Historical information

Frances Burke: Designer of Modern Textiles

Australia’s most influential and celebrated textile designer of the mid-20th century, Frances Burke (1904-1994), employed Australian native flora, garden flowers, marine subjects, Indigenous culture and increasingly, abstract motifs in her stunning modern fabrics.

A confident, determined designer and businesswoman; Burke made the shift from fine art to design in 1937. While she began by designing dress fabrics for Melbourne’s fashionable Georges Department store, printing them on linen using lino blocks, she was an early adopter of the screen-printing process and during the war years began printing on cotton. Burke’s furnishing fabrics took their place in influential modern buildings Australia-wide through collaborations with leading architects and interior designers. They included Robin Boyd’s 1949 House of Tomorrow, Roy Grounds’ Quamby flats, Guilford Bell’s Royal Hayman Island Resort for Ansett Airlines, and Yuncken, Freeman Brothers, Griffiths and Simpson’s Canberra Civic Centre Theatre.

In the post-war period, Burke made regular trips to the United States and Europe, on her return advising homeowners and manufacturers on the latest trends in products, colours and home design in lectures and interviews. At New Design her fabric showroom and interior design consultancy Burke introduced furniture by emerging designers Clement Meadmore and Grant Featherston in the early 1950s and presented local and imported homewares, mostly from the United States. She was enthusiastic about the convenient and comfortable lifestyle experienced by ordinary American women. Her fabrics and advice were regularly featured in Australian Home Beautiful, Australian House and Garden and the newspapers of the day.

Some of Burke’s designs had remarkable longevity. Tiger Stripe (1938) for example, continued to be produced in a wide range of colours until 1970 and Crete (1946) remained a popular choice for interiors into the 1960s. Drawing from a rich variety of sources including Indigenous culture in Goanna (c.1954) and Pacific Island tapa cloth designs in Bird and Tree (1940), Burke also looked to Japan in designs such as Plum Blossom (1948) and Zen (1965). She loved exploring the potential of native flora, seen in designs including Waratah (1955) and Flannel Flower (1955), while garden flowers were the source for many other designs including Belladonna (1940), Periwinkle (n.d.) and Rose (1947). Burke’s clever interplay of a single striking printed colour with lively gestural lines revealing the white base fabric, gave her designs a vibrancy that characterised the optimistic post-war era. This can be seen in Burke’s fabrics for Hayman Island including Angel Fish and Seapiece (both 1949) which expressed the freshness and excitement of the luxurious new tropical resort and led to further commissions.

Burke’s three decades in business (1937-1970) were an unparalleled success in the story of Australian design. Her fabrics have been collected by the NGA, the Powerhouse Museum, NGV, RMIT Design Archives and Sydney Living Museums in addition to Ararat Gallery TAMA.

Written by Nanette Carter and Robyn Oswald-Jacobs.