Burke founded Australia's first textile screen-printing business, Burway Prints, Melbourne 1937. Established and managed "New Design" retail outlet, founder member Society of Designers for Industry. Her textile designs featured fauna and flora (often Australian), abstract appropriations of Aboriginal designs and organic forms drawn from nature.
Frances Burke was best known as a fabric designer and an adventuresome retailer of modernist furnishings through her shop New Design P/L which first opened in 1948.
Burke, born into a Melbourne family involved in the textile trade in Flinders Lane, was initially trained at Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) and studied painting at the National Gallery School. Bernard Hall was the Director of the National Gallery School (W.E. McInnes after 1935) and the training there was rigorous and academic. The school’s colour palette, not allowed until fourth year, began with burnt sienna and ended with titanium white.
Perhaps as a corrective, she later attended George Bell’s school of painting at its Bourke and Queen Street location from 1936-38. Three flights of creaking timber stairs led to Bell’s studio in the old commercial building; more adventuresome students took the goods lift. Her fellow students at this time included Mary Alice Evatt (Mrs H.V. Evatt) and Sali Herman amongst others.
Critics have observed that George Bell drilled his students to paint from the subject and their imagination. As a consequence, artists such as Francis Burke used images of nature in her design work as starting points; not as goals. As she later confessed in an interview, “I was all the time with my head in a book…George taught me to create from my own mind and thoughts.”
Frances Burke was fortunate to mature at a time when the art of the Australian Aborigine was being re-discovered by contemporary artists and designers. In 1929, the National Gallery of Victoria had mounted the exhibit “Australian Aboriginal Art” and in 1930 Margaret Preston published her influential essay “Applications of Aboriginal Designs” in Art in Australia. Many of these images became part of Burke’s early oeuvre
When she left the Bell school, she founded Burway Prints (fabric prints) in August 1937 with fellow Technical College graduate Morris Holloway. Their first exhibition in 1938 was a critical success. This firm eventually became Frances Burke Fabrics, but she continued to use a textile converting company managed by Morris Holloway to print her designs.
Burke’s textile work was often derived from Australian forms and colours and she was part of a trend amongst designers in the 1930s and 1940s to look more closely at Australian imagery. Byram Mansell, for example, established a textile studio in Sydney in 1930 and rather obsessively explored Aboriginal themes for several decades. Claudio Alcorso’s Silk and Textile Printers, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney also produced a textile range called “Modernage” (1946) that included a number of Aboriginal-influenced images and colours
In 1948, in an expansive mood, Burke established New Design P/L on the first floor of 55 Hardware Street between Little Bourke Street and Lonsdale Streets. She advertised nationally and sold furnishings, fabrics, and domestic utensils designed in the relatively new Modernist style. With its first floor position, New Design had more of a gallery atmosphere than a street front shop. The shop survived in a variety of city and suburban locations until 1967.
Burke’s New Design is part of an Australian tradition of women-directed design emporia that includes Melbourne’s Cynthia Reed Modern Furnishings (1934-35) Margo Lewers’ Notanda in Sydney (1935) and Marion Best Fabrics (1938) in Woollahra
In the 1950s, Frances Burke made a convincing transition to the reigning minimal Modernist style in her fabric designs and interior furnishings. New Design also showcased furniture by Clement Meadmore and Grant Featherston. She also did the interior design work for the Hayman Island Resort during this period.
In 1956, the Olympics in Melbourne presented an Arts Festival, which included a Society of Designers for Industry-coordinated exhibition of industrial design at the Royal Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) featuring Burke’s work amongst other industrial and graphic designers.
Burke’s status as a designer was widely recognised early in her career. In 1947-48, when a professional design association, the Society of Designers for Industry (SDI) was mooted by R. Haughton James, she became a founder member. The SDI 's original committee included such design luminaries as Fred Ward, Ron Rosenfeldt and Grant Featherston. This important organisation has now evolved into the Design Institute of Australia (DIA).
As designer and retailer, she had many important and influential commissions in Government House, Canberra, several Australian embassies and consulates in Europe, the United States and the Pacific Region.
In her later career, Frances Burke played a substantial administrative role in the design community in Melbourne and was awarded a MBE (1970) and an Honorary Doctorate (RMIT) in 1987 for her services in design. Frances Burke became increasingly inaccessible in her later life and this has had an ill effect on the documentation and national acknowledgement of this important designer. Her work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia by a collection assembled by curator John McPhee, the RMIT Design Archive collection, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and other state galleries and museums.