By Robyn Oswald-Jacobs and Nanette Carter

    Frances Burke was Australia’s leading textile designer of the 20th century. Outspoken and enthusiastic, Burke believed that good design improved our quality of life and made it more enjoyable. Born in Spotswood in 1904, she was the third child of parents who worked in the clothing industry. She later recalled that fabrics were constantly passed around the family to be ‘felt, looked at and understood’. 

    On leaving school Burke trained as a nurse in Mt St Evin’s hospital which later became St Vincent’s. There she met Fabie Chamberlin, her partner in life and later in business. The two shared a series of apartments in East Melbourne, close to the hospitals where they worked, and enjoyed all that the city had to offer.

    In 1932, after her mother died leaving her a modest inheritance, Burke took night classes in drawing at the Gallery School (now the VCA) and then in art and design at Melbourne Technical College (MTC, now RMIT University) where she twice won an annual scholarship. By 1936 she began working in advertising and studying painting with George Bell who she explained ‘taught you to think and act for yourself and be creative which is a very, very important thing later.’

    Deciding that textile design offered both the creative life she aspired to, and a reliable income, Frances Burke established a business in the following year with fellow MTC student, Maurice Holloway. He undertook the printing of Burke’s designs using lino blocks while she managed design, sales and promotion. Despite a rocky start with their first commission from the elegant Georges department store, the ‘Burway’ studio was established in Little Collins Street and further orders for fashion fabrics from Georges and Myer flooded in. 

    Burke’s early designs were of simplified flowers, fronds and leaves, abstract, or were inspired by traditional Pacific Island designs on tapa cloth and wood that she encountered in the Melbourne Museum. They were often printed using a single colour on Irish linen. Before long Burway began producing furnishing fabrics, adopting the silk-screen process and printing onto heavy cotton. World War II was good for business as regulations limited imported prints as an unnecessary luxury and when Holloway left to serve in the Home Guard, Burke’s studio manager Jane Williams and Fabie Chamberlin became her business partners.

    The post-war housing boom of the 1950s and 60s. saw countless Australians purchasing Frances Burke fabrics to furnish their small modern homes. Burke began making regular trips to the United States, then Europe and Scandinavia, sharing her observations with newspapers and magazines on the design and furnishing of the modern home and reducing women’s work within it. She also opened a retail space in Hardware Street to sell her fabrics, homewares, and furniture by Australian designers Clement Meadmore and Grant Featherston, offering an interior design service. Frances Burke’s fabrics were used in hospitals, offices and theatres throughout Australia, their use recommended by significant architects including Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds, Peter McIntyre and John and Phyllis Murphy. 

    While researching her work, the authors of Frances Burke Designer of Modern Textiles were gifted some smaller pieces of Frances Burke’s fabric that had not found a home in the many public institutions that have collected it, including the NGV, the NGA and Sydney Living Museums. A selection have been framed for an October exhibition in a Robin Boyd house in Beaumaris; these pieces will be offered for sale through an online auction – the proceeds funding a design student fellowship. 

    Robyn Oswald-Jacobs and Nanette Carter will be giving a talk on Frances Burke for the City of Hobson’s Bay at the Civic Centre Altona on the 16th August.

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