Having started her wallpaper business at the tender age of 60 ( in the 1950’s), if anyone inspires you to refute the idea that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, or that you are too old to start a new (ad)venture, it has to be Florence Broadhurst. You only have to read about her colourful life, and, whether you take the positive or the more critical reviews of her, you cannot help by being intrigued by this red headed character.
I was fortunate enough, late last year, to be able to have a tour of the library, printing and show rooms of “Signature Prints” which now own the exclusive world-wide commercial license to Florence Broadhurst’s iconic library of designs. For anyone who gets the chance to visit the Rosebury showrooms in Sydney I wholeheartedly recommend it. Helen and David Lennie were the perfect hosts who showed, not just the products, but also gave an insight into how “Signature Prints” has really brought Florence’s work back to life. They generously organised for us to see the the printing in process even letting us have a go at screen printing one of the iconic wallpapers which are still hand made to order. It certainly makes you appreciate the work that goes in to hand printing wallpaper.
Even more fascinating was that they shared insights on how they are continuing to grow their business, and the Florence Brand. Lets face it wallpaper, like many consumable items is something which goes in and out of trend. I have to admit that before spending the morning with Helen and her team, when it came to specifying wallpaper, I had terrible flash backs to the 70’s and 80’s where people appeared to wallpaper anything that stood still, with the matching borders and stenciling to boot. The horror stories of people putting the patterns upside down, trying to wallpaper behind toilets and pipes (rather unsuccessfully), or the hours of trying to remove the damn stuff, then trying to re decorate. But with new technologies, designs and the quality of hand made papers such as these it is not hard to see why they are well and truly back in fashion with the right space .
There may, however, come a time where the trends in our coffee table magazines demand that wallpaper needs to take a break for a little while. As such, it was interesting to see how Helen and David have looked ahead to allow selected prints from the 500 plus Broadhurst designs to be used by other designers / manufacturers such as the high end rug manufacturers Cadrey’s, and Knots. Helen was also keen to tell us the news that they have more recently given the New York fashion label “Kate Spade” the exclusive use of 12 Broadhurst prints which will be used for clothing, jewellery, shoes, handbags, stockings, luggage, tech accessories and even a Vespa motorcycle. This new range is set to be launched in New York in February 2012, and whilst it is a little sad that there is no Australian launch date yet set, Helen and David are excited at the prospect that an Australian icon has been “exposed to a bigger environment than just ‘Helen and David Lennie’s world of wallpapers and fabric’s’.”
By way of a bit of history, born in 1899, Florence Broadhurst began her career as a singer, which took her to India, South-East Asia and China in the early 1920s. She then founded an arts academy in Shanghai in the late 1920’s before moving to London where she married a stock broker and reinvented herself as Madame Pellier, running a fashion Studio named Pellier Ltd, Robes & Modes on Bond Street. She met her second husband, Leonard Lloyd Lewis, in 1935 and had a son, Robert, in 1938, before moving back to Sydney in 1949, where Broadhurst took up painting. Broadhurst established Australian (Hand Printed) Wallpapers Pty Ltd., which later became Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers Pty Ltd in 1959 at the age of 60.
Ten years later Broadhurst moved her business premises to the now very fashionable Sydney suburb of Paddington. Broadhurst was, according to her son a “dramatic, original and clever” designer, who was “ahead of her time”. She stayed abreast of technical innovation, sourcing specialty papers from the United States and developing waterproof protective film to protect her wallpapers from staining with the help of an industrial chemist. Florence resisted the temptation to wholesale her products and continued to hand craft her wallpapers and textiles.
When I read Florence’s story I find it incredible that a woman of her era achieved so much, we only have to look back depictions of women trying to break through in business in the 1950’s and 1960’s in popular TV drama’s such as the “Madmen” show, or listen to our grandmother’s story’s to know that it was no easy feat for a woman to play in the world of business during that time. Unfortunately, Florence met a gruesome tragic end, being murdered in 1977 in her Paddington Studio, to date the murder (while many theories have evolved) remains unsolved.
That said there is a lot of speculation around whether Florence actually created her own designs, one argument being her well documented failing eyesight, which many commented left her barely able to read a menu let alone produce the intricate designs. One journalist refers to Broadhurst as “very Sydney”, a colourful , brazen character with a reputation of enjoying the “celebrity seeking” champagne lifestyle. All of these views adding together to perhaps assist one designer in referring to her as “an opportunistic con-woman”.
There are also accusations that Florence exploited her staff, employing talented and bright kids with below par wages. That said, many in the design world today would be happy to work for little and nothing to get experience with someone who has established themselves within the market…. ?
Unfortunately a simple blog does not perhaps allow enough room to go through the whole of her colourful and, somewhat eventful life, but no matter what you make of Florence herself you cannot help but be intrigued by her legacy, as quoted in Vogue Living Magazine “[w]hen you play with Florence, the most amazing things happen”. I just need to get those clients to play and get going with the Flo!!!!!