Last year I had the opportunity to write about Josef Frank, one of my very favourite textile designers, for my Level 2 interior design course. I’ve been borderline obsessed with all things Josef Frank for years now. If you spend time on Pinterest, there’s a very good chance that you’ve seen Frank’s iconic designs on wallpaper or upholstery. Keep reading to learn about the man behind those designs!
Josef Frank was an influential Austrian-born architect of Jewish ancestry, who became best known for his textile and furniture designs. It was Frank’s Jewish heritage that led him to flee the Nazism that was starting to take hold of his native Austria in 1933. Frank made a new and successful life in Sweden and later gained Swedish citizenship in 1939. Before moving to Sweden, Frank studied architecture at the Vienna Institute of Technology and later taught at the Vienna School of Art from 1919-1925. As a young man, Frank had already gained notoriety in Vienna as part of the Modernism movement. It was during his time at the Vienna Institute of Art that Frank started to realise what Modernism meant to him. He disagreed with his contemporary, the iconic French architect and designer Le Corbusier, who thought the home should be “a machine for living in”. Frank wanted the home to be a place of comfort and bright colour. He strongly disliked the tubular steel furniture that was a staple of the Bauhaus movement. He felt that Modernism was growing too pragmatic and he favoured a freer approach to design. It was Frank’s strong love of pattern, colour, and comfort that made him one of the most iconic textile and furniture designers in Swedish history. Josef Frank’s iconic designs are as important to the Scandinavian Modern movement as Lucienne Day’s are to British Mid-Century Modern.
In a Modernist world promoting the use of monochromatic colour schemes, Frank wrote, “The monochromatic surface appears uneasy, while patterns are calming, and the observer is unwillingly influenced by the slow, calm way it is produced. The richness of decoration cannot be fathomed so quickly, in contrast to the monochromatic surface which doesn’t invite any further interest and therefore one is immediately finished with it.”.
Just one year after his move to Sweden, Frank began work for the iconic Swedish textile company Svenskt Tenn. During Frank’s time at Svenskt Tenn, encouraged by his producer Estrid Ericson, he produced over 2,000 furniture sketches and 160 textile designs which are now part of Svenskt Tenn’s archives, with many still being produced by them today.
At the height of the Second World War, Frank was forced to leave Sweden for Manhattan. It was during this time in Manhattan that he created some of his most legendary designs featuring trees, flowers and fruit. In September of 1944, Frank gave Ericson 50 new designs for her 50th birthday, many of these created during his time in Manhattan. Swedish Prince Eugen was a great fan, particularly of the new designs, and declared that Frank’s new designs had exceeded the work of Frank’s role model, William Morris. When looking at the work of Josef Frank and William Morris of the Arts and Crafts movement, the designs may seem to be completely different, but they are in fact similar in at least one way. William Morris believed that a design featuring nature should be stylised and not an attempt at recreating nature as it appears. Josef Frank also created stylised versions of nature, although more bold in colour. Josef Frank’s bold choices in colour and pattern set him apart from his Modernist contemporaries, those bold choices have made him a design legend.
Josef Frank’s textile designs are influenced by William Morris of the Arts & Crafts movement. Frank’s stylised designs of nature fit into William Morris’s belief that one should not try to recreate nature, but to stylise it. Frank’s style may be influenced by William Morris, but his textile designs are the embodiment of Swedish Modern with his bold use of colour on neutral background. He is the textile king of Swedish Modern Design.
Josef Frank often used walnut, birch, or mahogany for his modern furniture designs, like many Scandinavian Modernists. It was all about showing off the natural beauty of the wood while still keeping things modern with stylised table feet or tapered legs. Frank preferred furniture cushions to be generously cushioned for comfort. Frank’s lighting was sleek and without ornament, functional and beautiful, which would certainly please his design hero, William Morris, while still influencing Modern design.
Text by April of Arne’s House. Sources: Fabric, lighting, and furniture by Josef Frank. All available from Svenskt Tenn. Research from Svenskt Tenn. http://svenskttenn.se