Josef Frank has had an enormous impact on the history of Swedish design. Despite the fact that he was already 50 years old when he came to Sweden and that his personal style went completely against the strict functionalist ideals of the 1930's, the Austrian architect is considered to be one of Sweden's most important designers of all time.
”IT DOESN'T MATTER if you mix old and new, or different styles, colours and patterns. The things you like will always blend, by themselves, into a peaceful whole.”
The Austrian architect Josef Frank’s oft-quoted interior design philosophy from 1958 is further proof that he was ahead of his time. The quotation above, couldn’t it be from a contemporary interior design magazine? Continue browsing and you will surely find: “Do as you please!”, which is exactly what Josef Frank said with his “accidentism”, his “philosophy of accident”.
Josef Frank made his entry on the Swedish design scene in 1934. And it was an entrance with a vengeance.
Newly arrived in Sweden and in the furniture business, he represented Svenskt Tenn in an exhibition at Liljevalchs konsthall, entitled Standard för bostad och bohag. The 1930 Stockholm Exhibition had introduced functionalism in Sweden and the Liljevalchs exhibition showcased neat, practical furniture free from any “unnecessary” embellishment. In 1932, Björn Trägårdh had designed his square armchair “3665” for Svenskt Tenn, just to give an example of the design ideals of the time.
Exhibition at Liljevalch's Art Gallery 1934, “Standard for homes and furnishings”.
What did Frank present at the Liljevalchs exhibition? A sofa which is one of the most bombastic in the history of furniture design! The “Liljevalchs Sofa”, as it was soon known, had a seating depth of 140 cm, at a time when the standard depth was 80 cm. In addition it was covered in flowery chintz! A more explicit break with convention is hard to imagine. But Josef Frank was a man who went his own way. And he pulled it off. Critics talked of the “bulging forms of the fashionable upholstery furniture that knocked the breath out of the taste experts”, claiming that “a new exciting artistic temperament free from the puritanical demands of moderation” had infiltrated Svenskt Tenn.
Josef Frank had a solid foundation to fall back on. He was almost 50 years old and had his principles. Furthermore, he came from a different design culture than the Swedish. Raised and educated as an architect in Vienna, Frank had not only designed public super blocks to deal with the severe housing shortage in the city; he had also, in addition to serving as Professor of Building Design at the Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule, designed furniture, fabrics and interior designs.
HE VEERED TOWARDS A FREER, MORE ARTISTICALLY CHARACTERISED STYLE IDEAL, AND DEVELOPED HIS OWN TYPE
OF MODERNISM CENTRED ON VALUES SUCH AS COMFORT, HOMINESS AND A WEALTH OF COLOUR.
Already in 1910, he had decorated his sister Hedvig and her husband Karl Tedesco’s home in Vienna, demonstrating his exotic mixture of forms and styles that would follow him throughout his career. In the Vienna apartment, Biedermeier’s light chairs paired up with an English 18th-century chiffonier. The tiled stove related to rural culture while the Oriental influences were represented by the many ottomans. And Frank would continue in the same vein. He crossed all boundaries of time and space to garner inspiration for his furniture, which could come from Europe as well as from the Egypt of the Pharaohs, the New World of North America or the China of the Emperors.
The French architect Le Corbusier’s late- 1920s ideas about the home as “a machine to live in” did not strike a chord with Frank. He was against puritanical principles and feared that modernism’s standardised interior designs would make people equally homogenised. He veered towards a freer, more artistically characterised style ideal, and developed his own type of modernism centred on values such as comfort, hominess and a wealth of colour.
Cabinet 522, designed 1934-35.
Arm chair 568, designed 1936.
In 1925, Josef Frank and architect Oskar Wlach founded the interior design company Haus und Garten, which proved a success both artistically and commercially. However, for Frank, the long-term benefit of Haus und Garten was that it was here that Estrid Ericson discovered his designs. In 1932 they embarked on a collaboration that resulted in Josef Frank and his Swedish wife Anna leaving the nascent Nazism of Austria for Sweden and Svenskt Tenn.
Josef Frank initiated his artistic collaboration with Svenskt Tenn in 1934 and just a few years later the duo Frank/Ericson had their international breakthrough. Svenskt Tenn’s contributions to the World Fairs of Paris in 1937 and New York in 1939 went against the grain of the prevalent ideals and were characterised by bold contrasts, in terms of materials, colours and patterns. Their exhibitions received a great deal of attention and contributed to the fact that the Swedish/Austrian duo, somewhat paradoxically, came to personify the concept Swedish Modern.
Josef Frank was an open-minded and freedom-loving architect who was against detailed planning of other people’s homes. But it did not stop him from having very decided opinions on what to consider when you decorate a home. Some of his principles were collected in his 1934 article “Rum och inredning” (Rooms and interiors) in the Swedish Handicraft Association’s magazine Form. In it, he writes that one ought to stay away from making architecture with furniture: “If one desires the room to be comfortable, its demarcations must be clearly discernible, that is, all pieces of furniture should allow for a free view of the separating line between the floor and the wall. A cabinet without legs breaks this line and thus reduces the feeling of space.” According to Frank, white walls provided the maximum freedom of action and was thus to be preferred. But he welcomed patterns:
“A monochrome surface is tiring; the more ornamentation, the more calming is the effect, because the viewer is unconsciously affected by the slow approach that is behind it. It takes time to fathom a rich ornamentation; a monochrome surface, however, is immediately decipherable and thus no longer of interest.”
Josef Frank in his home at Rindögatan in Stockholm.
He was rather alone in entertaining this theory in 1930s Sweden. In fact, Josef Frank’s now worldfamous patterns were met with general skepticism until the second half of the 1940s. To talk about Frank at the Swedish Handicraft Association amounted to sacrilege. They thought that he was stuck in a bourgeois cul-de-sac – even though he actually was a socialist. The powerful colours and the personal expression were perceived as foreign during a time when the Social Democrats sought collective solutions and the fashionable colours were white, beige and grey. Moderation was the catchword of the time, and Frank was not in moderation – which he also demonstrated by his way of creating patterns. He experimented with partial dislocations (the vertical lines are partially dislocated) and “brick printing” and believed that pattern design should provide surprises. “Every object that we can take an interest in, in some way or the other has to be an enigma concealing something mysterious we cannot easily cope with.”
HIS FABRICS ARE A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION FOR THOUSANDS OF TEXTILE DESIGNERS ALL OVER THE WORLD.
These types of ideas are still of topical interest. Especially young designers think very highly of Josef Frank. His “National Museum Cabinet” has received many accolades in the design community and his fabrics are a source of inspiration for thousands of textile designers all over the world. In collaboration with Estrid Ericson, Josef Frank managed to create the sense of timelessness that so many designers strive to achieve but which proves so elusive. And he did this without being in moderation.