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9 Apr 20

Women of Industry: Frances Burke and Joyce Coffey


For much of the twentieth century, women’s participation in the industrial design profession was limited. There was no specific training available for them, and prior to the first diploma courses being established in post-secondary institutions after the Second World War they entered the profession through certificate courses such as art or applied art at a technical college. This was the case for Melbourne designers Frances Burke (1907–1994) and Joyce Coffey (1918–2001). Burke, more than a decade older than Coffey, had practised as a nurse in the late 1920s and early 1930s before undertaking art classes at the National Gallery School, Melbourne Technical College and, later, the George Bell School. She founded her textile business in 1937. Coffey, on the other hand, like other Australian women who were to make a career in design, was trained in applied art before being seconded into the war effort as a draughtswoman. Burke, who never married, conducted a solo practice supported by her lifelong partner Fabie (Frances Mary) Chamberlain, also a trained nurse; Coffey (formerly Hiddlestone) went into practice with her husband Selwyn Coffey. Each became an early member of the Society of Designers for Industry, founded in 1947 and inspired by the Council of Industrial Design in England, and both contributed to the articulation of the modernist interior as it developed in Australia after the war. However, there was a major difference between the two: whereas Coffey worked within an established industry that produced well-known industrial products, Burke worked within what was then known as a craft which, through her astuteness and unflagging energy, she rebranded as design. In the process she transformed herself from a craftswoman into an industrial designer.

FRANCES BURKE
In the field of mid-century Australian design Frances Burke holds a pre-eminent position as a designer, design activist and businesswoman. In 1937 she established Burway Prints with fellow Melbourne Technical College (MTC) student Maurice Holloway, building on the example of English-born Michael O’Connell, who had established textile design on a professional footing in Melbourne in 1930. Burke’s business was a success and in 1941 her studio was featured in Design in Everyday Things, the booklet published from the series of ABC radio broadcasts on design. In 1942, Burway Prints became Frances Burke Fabrics Pty Ltd, after Holloway left to establish Textile Converters, which printed most of Burke’s textiles. In 1948 Burke established a studio and retail outlet, Good Design (later New Design), at 55 Hardware Street, Melbourne, an innovative design space for Melbourne at the time.1 Nanette Carter, ‘Burke, Frances Mary (1904–1994)’, 2018, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burke-frances-mary-23843, accessed 4 Aug. 2019. Here, as Australian House & Garden journalist Leslie Stahle later wrote, Burke presented ‘not only her own fabrics, but a comprehensive stock of everyday equipment – kitchen utensils, some furniture, light fittings, domestic utilities – each article a genuine product of industrial design. It is called, appropriately, new design’.2 Leslie Stahle, ‘What industrial design means to you’, Australian House & Garden, Feb. 1950, p. 78.

Burke constructed a narrative around her work that emphasised authorship, design and modernity. She stood out with her overtly modern premises in the city but also in her advertising, published lectures and essays, choice of clients, and public persona as design advocate. So, while Burke was an exhibiting member of the well-established Arts and Crafts Society, which had historically nurtured women designers, she was also active in the nascent design profession. She was one the first members of the Society of Designers for Industry (SDI) and later was a foundation member of the Industrial Design Institute of Australia, established in 1958. Both were precursors of what is now the Design Institute of Australia. When she returned from an early business trip to the United States in 1947, her remarks on the flourishing state of industrial design in that country were published. Burke noted that industrial design was ‘a very well-defined profession in the States these days’ and that it was ‘as clearly defined a profession as medicine or the law’.3 ‘Industrial designer is home again’, The Argus, 21 Nov. 1949. Her remarks were in tune with the time, foretelling not only the foundation of SDI but also the first graduates of Industrial Design from MTC in 1948, the course having been devised in 1939.4 Michael Bogle, ‘Establishing the 1939 Industrial Design programme at Melbourne Technical College’, Academia.edu, https://www.academia.edu/35956326/Establishing_the_1939_Industrial_Design_programme_at_Melbourne_Technical_College, accessed 11 Aug. 2019.

