It has been some years since the first time I discovered Florence Broadhurst’s work, and the designs have never left my mind. Her style was as bold, colourful and eclectic as my own, with an aesthetic dependant on mood, situation and inspiration of the moment. The designs for which she took credit are now having a second wave of impact as another generation of creative’s across fashion, interiors and homewares rediscover her catalogue and bring it to our attention. This is the story of Florence, and how she came to create and direct a hand-printed wallpaper company that would help shape a period of Australian interior design.
Country Queensland girl
We know now that Florence Broadhurst was born on 28 July 1899 in Queensland, Australia—a fact she denied for most of her life in favour of claiming a British upbringing. Having grown up mostly in Queensland myself, I understand why to her it didn’t have the perceived sophistication or glamour of a European background. One that would give her credibility in the cultured circles she travelled.
Florence learnt to sing from an early age and performed regularly in and around her hometown of Mount Perry. With a flair for the dramatic and a talent for embellishing the truth, at age 22 Florence joined a theatre group on a tour of colonial Asia. The troupe performed in Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Thailand and China, and in between, enjoyed partying with expatriates and exploring local culture. Upon the conclusion of the tour in China, Florence remained in Shanghai under her stage name, Bobby Broadhurst, and started an eponymous school of the arts. The school specialised in guiding the daughters of affluent European and American expats through the courses of social life. In 1927, when the political and social situation grew tense in Shanghai, Florence swiftly shut up her business and briefly returned to Queensland.
While back in Australia, a car accident in her father’s Studebaker seriously injured Florence and put an end to her performance career. Never one to dwell on life’s hiccups though, she made alternate plans and headed to Britain later the same year. Here she worked for well-heeled fashion houses before marrying, Percy Kann, a wealthy stockbroker’s son in 1929.
Drawing from dressmaking and needlepoint skills she learnt as a child, as well as her work experiences, Florence reinvented herself as Madame Pellier, a couturier complete with a Bond Street salon. Madame Pellier dressed performers and socialites among her other wealthy clientele, but post the roaring twenties, her success waned along with the spark in her marriage.
Florence promptly took up with another man, Leonard Lloyd Lewis, who she always claimed was her second husband, although they were never formally married. She later became pregnant with her first and only child who was born in 1938. It was at this time Florence’s mother also passed away in Australia, without Florence ever having the chance to say goodbye.
World War II ensued as Florence and Leonard raised their son, Robert Lloyd Lewis, through his first 10 years. As soon as he became school age, Robert was placed in local schools as a boarder so as not to interfere with Florence’s career and social ambitions. It was at this time she embarked on supporting the war effort through special events and hosting Australian servicemen on leave in their home. Upon learning of Leonard having an affair, however, Florence decided to put half of the world between her de facto partner and his mistress by insisting that the family move to Australia.
Settling in Sydney with her family in 1948, Florence decided to take up painting and make this part of her new persona. She was able to produce an exhibition of her Australian landscapes under the guise of a former concert singer from London, although this project attained very little for her career with only lukewarm reviews. In an attempt to gain greater success, Florence sought out social circles that put her in touch with “all the right people,” and networked furiously. Her vivacious and dramatic nature craved attention, spurring Florence to seek the affections of new people constantly. This left her family feeling less than appreciated and disconnected from her life, and finally resulted in Leonard abandoning her for a much younger woman. At this point, Florence found herself at an emotional and financial loss.
With coaxing from friends, she stormed into the life of a quiet young designer, John Lang, who was attempting to create a hand-printed wallpaper business from a shed he rented from Florence. She took over management of the business in 1961 and used her social connections to have their designs seen in the businesses and homes of Australia’s influential elite.
“I’m sure there would be no psychiatric wards if there was more art. People who take LSD must be terribly bored.” – Florence Broadhurst
Florence kept her finger firmly on the pulse of trend and popularity through the 1960’s and 1970’s, tailoring her product to certain interior designer’s tastes’ in order to win their patronage. In Australia, isolated from the wallpaper producers of Europe and the US, Florence could provide just what designers wanted with much less lead time than those shipped from overseas. She would copy and adapt ideas to create pieces that would be attractive to the local market, and embraced new wallpaper products such as foils.
It all came to an abrupt and tragic end in 1977 when Florence was brutally murdered by an intruder while alone in her factory, and despite an extensive police investigation, no perpetrator was ever prosecuted.
A design legacy
After being left to degrade for many years following their creator’s death, only a small portion of Florence’s aging design library has been revived through meticulous hand-traced recreations from the original screens. The legacy of Florence Broadhurst lives on through a revival of her daring designs now available through Materialised in Australiasia and various licensees in other parts of the world. For links to current products incorporating Broadhurst designs, from furniture to fashion accessories, see the Signature Design Archive website. Former and current licensees include fashion labels such as Kate Spade, Akira Isogawa and Zimmerman, along with various homewares specialists in wallpaper and decorating accessories.
Florence Broadhurst was no saint, but her dramatic flair for living life just as she pleased led to unique and flamboyant designs that were able to spread a measure of her exuberance into the lives of many…and still do today.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,