries, as well as fabrics and wallpapers. Notable licensees include Kate Spade New York (train case, below); Deborah Lloyd, Kate Spade New York’s chief creative officer, calls Broadhurst’s work “groundbreaking and sensational”. And with 530 designs in the archive and fewer than 150 of them released so far, we’ve barely scratched the surface of her legacy.