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PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am

Florence Broadhurst lived as she died - dramatically, with a lot of unanswered questions. A pioneering businesswoman, Broadhurst's 78 years comprised a number of incarnations, from singer to couture dressmaker, artist to celebrated designer. She changed her name and her look as often as she changed professions. And at the apex of her design career, she was brutally murdered at the hands of a suspected serial killer.

How the artistic vision of a girl born in 1899 in rural Australia is now coveted by upscale interior designers around the world, whose patterns inspire the collections of New York fashion designers and whose work is taught in London design schools, is almost too unbelievable to be true - a recurring theme in Broadhurst's life.

'She was such a liar, but she did it always with a purpose and it never crossed over into fraud,' says Helen O'Neill, author of the comprehensive biography Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives. 'The manner with which she did it, you can't help but think about how Madonna keeps reinventing herself; a very modern way of doing it.'

Her modern approach to life seeped into her pattern design, which made its way primarily onto wallpaper. Unschooled in the formalities of art, Broadhurst ran riot with her ideas, directing a team in the 1960s and '70s to create an incredible range of styles, all hand-made using silk screens.

Her prints span bold '60s patterns to delicate chinoiserie and dynamic colour combinations. The designs were often difficult to execute, and one false move could knock out the registration and destroy the work.

Broadhurst's early years showed few hints of her future success. Born near the mining town of Mount Perry, Queensland, she left at 19 to join a theatre troupe of drag queens, musicians and comedians touring Asia. This also sparked her lifelong obsession with reinvention, changing her name to Bobby Broadhurst as she performed across Asia.

Her years soaking up the Asian aesthetic later translated into memorable patterns featuring bamboo and other plays on chinoiserie that were beloved by the English around that time. The young entrepreneur launched her first business, a finishing school for expats living in Shanghai. The Nationalist surge, however, was approaching, and the 20-something eventually sailed for London.

In a complete switch, Broadhurst morphed into Madame Pellier, a self-proclaimed couture dressmaker of French origin. But when her husband began straying from their marriage, she cannily took him and her son to live in Australia.

'The incarnations that really seemed to work for her, they were always very artistic,' says O'Neill.

In 1961, she took over an ailing wallpaper-making business. This move, posits O'Neill, might have occurred out of economic need for the then-single Broadhurst to keep cash flowing.

Hiring cheap, young but talented artists and production experts, Broadhurst encouraged her team to push boundaries to bring her sketches to life on wallpaper. 'She ran it like a design studio,' says Anne-Marie Van De Ven, a curator at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum. 'She really led the field and showed what was possible.'

It was fortuitous timing for a small-business owner. In the booming 1960s it was prohibitively expensive to import from Europe and the United States. Her bright, eye-catching whorls quickly triggered interest among the moneyed of Sydney. Broadhurst played the role of society dame, networking with the charity set to spread her name. Meanwhile her staff pushed out roll after roll of high-art wallpaper in a ramshackle building with rain leaking onto the printing tables.

As her business grew, one crucial aspect of her life was failing: her eyesight. But Broadhurst didn't let it slow her down, taking inspiration from overseas artists and even record albums to make her work more experimental. As her eyesight worsened, she'd view samples over light boxes. One of the reasons her patterns might have became even more colourful and dramatic in later years was that they were easier for her to see.

Despite constantly berating staff and pushing them toward perfection, she cultivated a loyal crew who were devastated at the news delivered one spring day in 1977. Broadhurst had been savagely killed in her office. While two rings were stolen, a diamond and an emerald, there did not seem to be a motive. Police never found the murderer, although they suspected John Glover, a serial killer known as the Granny Killer.

A detective unearthed the fact that Glover had met Broadhurst at a wedding and later bought curtains from her. Eventually jailed for other murders, Glover taunted police with information but never confessed to Broadhurst's attack, staying silent until the end of his life when he hung himself in 2005.

Within two years of Broadhurst's death, her son Robert had sold the business to a competitor. The massive collection of wooden-framed silk-screens started to disintegrate, just like the memory of the eccentric designer. It's only in the past decade that her star has started to rise again; licensee Signature Prints, who acquired Broadhurst's catalogue of designs and silk-screens, has steadily introduced her work to a select group of interior designers that are gradually spreading her work around the world.

'There are so many ways to tell a Broadhurst story,' says Helen Lennie, marketing director of Signature Prints. 'Because her life was so rich and colourful.'

Even beyond the prolific body of work left behind - Signature Prints has more than 500 designs in the racks of original preserved silk-screens - it's her personal story that resonates. 'The most amazing thing about her is that she set out almost single-handedly as a woman to run an Australia design business,' says O'Neill. 'There was pure determination.'

SCREEN TEST

When Sydney-based company Signature Prints acquired the Florence Broadhurst back catalogue, chief executive David Lennie discovered more than 500 wooden-framed silk screens carrying a diverse array of patterns. It took years to sift through the treasures and match varying screens, as many patterns require multiple overlays. To make a pattern such as Solar - a crazy colourful mix of swoops and circles that looks like it's been ripped from a '70s disco wall - one screen is overlaid another. More intricate ones take up to five different screens. An expert has been on-site for the past 13 years to repair the original prints, says Signature Prints marketing director Helen Lennie.

With that level of detail, patterns take on a dynamic edge that translate to chic Kate Spade frocks and contemporary pieces by fashion designers such as Australia's noted Akira Isogawa, who took inspiration from the Broadhurst library in the 1990s.

The Broadhurst repertoire is best brought to life as it once was on wallpaper and fabrics, which are sold through interior designers and textile distributors. Rug companies Cadrys and Knots also carry work featuring Broadhurst patterns.

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