As is fitting for the “Half Drop Heroes” series, Josef Frank is best known or his textile patterns, though this was only one of his many diverse passions.
Born in 1885 in Austria, Frank was the son of a textile manufacturer and an accomplished embroiderer. He studied architecture, later co-founding the interior design firm Haus & Garten in Vienna in 1925 and the International Congresses of Modern Architecture. However, Frank later became disillusioned with modernity and wrote at length on the subject.
Escaping the rise of anti-Semitism in Austria, Frank accepted an invitation from Estrid Ericson to join her company, Svenkst Tenn, in Sweden in 1934, and became a citizen of Sweden in 1939.
Enid Ericson been a long-time admirer of Frank’s work in the years leading up to this invitation. It is said that one of her greatest gifts was the ability to recognize the talent of other artists.
In 1944, Frank sent 50 patterns from New York to Stockholm for Ericson’s fiftieth birthday. These patterns still form the basis of Svenskt Tenn’s textile collection to this day.
Frank designed a total of 160 textile patterns and approximately 40 are currently in production by Svenskt Tenn. The remainder are stored in their archive and periodically reviewed and reintroduced.
In addition, I believe Josef Frank authored, to date, the most compelling explanation for the existence and persistence of pattern in decoration:
“The monochromatic surface appears uneasy, while patterns are calming and the observer is unknowingly influenced by the slow, calm way they are introduced. The observer cannot comprehend the richness of decoration so quickly. On the other hand, the monochromatic surface offers nothing of further interest and therefore one is immediately done with it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with mixing old and new, with combining different furniture styles, colors, and patterns. The things one likes will automatically merge into a calm union. A home does not need to be planned in detail or contrived; it should be a combination of the things the inhabitant feels comfortable with and loves.” – Josef Frank
And another favorite quote, from Frank’s writings on “Accidentalism”, emphasizes Frank’s distaste for the uniform approach that characterized the modern design movement:
“None of us feels comfortable in an order that has been forced upon us, even if it has been doused in a sauce of beauty.”
To achieve this sense of freedom in his patterns, as well as the sense of endless variation (which stumps me when I try and find repeats in some of his textiles), Frank worked with curved lines and patches of color. He devised complex repeat layouts using multiple rotational and displacement techniques.
The effect is magnificent, and I have tried to study his pencil marks on the sides of his drafts to get a better peek into his artistic process.
Interestingly, Frank never designed wallpaper. According to Graham McKay, “His fabrics were extensions of the occupants and not additions to the architecture.”
Frank’s one-time assistant Ernst Plischke stated in an interview that, in his view, Frank “wasn’t really an architect” at all, but — in his splendidly condensed and fitting phrase — “an intellectual, who built ideas.” (Long, 2018)
When reading some of Frank’s dense writings, one does get the sense that Frank spent much of his time thinking deeply about about architecture and design - its ultimate purposes and its effects on human experience.
While this helps to illustrate Frank’s personality, what lingers in my mind is Frank’s period of exile in New York from 1941-1946. During this time, he and his wife lived near the northern part of Broadway in Manhattan.
These years marked Frank’s mid fifties and early sixties. He was living out the height of a world war in a new position and in a new country. And yet this was Frank’s most prolific period, in which he designed his most beloved, timeless, and best-selling patterns.
The juxtaposition of such freedom in Frank’s design during a time of such subjugation of his personhood is extraordinary to me, and speaks to the power of the human mind and spirit to create and to value beauty against all odds.
Coletti, Janet. Swedish Modern: A Coloring Book of Magical Interiors. Estrid Ericson, Josef Frank, & Svenskt Ten Thames & Hudson. July 2017
Long, Christopher. Josef Frank, “Apostle and Apostate: Josef Frank’s Modernist Vision,” Places Journal, February 2018. Accessed 17 Jan 2021. https://doi.org/10.22269/180206
Bjork, Christian. “Estrid Ericson’s Stylish Start. Svenkst Tenn Magazine. Accessed 17 Jan 2021. https://www.svenskttenn.se/en/magazine/estrid-ericsons-stylish-start/.
Graham McKay, "Architecture Misfit #33: Josef Frank," Misfits' Architecture, published on August 26, 2018, accessed on January 17, 2021.https://misfitsarchitecture.com/2018/08/26/architecture-misfit-33-josef-frank/.