From the mid 19th century, wallpapers used in Australia had predominantly been imported from Britain, but also from France, Canada and America. In 1959, Florence Broadhurst decided to buck the trend. Turning 60, she established Australian (Hand-Printed) Wallpapers (renamed Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers in 1969). It is this, her final design and production venture, as well as her reputation as a colourful Sydney personality with an A-list of prestigious clients, and her still-unresolved murder in 1977, for which Broadhurst is best remembered today.
In its day, Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers was described as ‘the only studio of its kind in the world’ (Australian House & Garden, 1972). Through her vigorously modern wallpaper designs, Broadhurst became part of a wave of retailers, artists, designers and architects who radically changed Australian attitudes to design in the 1960s and ’70s.
Since the 1990s, awareness of Broadhurst’s significance has grown exponentially in Australia and overseas. The development of the Broadhurst collection at MAAS, which began in 1997 with the acquisition of an archival collection of wallpaper sample books, silkscreens and related photo-positive designs from Signature Prints, did much to revive curiosity in Broadhurst’s legacy. As did the re-release of her designs by Signature Prints, the re-interpreting of her designs as fashion prints by young Australian and New Zealand fashion designers (such as Akira Isogawa above), and the publication of a string of features on her life and work.
Our Florence Broadhurst collection consists of early photographs of Broadhurst travelling abroad, an impressive collection of wallpapers sample books, numerous lengths of screenprinted wallpapers and a small collection of the original silkscreen frames and related photo-positive designs. The sample books feature an astounding range of vivid colour combinations, from Broadhurst’s favourite fuchsia pinks through to classic 1970s lime greens, oranges and turquoises. Patterns with exotic titles proliferate – Oriental Filigree, Japanese Fans, Japanese Bamboo, Kabuki, Spanish Scroll, Mexican Daisy, Persian Birds.
Of course, Peacocks was Broadhurst’s hallmark design on silver-foil Mylar, a new product at the time and one which is still used by Signature Prints. Broadhurst posed with Peacocks in one of her stylish 1970s advertisements and it was used by celebrity clients. A rare, surviving length of Peacocks wallpaper was donated to the MAAS collection in 2002 – the donor having purchased it for 50 cents a roll from a local secondhand clothing shop. A Sydney Morning Herald article in 1999 prompted many people to contact the Museum with donations and further anecdotal information about Broadhurst’s life and designs (O’Brien, 1999).
Through her tireless charity work, Broadhurst established a loyal and influential clientele. Her technologically innovative approach to production, the deliberate pricing of her papers to competitively vie with machine-made imports, her highly personalised service and refusal to sell designs wholesale, were the keys to Broadhurst’s success and ensured the value and significance of her story and work.
She was born in the same year as Noel Coward and their lives followed similar lines. Both came from humble beginnings yet through their extraordinary determination and charm they succeeded in entering ‘high society’. Like Coward, Broadhurst made her stage debut while still at school and a made a name for herself around 1924. One pictures Coward in the 1920s in a silken dressing gown with a cigarette holder. One sees Florence in Shanghai (where Coward and Broadhurst both briefly worked on stage) with cigarette holder, elegant in a Manton de Manila, or Cantonese shawl, worn as a dress. Both died in the 1970s.
Broadhurst’s life, together with her flamboyant personality and public confidence, merged with her bold and dynamic designs. The luxurious life she led in Asia and later Britain carried through to her business ventures. In magazine advertisements such as Australian House & Garden and Vogue Living, she presented staged portraits of herself in front of the very loudest designs from her portfolio. Broadhurst also liked to highlight her prestigious international connections: her 1970 advertisements announcing that she was ‘now exporting to America, England, Hawaii, Kuwait, Peru, Norway, Madrid, Paris, Oslo’ (Australian House and Garden, 1970).
Yet Florence Broadhurst was also a private person, shielding the details of her personal life. Until Siobhan O’Brien’s and Helen O’Neill’s biographies, there were almost as many divergent accounts of her life as there were wallpaper designs. Many specific details remain unknown and continue to intrigue researchers and biographers, as well as family, friends and colleagues.
This post was adapted by Alli Burness from a chapter of the same name by MAAS Curator, Anne-Marie Van de Ven. The original chapter appears in Greame Davison and Kimberly Webber (ed.s), ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrows: the Powerhouse Museum and Its Precursors 1880-2005’, Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing in associated with UNSW Press, 2005, pp 214-215.
Australian House and Garden, May 1972, p 92
Siobhan O’Brien, ‘Mistress of the Rolls’, SMH Good Weekend, 5 June 1999, pp 35-9
Siobhan O’Brien, A life by design: the art and lives of Florence Broadhurst, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004
Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers advertisement, Australian House and Garden, Oct 1970, p 81
Helen O’Neill, Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives, Hardie Grant, Sydney, 2006