Half Drop Hero: Josef Frank

Half Drop Hero: Josef Frank
My first encounter with Josef Frank’s work was in in the home of our Swedish friends who had decorated their sunlit Beacon Hill brownstone in a clean, crisp, and colorful style.

The pattern on their curtains struck me instantly. I asked what the fabric was, committing Frank’s name to memory, and feeling silly later not to have known his iconic pattern in the first place.
 
Josef Frank Citrus Garden and Vegetable Tree
"Citrus Garden" and "Vegetable Tree" by Josef Frank
  
I have since become somewhat obsessed with Vegetable Tree and Citrus Garden in particular, studying the repeats and colors and wondering how he managed such masterpieces. 
 
Much of this blog post is based on the book, “Swedish Modern: A Coloring Book of Magical Interiors” by Janet Coletti, and the article, “Apostle and Apostate: Josef Frank’s Modernist Vision” by Christopher Long. (See References below.) 
 
Background
 
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.
 
Josef Frank

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.  
  
Estrid Ericson and Josef Frank
Photo of Estrid Ericson and Josef Frank, Source: Svenskt Tenn.
 
Frank and Ericson developed a prolific artistic partnership that lasted thirty years, in which Frank designed the furniture and textiles, and Ericson arranged them in interiors that conveyed their vision, leading her company with bold business sense.
Cabinet Covered in Celotocaulis Fabric, Josef Frank
Cabinet Covered in "Celotocaulis" Fabric, Josef Frank
 
In 1941, Frank was forced to flee again when Nazism spread across Europe, and moved with his Swedish wife Anna to New York where he worked as a guest lecturer at the New School for Social Research and continued to design for Svenskt Tenn.

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.
 
Italian Dinner and Notturno, Josef Frank
 
Why should we care?
 
Frank’s impact on design was both aesthetic and ideological. His collaboration with Ericson led to the timeless style known as Swedish Modern, which emphasizes warmth, color, beauty, and a free and tolerant mixing in interiors.
 
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.” 
- Josef Frank, from “Room and Decoration” 1934.
 
Josef Frank La Plata and Dixieland Textiles
"La Plata" and "Dixieland" by Josef Frank 
 
How did he influence design?
 
Frank’s influence on design is as intellectual as it is artistic. He valued comfort, craft, and “classical” values such as form, proportion, and simplicity. He also encouraged individuality and sentiment when decorating a space. This famous quote of his was groundbreaking at the time and remains true today.
 
“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.”

Green Birds and Drinks by Josef Frank
"Green Birds" and "Drinks" by Josef Frank 
 
What can we learn from his process? 
In 1934, Frank wrote, “The freer the pattern, the better.”
 
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.

Josef Frank, Pattern Design
"Marble" by Josef Frank 
 
It is no surprise to me that he was also a designer of architecture and furniture, as his patterns speak to a deep understanding of how fabric would look at scale within a home.
 
Interestingly, Frank never designed wallpaper. According to Graham McKay, “His fabrics were extensions of the occupants and not additions to the architecture.”
 
A favorite anecdote
 
Josef Frank
It is not easy to find much detail on Frank’s personal life, or his personality, but this quote echoed what I felt when reading about him:
 
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.
 
Manhattan by Josef Frank
"Manhattan", by Josef Frank 

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.
 
 

References:

  • 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

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3 comments

  • Kali: January 18, 2021

    I love all the color and craziness of Frank! “Curved lines and patches of color”, I will try to remember that trick!

    Creating all that design and color representing the richness of flora and fauna must have given him great happiness during his time of exile in Manhatten.

    Goody, I wonder if you had a lampshade covered in Frank in your Cape house- or a few pillows? Do I remember correctly?

  • Goody: January 18, 2021

    I instantly fell for the exuberance of Josef Frank’s at Liberty’s in London which carried quite a lot of his prints (2009-2015) and often upholstered one-off pieces with his designs for their set pieces. I always held back because I found they were hard to mix with other fabrics. They demand their own space!!!

  • Ellie Bryant: January 18, 2021

    So interesting, Lea. Wonder if Josef is related to Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Must tell Britt about this designer. She visits a good friend in Sweden and I gave her a gift from this Swedish clothing company. Check out the designs on their fabrics. Wonder if any are Frank’s. https://www.gudrunsjoden.com/en-us

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