Having originally trained as a textile designer I really love the soft furnishings aspect of my work creating interiors and am endlessly inspired by beautiful fabrics, so I was delighted when I saw that the first ever UK exhibition of Josef Frank’s work was on at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. I hopped on the train to go and take a look, and wasn’t disappointed!
I remember some years ago on first seeing Frank’s vibrant textile designs including Teheran, Window and Italian Dinner, such a celebration of dynamic, botanical pattern and colour, I had assumed they were perhaps by Marimekko, giants of Scandinavian design in the post-war decades and synonymous with bold floral prints. Designs such as Terrazzo also seemed to have something akin to Lucienne Day’s work with her whimsical, abstract cell-like motifs and sense of vitality and optimism so associated with the designs of the 1950s. I had therefore been fascinated to discover that they were in fact the creations of Austrian-born Frank and were designed prior to and even during the Second World War. I’m always amazed at seeing designs that seem so fresh and modern it is almost incomprehensible they are not more recent, and am often envious of those who, from an era so far removed in terms of social liberation and technology, experienced such pattern and shape as genuinely new and innovative.
Josef Frank was born in Vienna in 1885 and by the 1920s was an established architect working primarily on social housing in the Functionalist style. He also had a strong interest in the design of interior products and in 1925 co-founded Haus und Garten, a design and furnishings firm serving the city’s more affluent classes, for which he created fabric patterns, furniture and lighting. On entering the exhibition visitors are greeted by a room set displaying some of these pieces against a gorgeously rich backdrop of green Sanderson paint which both complements and accentuates the mix of hues and materials. An Under Ekvatorrn upholstered sofa, vivid emerald footstool and rug with abstract shapes and contrasting tones are tempered by the more restrained and delicate decoration on the wooden sideboard and rattan chair. Frank’s fusion of traditional flora and fauna with modern, stylised pattern, his inclusion of wood veneers, brass lamps and plump seating, all demonstrate his alignment with a softer form of Modernism, one which sought to reconcile traditional materials with new technologies and acknowledge the human desire for comfortable surroundings.
In 1932 Frank was approached by Estrid Ericson to design for her interiors company Svenskt Tenn, known for its Functionalist ethos, and the following year, with the rise of the Nazism and growing anti-Semitism, he and his Swedish wife Anna relocated to Stockholm. This marked the beginning of an enduring partnership and Frank’s attentions turned away from architecture and towards designing for the domestic interior. With a comprehensive display of suspended lengths of fabric as well as original designs on paper, upholstered armchairs, a chaise longue and other soft furnishings, the exhibition guides you through the striking array of textile designs Frank produced during the 1930s and 40s, including those designed in the USA, where he lived from 1941 until after the end of the war.
Frank’s designs are simply stunning, and you cannot help but be uplifted, surrounded as you are by the intense, glowing colour and bountiful pattern. It is remarkable to think of these creations springing from this period in history, they are so far from the actuality of dictatorship, atrocity and destruction. In Frank’s rich, lush gardens riotous flowers and bulging fruits hang heavy on twisting tendrils, whilst exotic birds forage on wild waterways. Here there are no grey skies, no shortages, no danger or death. Frank was perhaps designing for a time to come rather than the here and now, though it maybe that his residence in New York made for an easier escape into this plentiful paradise than the horrors of his native Europe. This almost gluttonous medley of motifs is, however, cleverly restrained and controlled by Frank, his referencing of traditional tree of life designs and mastery of pattern structure providing proportion and order. As the exhibition highlights in its inclusion of William Morris’ Seaweed design, whilst Frank was pivotal in the development of a new ‘Swedish Modern’ he was very receptive to the principles of the 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement. The influence of Morris’ work is clear; with his flat, stylised patterns which drew upon nature; flowing, whiplash lines ramping against intricate background detail, he brought a new level of sophistication to pattern repeats which Frank obviously followed. Like Morris, Frank valued the heritage of craft and folk traditions, strong in both Britain and the Scandinavian countries, and saw no wrong in employing these to temper the often austere feel of Modernism. His was a Functionalist ethos with perhaps more realistic socialist aims than the utopia of the progressive Bauhaus, and he recognised the limits of this cold, hard style. Frank and his Scandinavian contemporaries concerned themselves not just with the machine aesthetic, but the sensory experience of design, believing in the necessity of comfort and surface pattern. In reworking the familiar and aligning it with the needs of modernity, this more organic and subtle approach continued to be heavily influential and can be seen as the basis for Scandinavian Modernism in the post-war era. Frank had the insight to realise that whilst refined, angular furniture made from tubular steel and cowhide may look fantastic against stark white walls, most people would rather sit on one of his sofas, surrounded by familiar motifs, and that is where his enduring appeal lies.
The exhibition also shows relatively unknown watercolour paintings that Frank began in the 1950s. By this time he had returned to Sweden, but work was less forthcoming and so designer turned to artist. His subjects ranged from traditional still life to scenes from his holidays spent in France and it seems his architectural background was a significant influence. After the war Frank never received any further architectural commissions and I was intrigued to learn that he instead indulged in designing fantasy homes for his friends, drawing floor plans and then rendering the exteriors in watercolour with idyllic, detailed gardens. I find this idea so endearing, that he still engaged in this practice despite planning buildings which would never be built. There’s something wonderfully childlike and free about it, considering his advancing years. Whilst softer and less energetic than his textile designs, Frank’s approach to colour shines through in his painting, with shades of deep forest green, flecks of blue and soft terracotta pinks. Their inclusion brings another dimension to the show and brilliantly contrasts his commercial work with that he did for pleasure. All in all, frankly amazing.