Burke had already made her name in architectural circles, designing curtains for Roy Grounds’s innovative flats at Glover Court, Toorak (1941), sofa covers in the masterly Crete pattern for Frederick Sterne’s well-appointed South Yarra apartment in 1946 and full-height curtains for Grounds’s ‘Iluka’ in Mornington (1951).5 The Sterne apartment was published in Australian Home Beautiful, May 1946, pp. 8–9. In 1949 Burke collaborated with Robin Boyd on the House of Tomorrow for designer and advertising executive Richard Haughton James’s Modern Home Exhibition, a showcase for the SDI. Her successful Tiger Stripe, a tidied-up version of a similar design by O’Connell, featured in numerous modern interiors published in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Child Study Centre at the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychology.6This room is illustrated in Philip Goad, Ann Stephen, Andrew McNamara, Harriet Edquist & Isabel Wunsche, Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond: Transforming Education Through Art, Design and Architecture, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2019, p. 137. In 1949 Burke chose a marine theme for the soft furnishings in the hotel and guestrooms of architect Guilford Bell’s Hayman Island holiday resort in Queensland, and at the same time she collaborated with architect Leighton Irwin on the Princess Margaret Nurses Home, Hamilton, Victoria, one of her most extensive commissions. For this she designed curtains, bedcovers and napery for dozens of bedrooms and sitting rooms to complement the somewhat austere furniture. She undertook similar projects for the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the former Margaret Coles maternity wing at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, as well as Geelong and District hospital and a workers’ hostel at Yallourn, Victoria.7All these projects are referenced in the article ‘Industrial design standards not high here’, The Weekly Times, 17 Aug. 1949, p. 37. The RMIT Design Archives holds a small collection of fabrics from the Princess Margaret Nurses Home, Hamilton.

It was as a designer, not as a craftswoman, that Burke associated and exhibited with contemporary designers and architects. In 1948 she exhibited in the 7 Designers exhibition at David Jones Gallery, Sydney. In 1956 her work was shown with other industrial and graphic design as part of 1956 Arts Festival of the Olympic Games, Melbourne, while in 1958 she was elected a council member of Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art and Design (now Heide Museum of Modern Art), established by John and Sunday Reed.8For 7 Designers, see Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences,‘“7 Designers” exhibition catalogue’, MAAS, NSW Government, https://collection.maas.museum/object/99660, accessed 11 Aug. 2019; for Burke and the Coffeys at the 1956 Arts Festival of the Olympic Games, and Burke and the Museum of Modern Art and Design, see Michael Bogle, ‘The beginning of a design wave’, 16 May 2007, Curve, https://www.curvelive.com/Magazine/Archives/nineteen/The-beginning-of-a-designwave, accessed 11 Aug. 2019. At the same time, she endeavoured to raise the status of design by invoking associations with science. While in the United States for a second time, in 1949, she had become aware of the use of colour theory in industrial environments. On her return to Australia she corresponded with George MacDonald from the American National Safety Council, requesting statistical material relating to the reduction of accidents through the application of colour.9RMIT Design Archives, George MacDonald, letter to Frances Burke, 29 Nov. 1949. In this letter MacDonald responded to Burke’s request for information by sending brochures on colour’s role in safety. Burke also writes about colour and safety in the 1949 Argus article. She refers to the use of colour and colour theory elsewhere in her writing and interviews; for example, in ‘Using colour and light to best advantage’, The Leader, Aug. 1956, p. 42. This was one in a series of articles on interior design published by The Leader from June to October 1956. In an interview with Burke at the time, The Age noted her interest in the science of colour in factories ‘to lighten walls, emphasise hazard areas and so forth’.10 ‘Colour in industrial design’, The Age, 21 Nov. 1949. This interest was probably fostered by her experience as a nurse. By 1960, Burke was recognised as a female role model for the Australian design industry:

Frances Burke, leading designer of fabrics in Australia, is Burke’s Tiger Stripe design, seen here on curtains in a house designed by Geoffrey Mewton in Black Rock, Melbourne, was one woman where we should have thousands; for Australia is woefully backward in original designing … If only we could find more women willing to blaze the trail for us in this and kindred matters, Australia might become one of the great nations of the far east.11As Housewife, Home and Family noted, page 1, c. 1960.

