Lifestyle Florence Broadhurst with Fan

At ShireWomen, we are well aware that the inspiration for a project can sometimes expand our horizon and provide a panorama of possibilities for other areas of our life. Researching Florence Broadhurst wallpaper designs recently has reminded me of this.

I am embarking upon a project, renovating an early 1970’s house that is cocooned in “Mission Brown”. It has loads of potential; boasting huge windows, gorgeous raked ceilings and exciting architecture. I want to create something that is a nod to the era and Australian in character; lively and dramatic yet whimsical. In so doing, I plan to use Florence Broadhurst wallpapers.

Florence was known for her flamboyant style, bouffant bright red hair, eccentricity and talent. Florence was a striking-looking woman with a striking personality, a compulsion for exaggeration and a drive to succeed. When I was a child, Florence was still active in the Sydney social scene, and I remember seeing photographs of her and thinking she was glamorous and exciting.

Recognised by Time Magazine as one of the world’s most influential post WW2 designers, Florence Broadhurst was a colourful, memorable and successful Australian artist, designer, entertainer, teacher, businesswomen and innovator. Her wallpaper and fabric designs are loved by royalty and celebrities, and are used in commercial and domestic spaces all over the world. Her designs appear in London nightclubs, Paris Salons, Las Vegas Hotels to the set of MasterChef and Cate Blanchett’s home.

Why do her designs appeal to people?

Florence was a chameleon, a charlatan, charismatic and a conqueror. She was audacious and fascinating. Described by those closest to her as fearless, Florence was a force to be reckoned with and attributed with shaking up conservative Australian interior design by introducing boldness, ornamentation and exoticism. Florence said that she “want[ed] to colour Australia” and expressed this desire in her eye-catching, adventurous and beautiful designs. Her art was like her; full of character, colour, charm and contradiction.

Florence Broadhurst was born in 1888 on a cattle station in remote Mount Perry Queensland. Her family were financially comfortable, and the locals considered them to be gentry. Florence and her sisters were well educated, always tastefully dressed and talented tennis and piano players. They received elocution and etiquette lessons and were very fashionable young ladies. Florence loved to sing and dreamed of becoming a performer. She got her “big chance” to chase her dream when she won a local eisteddfod, was invited to join a group called the “Smart Set Diggers,’ and started performing around Queensland.

Her confidence grew, and she switched to musical comedy while touring China, India and South-East Asia and performed under the stage name “Miss Bobby Broadhurst”. Famous for her Charleston dancing, short bobbed hair and flapper clothing, Florence received many favourable reviews and established the Broadhurst Academy in Shanghai in 1926. A favourite with the British ex-pats, Florence taught voice production, singing, a variety of musical instruments, the latest dances from Europe and America; and even journalism. A regular at Shanghai nightclubs, Florence was a favourite of the rich party scene.

By 1927 that exciting Shanghai scene was on its way down and Florence returned to Australia for a brief stay. While in Queensland she was involved in an accident, suffering a terrible head injury in a car crash. This did not stop Florence, however, who surprised everyone by recovering quickly. Florence was never going to let herself or her talents be confined to a quiet life in country Queensland.

So, after her fast recovery, the next stop was London. Here during the 1930s Florence launched a new career in fashion, working in high-end fashion houses. Reborn as “Madame Pellier” a French couturier dressing the rich and famous, Florence claimed to be a dressmaker to the royal court and enjoyed dressing theatre and musical celebrities. She co-directed and was the designer and dressmaker for Pellier Ltd, Robes & Modes Mayfair and her designs gained popularity. Unfortunately, England was soon at war, and WWII helped put an end to this business, so Florence joined the Australian Women’s Voluntary Services helping to care for and cheer up Australian soldiers. In 1945 Florence moved to Sussex, obtained a fishing and boat licence and became honorary secretary of the Art Women’s Movement Against Socialisation.

When Florence returned to Australia in 1949, she presented herself to Australian society as an artist and English aristocrat. Her “Paintings of Australia” collection of landscape paintings were shown at the David Jones Art Galleries in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. Florence travelled around Northern and Central Australia painting Australian landscapes. Everywhere she went, she exalted her singing career; claiming to be English and a former London and Paris concert performer. Always the artiste, Florence met the Queen Mother in 1958, claiming to have met her on many previous occasions.

Florence was a born networker and loved to be engaging. She became a foundation member of the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales as well as a member of the Royal Art Society of NSW and Society of Interior Designers of Australia. She helped others as a teacher of sculpture and printmaking at the National Art School and was a finalist in the Archibald Prize. Florence also supported several charities and was actively involved with the Red Cross Society (NSW) and Sydney Opera House Appeal and ladies’ committee. Florence designed decorations for the Opera House Ball in 1964 and was acting VP for the United Nations Association of Australia international ball committee in 1966.

