Josef Frank is the forgotten man of modernist design. He was twice famous during his lifetime, first in early 20th-century Austria as an architect and later as a textile designer and furniture maker in Sweden, but his reputation since his death in 1967 has been dwarfed by those of his more hard-edged contemporaries, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius among them.
Often dubbed the “anti-design designer”, he was not a fan of Le Corbusier’s belief that a house should be a “machine for living in” and rebelled against the dominant midcentury taste for a restrained monochromatic palette.
His was a softer, cosier modernism. “The house is not a work of art, simply a place where one lives,” he wrote. Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, director of the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, has described him as “the great humanist of modern architecture and design”: he certainly owed an enormous debt to another great humanist, William Morris, whose social ideals and bravura use of pattern and colour remained, throughout Frank’s career, guiding influences.
This weekend sees the first ever British exhibition dedicated to Frank’s work opens at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. There will be rooms showing his furniture designs and a number of his rarely seen watercolours; but the star exhibits are the sinuous, exotically patterned fabrics he created for Estrid Ericson’s Swedish interior design firm Svenskt Tenn, which he joined in 1934. In total, he created 160 textile patterns for Svenskt Tenn; a quarter are still in production today.
Frank’s designs would have seemed radical when they first appeared, says the exhibition’s curator Dennis Nothdruft. “People in Sweden wouldn’t have known what to make of them: everything is completely over the top and the colours are extraordinary.”
The influence of Morris is clear in the fabric Mirakel, with its undulating lines and contrasting colours set against a black background. But Frank drew inspiration from many other sources and traces of the Italian Renaissance, folklore, neoclassicism, Biedermeier and Viennese modernism can also be found in his patterns. Above all the patterns betray his love of nature: birds, flowers, rivers, trees, leaves, poisonous plants, butterflies, fish – all either drawn from life or from his beloved field manuals.
Frank, who was born in 1885, did not grow up in the countryside, but in Vienna, the son of wealthy Jews (his father was a textile manufacturer, his mother a keen embroiderer). He studied architecture before going on to co-found the Vienna Werkbund, a group of progressive designers.
In response to a severe housing shortage in the Austrian capital following the First World War, Frank campaigned for the building of affordable homes in the city, and in the Twenties designed a number of housing estates and residential blocks built around communal courtyards. In 1925, he started his own interior design firm Haus & Garten but in 1933, fearful of the rise of Hitler, decamped with his wife Anna to Stockholm, where his prolific partnership with Estrid Ericson began. In addition to his textile prints for Svenskt Tenn, he designed over 2,000 pieces of furniture.
With the onset of the Second World War, the Franks moved to New York. “He was impressed by America, by the scale of it,” says Nothdruft. “And I think he just let his imagination go. He came up with 50 designs that he sent to Ericson after the war. They really are his key pieces.” Among them is a print called US Tree. “It has one branch with leaves from every tree in America growing on it. It’s the idea that everything flourishes in one environment and people can get along. You get a sense of this eternal optimism coming out of his designs.”
Indeed the uplifting colours and energetic sweep of his designs do feel like a defiance of the dark days of war. “I think he believed things could be made better,” says Nothdruft. “At a time when society had reached a low point he was still able to create extraordinary patterns. There’s a print called Italian Dinner, which may look like just landscape with a river flowing through but actually features everything you need to make an Italian meal. There’s garlic and langoustines and basil and tomatoes – all of which would have been quite exotic in America in the Forties.”
In 1946, Frank and his wife returned to Sweden where he continued his collaboration with Ericson. By then, his enthusiasm for furniture had begun to wane: he wrote to one friend that he resented having to produce designs for an “empty-headed decadent bourgeoisie [who live] as if nothing has changed.”
It’s been said that Frank died a disappointed man – for all his success with Svenskt Tenn he never made it as an architect after leaving Austria. Nothdruft doesn’t see it that way.
“I wouldn’t say he died frustrated because he had a huge career as an architect in Austria and was very famous in Sweden during his lifetime,” he says. “Maybe he missed the element of putting it all together and making a house. But he had a completely distinctive style: he created a liveable form of modernism and functionalism.”