That year she designed the curtains for the La Trobe Gallery at the State Library of Victoria with the Public Works Department and in 1965 the curtains for the Canberra Theatre Centre designed by Roy Simpson of Yuncken, Freeman Brothers, Griffiths and Simpson.12 The La Trobe Library curtains featured the Shields pattern and several of these curtains are held in the RMIT Design Archives. While Burke is well represented in major Australian museums and galleries, her work occupies an uneasy position within our modernist historiography. Her career is referred to in Grace Cochrane’s 1992 book The Crafts Movement in Australia: A History and Michael Bogle’s 1998 book Design in Australia: 1880–1970, yet is only fleetingly glimpsed in architectural texts on modernism despite her extensive collaborations with key modernist architects. The modernist interior is generally represented as a space to be filled with objects like furniture, light fittings and ornaments. It is not construed as experiential or sensory. This is interesting, because Burke often designed full-length curtains for her avant-garde clients which, when closed over the architects’ large expanses of glazed wall, cut out the exterior view and created an entirely different experience of space, one which was internalised and framed by colour, pattern and texture. Textiles used in this manner, it might be argued, were a major disruption to one of the orthodoxies of modern architecture – the unmediated flow of space from interior to exterior – and thus offered a different account of modernism as a lived experience rather than as an aestheticised representation. As Burke herself noted, ‘The curtaining of a window, particularly, often sets the tone of the whole room, regardless of its other furnishings, be they good or bad, new or old’.13Frances Burke, ‘Interior design’, The Leader, 20 June 1956, p. 38.

JOYCE COFFEY
Joyce Coffey and her husband Selwyn Coffey joined the Society of Designers for Industry at around the same time as Burke, and the three designers exhibited together at the 1956 Arts Festival of the Olympic Games. By this time, Joyce Coffey was one half of lighting company Kempthorne’s design team. This established firm advertised its products, not its designers – unlike Burke, who closely identified herself with her products. Within these constraints, however, we can nonetheless track Joyce Coffey’s career from the late 1940s to the 1960s from published interviews, advertisements and articles in the popular press.

Selwyn Coffey was born in 1913 and by 1931 had established Kempthorne with his brother Owen. He was only eighteen at the time, and he later recalled that his interest in lamp design was sparked by a course at MTC that required students to design an object and then produce it in metal.14‘A history of Kempthorne Lighting P/L’, typescript probably by Owen Coffey, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives. The company flourished, but in 1939 the entire output of Kempthorne was taken over by the Department of
Defence, for which it manufactured lighting products used by the armed forces during the war. From 1939 to 1941 Coffey was enrolled in a photography course in the School of Applied Art at MTC; it seems he never completed a certificate course in design. Joyce Hiddlestone, meanwhile, had enrolled at MTC in 1936 and completed a Certificate of Art and the Drawing Teachers Certificate course in 1939. Impressed with her work, Harold Brown, head of the School of Applied Art, noted in a reference that her design ability was excellent, and she was able to apply her design knowledge to various processes.15 Harold Brown, reference for Joyce Hiddlestone, The Melbourne Technical College, 7 Aug. 1939, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives. In 1940 he brought her back to the College to teach mechanical and engineering drawing. In 1941 she was seconded by the Ordnance Production Directorate as a draughtswoman to work on mechanical engineering drafting for the classified ‘O.S. 28’, Australia’s aerial torpedo.16 ‘Women’s work in Olympic festival’, The Age, 9 Aug. 1956, p. 5. Joyce was one of the many Australian women who went from art and design studies in technical colleges into war work. This experience gave them a view of manufacturing and design that would previously have been inaccessible.17 Harriet Edquist, ‘Joyce Coffey (1918–2001): industrial designer’, RMIT Design Archives Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 5–11.

It may have been at MTC that Selwyn met Joyce; by 1941 they had married.18 RMIT Design Archives. In 1945 they began their productive partnership as design directors at Kempthorne and three years later, in 1948, Kempthorne relocated from inner-suburban Melbourne to the developing industrial area around Dandenong Road, Clayton. This move inaugurated two decades of expansion built on innovation in both manufacturing and design, early evidence of which was the 1940s Athenic pendant light, which presaged the modernist pendant lights of the 1950s and 1960s. It is tempting to extrapolate from this sequence of events that Joyce, trained in modern design, had as important a role to play in the future design trajectory of Kempthorne as Selwyn. For the Athenic model of lighting, the Coffey brothers (Erle and Terence Coffey had joined their brothers Owen and Selwyn in the mid 1930s) invented a unique method of silk-screening onto glass with ceramic colour, which required innovations in furnace design and construction.19 Information from typescript held in the Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives.