It has been said that with each career incarnation Florence recreated herself, totally. New name, new background story, new look, new project and new hair. I have heard her described as a liar or a con-woman and wonder if they would have used the term “maverick” if she was male. The differences in tone and descriptions of entrepreneurial women who reinvent themselves v’s their male counterparts are markedly different – even today. These differences in how society describes women v’s men are the focus of many sociological studies, and examples can be found in media (think of how the media treated Julia Gillard v’s Tony Abbott), social groups (think of the times you’ve heard women/girls described as ‘bossy’ and men/boys as ‘a good leader’ or ‘decisive’) to businesses (we find this bias throughout most businesses – even down to performance reviews).

Since that time, many vaudeville performers have been appreciated for being “larger-than-life” and for recreating themselves for their craft. Other performers from that era were Fanny Brice, Mae West, Marie Dressler, Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields and Harry Houdini to name only a few. Florence was true to this calling and quite the Harry Houdini herself also using the names Florence Lewis and Florence Kann at different stages of her life. Nowadays, we would call this image management or a rebranding strategy.

In the late 1950’s Florence helped establish a trucking business and then in 1959 used money from this business to set up a little factory out the back and launch her wallpaper business. Wallpaper was becoming popular, and Florence knew many young artists, and so, at 60 years of age, Florence launched her most successful business, Australian (Hand Printed) Wallpapers, producing luxury, hand-painted wallpaper from silkscreens. Up until this time, wallpaper had been predominantly imported from Britain, America, Canada and France, so Florence was introducing a whole new industry to Australia. In 1969 she had done well enough to open a new factory and studio at Paddington and never looked back. Now trading as Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers, her designs were highly sought after.

Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers successfully designed, manufactured and marketed high quality, handmade wallpapers locally. They were innovative and imported newly developed mylar sheeting and worked with metallic finishes. They also developed specialised production techniques such as a unique drying rack system that allowed them to produce large quantities of stock. This meant that Florence’s luxurious handcrafted wallpapers could be produced in Australia and her vivid and bold geometric patterns, beautiful Asian inspired landscapes, flora and fauna designs and funky repetitive motifs could grace the walls of homes and businesses around the world. In 1972 the Australian media declared she was an international design success as she was exporting to Europe, the Americas and Asia.

More to Florence than meets the eye

There is so much more to the story of Florence Broadhurst, and I encourage you to discover this for yourself. The background story that supports her endeavours is intriguing, to say the least. There is a high-profile romance, marriages, family challenges, family businesses, speculation – all ending with her mysterious and unsolved death. Like a number of her name changes, so much of her story is bound to the men in her life, rather than her amazing entrepreneurial achievements. While the men in her life may or may not have influenced her tenacity and creativity, Florence, like many other successful women, are so often simply defined by the men who father them, the men who marry them and children they bear. Instead, I feel it is vital to recognise Florence for being born to perform, married to her passions and overcoming the challenges she had to endure. She should be described as one of Australia’s greatest entrepreneurs.

Florence’s legacy lives on

By the time Florence died in 1977, she had created over 500 popular wallpaper designs. Designs that had been used in many prominent Australian and International buildings including Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, Sydney’s State Theatre, plus Grace Bros and David Jones stores across the country. Recently her designs have been resurrected through wallpapers and fabrics and are being used in carpets, household linens, giftware, handbags and furniture.

Excitingly Australian fashion icons such as Nicole Zimmerman, Akira Isogawa and artist Emma Hack as well as international designers like Kate Spade are reinterpreting her designs into striking pieces. Thankfully before she died, Florence claimed to have over 800 designs in 80 different colour palettes. Sydney based print and design company, Signature Prints Pty Ltd now own these designs and have developed techniques for using metallic ink so they can produce Broadhurst prints on fabric as well as wallpaper. They plan to release a few designs each year. Let’s hope we get to see all 800 designs over the coming years so we can enjoy Florence’s work way into the future.

So, with the help of the charismatic and charming, conquering chameleon Florence Broadhurst, I will breathe new life into myself and my home. I will break my new house out of its tired old chocolate brown and creamy vanilla shell and shake off the asphyxiating Covid cloud that has been hanging above me. I will embrace the valuable life and business lessons I have learnt from this spirited style icon, and I encourage you to do the same.

  • Live with purpose and passion,
  • Trust in your talents, intelligence and capabilities,
  • Surround yourself with inspiring people and things,
  • Feel free to start again and recreate yourself and your business,
  • Ignore the critics, and,
  • Let your creativity shine through.

Wonder if I can get this advice printed on wallpaper for our ShireWomen office?

Long term ShireWomen members, Karanda Interiors stock Florence Broadhurst fabrics and wallpapers and are happy to provide advice on using her designs in your home or business premises. Contact Toni or Jelena here.

ShireWomen member Marcia Heyseman, Carpet Culture Flooring Xtra at Caringbah sells an array of Florence Broadhurst wallpapers. You can contact her here.

ShireWomen member Sarah Yarrow Interiors has recently used Florence Broadhurst designs in a client project, and can supply and advise you on using her designs in your home. You can contact her here.