Space within the surface : the patterned surfaces of Florence Broadhurst and Jim Thompson

Volz, Kirsty (2012) Space within the surface : the patterned surfaces of Florence Broadhurst and Jim Thompson. In Together < > Apart : Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference 2012, 12 - 14 July 2012, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia.


The Woods Bagot 2007 refurbishment of the Qantas and British Airways Bangkok Business lounge in the Survarnabhumi Airport features wall finishes designed by wallpaper designer, Florence Broadhurst (1899-1977) and Thai Silk trader, Jim Thompson (1906-1967). This distinctive selection, which is proclaimed on the airport’s website, of patterned wall surfaces side by side draws attention to their striking similarities and their defining differences . Thompson and Broadhurst would appear to be worlds apart, but here in the airport their work brings them together. Thompson, the son of a wealthy cotton family in America, worked as an architect before joining the army. He moved to Bangkok to start The Thai Silk Company in 1948. Broadhurst was born on a farm in Mt. Perry, Queensland. She began her career as a performance artist, as part of an Australian troupe in Shanghai, moving onto pursue a career in fashion design, catering to the middle and upper classes in London. Upon her return to Australia, Broadhurst started a print design company in 1959. Both Broadhurst and Thompson pursued multiple careers, lived many lives, and died under mysterious circumstances. Broadhurst was murdered in 1977 at her Sydney print warehouse, which remains an unsolved crime. Thompson disappeared in Malaysia in 1967 and his body has never been found.

This chapter investigates the parallels between Thompson and Broadhurst and what lead them to design such popular patterns for wall surfaces towards the end of their careers. While neither designer was a household name, their work is familiar to most, seen in the costume and set design of films, on the walls of restaurants and cafes and even in family homes. The reason for the popularity of their patterns has not previously been analysed. However, this chapter suggests that the patterns are intriguing because they contain something of their designers’ identities. It suggests that the coloured surface provides a way of camouflaging and hiding its subjects’ histories, such that Broadhurst and Thompson, consciously or unconsciously, used the patterned surface as a plane in which their past lives could be buried. The revealing nature of the stark white wall, compared with the forgiveness provided by the pattern in which to hide, is elaborated by painter and advocate for polychromatic architecture, Fernand Léger in his essay, “The Wall, The Architect, The Painter (1965).” Léger writes that, “the modern architect has gone too far in his magnificent attempts to cleanse through emptiness,” and that the resultant white walls of modernity create ‘an impalpability of air, of slick, brilliant new surfaces where nothing can be hidden any longer …even shadows don’t dare to enter’. To counter the exposure produced by the white wall, Thompson and Broadhurst designed patterned surfaces that could harbour their personal histories.

Broadhurst and Thompson’s works share a number of commonalities in their design production, even though their work in print design commenced a decade apart. Both designers opted to work more with traditional methods of pattern making. Broadhurst used hand-operated screens, and Thompson outsourced work to local weavers and refrained from operating out of a factory. Despite humble beginnings, Broadhurst and Thompson enjoyed international success with their wall patterns being featured in a number of renowned international hotels in Bahrain, Singapore, Sydney, and London in the 1970s and 1980s. Their patterns were also transferred to fabric for soft furnishings and clothing. Thompson’s patterns were used for costumes in films including the King and I and Ben Hur. Broadhurst’s patterns were also widely used by fashion designers and artists, such as Akira Isogowa‘s costume design for Salome, a 1998 production by the Sydney Dance Company. Most recently her print designs have been used by skin illustrator Emma Hack, in a series of works painting female bodies into Broadhurst’s patterns. Hack’s works camouflage the models’ bodies into the patterned surface, assimilating subject and surface, hinting at there being something living within the patterned wall. More than four decades after Broadhurst’s murder and five decades since Thompson’s disappearance, their print designs persist as more than just a legacy. They are applied as surface finishes with the same fervour as when the designs were first released. This chapter argues that the reason for the ongoing celebration of their work is that there is the impalpable presence of the creator in the patterns. It suggests that the patterns blur the boundary between subject and surface.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 75078
Item Type: Conference Item (Presentation)
Refereed: Yes
Additional URLs:
ISBN: 9780987346902
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > BUILT ENVIRONMENT AND DESIGN (120000) > ARCHITECTURE (120100) > Interior Design (120106)
Divisions: Current > Schools > School of Design
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Deposited On: 20 Aug 2014 05:41
Last Modified: 20 Aug 2014 05:41

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