In partnerships such as that between Joyce and Selwyn Coffey it is difficult and not particularly fruitful for historians to assign the label ‘designer’ to one partner or the other. While Selwyn Coffey was identified as the firm’s designer in the context of company history, Joyce Coffey was publicly recognised as a designer early in the partnership.20 In three typescript historical outlines of Kempthorne, Joyce is not mentioned. Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives. A 1949 feature on the couple in The Argus quoted Selwyn Coffey: ‘We work as a team … And that goes for the household chores, too. It is Joyce’s job to do all the designing … and our firm does the rest’.21 The Argus, 18 Jan. 1949, p. 4. Recognition of the partnership continued during the 1950s when the Kempthorne entries into the Arts Festival of the Olympic Games drew comment from the press:

Joyce Coffey works in partnership with her husband, Selwyn Coffey. They are two of Australia’s most forward-looking designers of modern decorative lamp fittings, Selwyn Coffey working on the shape of the lamps and his wife on the designs for the glass.22 ‘Women’s work in Olympic festival’, The Age.

A brochure for the successful Tempo range promoted the fact that it was ‘created by two of Australia’s most forward-looking designers, Selwyn and Joyce Coffey, whose work is already attracting attention overseas as well as in this country’.23 Kempthorne Guide to Home Lighting, colour brochure issued at Clayton, 1956, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives. A 1953 reference for Joyce from Kempthorne itself noted that ‘she had worked with her husband on mechanical and aesthetic design projects for Kempthorne Pty Ltd the past eight years’. Clearly, her expertise in mechanical drafting was of as much relevance at Kempthorne as her capacity in design.24 A. Ewing, Secretary, Kempthorne Propriety Limited, reference for Joyce Coffey, 28 Oct. 1953, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives. In a 1959 feature on the flexible, all-weather Kempthorne wall light, Australian Home Beautiful noted that it was ‘designed by Joyce and Selwyn Coffey, A.I.D.I.A’,25 Australian Home Beautiful, May 1959, p. 27. while a 1963 advertorial in The Australian Women’s Weekly noted, ‘Who better to design lighting for the home than a husband and wife team? Meet Joyce and Selwyn Coffey of Kempthorne, heads of the Kempthorne design team’.26 Joyce Coffey & Selwyn Coffey, ‘How to light low-ceiling homes’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 7 Aug. 1963, p. 66.

It was as a design team that the Coffeys advised their potential customers on the correct use of their lighting in modern houses. For the lower ceilings of contemporary houses, they cautioned: ‘Keep the lights close to the ceiling. While pendants bring elegance to rooms with high ceilings, pendants can be quite wrong for low ceilings’.27 ibid. Like Frances Burke’s textiles, Kempthorne products were soon attached to modern architecture; Kempthorne lamps illustrated an article on lighting by Fred Ward in Australian Home Beautiful in 1953.28 Australian Home Beautiful, Feb. 1953, pp. 6–9. Full-page spreads of their products lit up the pages of the magazine throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and in 1959 they advertised that the Kanatopsky House in Kew by architect Harry Ernest had used Kempthorne lights throughout.29 ‘Kempthorne lights recommended by leading architects to make your home truly modern’, Australian Home Beautiful, June 1959, p. 92. But, unlike Burke, Kempthorne could not rely solely on modernist architects to specify their products; in a country with a small population, they had to cater to a broad market and they continued to provide conservative lighting based on historical models.

Kempthorne entered the 1960s with a formidable range of lighting designs, a smart new sunburst logo designed around 1959 and brighter ‘books of lighting’. One catalogue from the beginning of the decade noted ‘most designs [were] by Selwyn and Joyce Coffey. All units made in Australia. Some designs are reproduced in America and Italy’.30 Kempthorne Lighting Catalogue, c. 1960, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives. What is clear is that Kempthorne deliberately fostered the concept of the design team and that Joyce Coffey and her husband were equals in their design partnership.

The stories of Frances Burke and Joyce Coffey illuminate two modes by which women entered the design profession in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Burke developed her brand around herself as designer. Kempthorne’s brand was built up around its name, in the traditional manner of industrial design companies. In its first three decades, however, it was a family company and that allowed the Coffeys flexibility as to how they marketed themselves and they chose to feature the husband and wife design team. Burke was one of a number of successful female textile designers in postwar Melbourne; her contemporaries included Ailsa Graham Art Fabrics and Eclarte (Mollie Grove and Catherine Hardess). She alone, however, capitalised on her name as her brand, a marketing strategy that later became the norm for fashion and textile studios. Similarly, Joyce and Selwyn Coffey’s design partnership preceded and heralded other successful husband-and-wife design teams such as architects Phyllis and John Murphy, and furniture designers Grant and Mary Featherston. The significance of Burke and Coffey therefore lies not only in their capacity as designers, but also in their modes of design practice and how they chose to communicate them to the public.

Notes

1

Nanette Carter, ‘Burke, Frances Mary (1904–1994)’, 2018, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burke-frances-mary-23843, accessed 4 Aug. 2019.

2

Leslie Stahle, ‘What industrial design means to you’, Australian House & Garden, Feb. 1950, p. 78.

3

‘Industrial designer is home again’, The Argus, 21 Nov. 1949.

4

Michael Bogle, ‘Establishing the 1939 Industrial Design programme at Melbourne Technical College’, Academia. edu, https://www.academia.edu/35956326/Establishing_the_1939_Industrial_Design_programme_at_Melbourne_Technical_College, accessed 11 Aug. 2019.

5

The Sterne apartment was published in Australian Home Beautiful, May 1946, pp. 8–9.

6

This room is illustrated in Philip Goad, Ann Stephen, Andrew McNamara, Harriet Edquist & Isabel Wunsche, Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond: Transforming Education Through Art, Design and Architecture, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2019, p. 137.

7

All these projects are referenced in the article ‘Industrial design standards not high here’, The Weekly Times, 17 Aug. 1949, p. 37. The RMIT Design Archives holds a small collection of fabrics from the Princess Margaret Nurses Home, Hamilton.

8

For 7 Designers, see Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences,‘“7 Designers” exhibition catalogue’, MAAS, NSW Government, https://collection.maas.museum/object/99660, accessed 11 Aug. 2019; for Burke and the Coffeys at the 1956 Arts Festival of the Olympic Games, and Burke and the Museum of Modern Art and Design, see Michael Bogle, ‘The beginning of a design wave’, 16 May 2007, Curve, https://www.curvelive.com/Magazine/Archives/nineteen/The-beginning-of-a-designwave, accessed 11 Aug. 2019.

9

RMIT Design Archives, George MacDonald, letter to Frances Burke, 29 Nov. 1949. In this letter MacDonald responded to Burke’s request for information by sending brochures on colour’s role in safety. Burke also writes about colour and safety in the 1949 Argus article. She refers to the use of colour and colour theory elsewhere in her writing and interviews; for example, in ‘Using colour and light to best advantage’, The Leader, Aug. 1956, p. 42. This was one in a series of articles on interior design published by The Leader from June to October 1956.

10

‘Colour in industrial design’, The Age, 21 Nov. 1949.

11

As Housewife, Home and Family noted, page 1, c. 1960.

12

The La Trobe Library curtains featured the Shields pattern and several of these curtains are held in the RMIT Design Archives.

13

Frances Burke, ‘Interior design’, The Leader, 20 June 1956, p. 38.

14

A history of Kempthorne Lighting P/L’, typescript probably by Owen Coffey, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives.

15

Harold Brown, reference for Joyce Hiddlestone, The Melbourne Technical College, 7 Aug. 1939, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives.

16

‘Women’s work in Olympic festival’, The Age, 9 Aug. 1956, p. 5.

17

Harriet Edquist, ‘Joyce Coffey (1918–2001): industrial designer’, RMIT Design Archives Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 5–11.

18

RMIT Design Archives.

19

Information from typescript held in the Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives.

20

In three typescript historical outlines of Kempthorne, Joyce is not mentioned. Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives.

21

The Argus, 18 Jan. 1949, p. 4.

22

‘Women’s work in Olympic festival’, The Age.

23

Kempthorne Guide to Home Lighting, colour brochure issued at Clayton, 1956, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives.

24

A. Ewing, Secretary, Kempthorne Propriety Limited, reference for Joyce Coffey, 28 Oct. 1953, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives.

25

Australian Home Beautiful, May 1959, p. 27.

26

Joyce Coffey & Selwyn Coffey, ‘How to light low-ceiling homes’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 7 Aug. 1963, p. 66.

27

ibid.

28

Australian Home Beautiful, Feb. 1953, pp. 6–9.

29

‘Kempthorne lights recommended by leading architects to make your home truly modern’, Australian Home Beautiful, June 1959, p. 92.

30

Kempthorne Lighting Catalogue, c. 1960, Kempthorne collection, RMIT Design Archives.