Ex­hi­bi­tion

Corinne Julius is up­lifted by the de­signer-ar­chi­tect’s ri­otously colour­ful tex­tiles and ground­break­ing in­te­rior de­signs

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Corinne Julius is up­lifted by Josef Frank’s colour­ful de­signs

A VIVID realm of glo­ri­ous clam­ber­ing vines sprout­ing ex­u­ber­ant flow­ers, strik­ing shaped leaves and ex­otic fruits or bugs and beasts in­ter­twined with swoop­ing, chat­ter­ing birds in a ca­coph­ony of colours and forms: such is the un­mis­take­able world of the Aus­trian-born ar­chi­tect, de­signer and painter Josef Frank.

By the early 1950s, at the very time he re­tired from de­sign­ing, Frank’s tex­tiles, wall­pa­pers and fur­ni­ture had be­come syn­ony­mous with Scan­di­na­vian style. His pat­terns—mostly joy­ous and slightly folksy, with the odd dark and slightly sin­is­ter ex­cep­tion—were the back­drop to many mid­dle-class homes in Europe and Amer­ica. For al­most 30 years, he col­lab­o­rated with the Swedish de­sign com­pany Sven­skt Tenn and the re­sults re­main enor­mously suc­cess­ful.

‘Frank’s world ac­knowl­edges a debt to Wil­liam Mor­ris, al­beit a Wil­liam Mor­ris on steroids’

A Jew and a com­mit­ted So­cial­ist, Frank trained and worked both as an ar­chi­tect and a de­signer in vi­enna. He de­signed the first Werk­bund Es­tate and, in 1925, co-founded the de­sign and fur­nish­ings com­pany Haus und Garten. Al­though he was a Modernist, he felt that homes should be com­fort­able and re­flect their oc­cu­piers.

Frank was also heav­ily in­flu­enced by Na­ture, ar­gu­ing, un­like other Modernists, that dec­o­ra­tion added rich­ness. ‘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.’

With the rise of Nazism, he moved, in 1933, to Swe­den, where he col­lab­o­rated with the Swedish de­signer and en­tre­pre­neur Estrid Eric­son of Sven­skt Tenn, to cre­ate some 2,000 fur­ni­ture sketches and 160 tex­tile prints, glass­ware, met­al­work and in­te­rior-de­sign ideas. In 1941, Frank and his Swedish wife, Anna, moved to New York, where he ex­per­i­mented still fur­ther with colours, mo­tifs and repeats.

En­ter­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion is to be as­saulted by a blaze of colour and pat­tern, all very unbri­tish in its ex­u­ber­ance, yet some of Frank’s vis­ual world ac­knowl­edges a debt to Wil­liam Mor­ris, al­beit a Mor­ris on steroids. Many pat­terns were de­signed dur­ing Europe’s dark­est days,

yet they are filled with an op­ti­mism and joy­ful en­ergy. They sug­gest a world full of abun­dance and pos­si­bil­i­ties, a fruit­ful par­adise in which hu­mans could in­te­grate and thrive. There are just a few hints of a darker, scarier world.

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing the tex­tiles and a few early sketch de­signs is one par­tial room set that demon­strates Frank’s be­lief in colour, form and pat­tern at their most over­lain. It’s easy to see why his de­signs ap­pealed to many who might nor­mally have pre­ferred a pro­fu­sion of chintzes.

On show are plans, draw­ings and pho­to­graphs of the in­te­ri­ors of the house in the grounds of Milles­går­den in Stock­holm, de­signed by Frank and Eric­son in 1951. The ex­hi­bi­tion cries out for fur­ther such re­con­struc­tions.

In the mid 1950s, Frank stopped de­sign­ing and turned to paint­ing wa­ter­colours, which were never ex­hib­ited and largely un­known. Only re­cently was his cache of 400 wa­ter­colours dis­cov­ered in an old port­fo­lio left to the neph­ews and nieces of Dag­mar Grill, his part­ner in later life. They range from stud­ies of bowls of fruit and flower ar­range­ments, to land­scapes in the South of France and street scenes in north Lon­don, both places he vis­ited reg­u­larly on hol­i­day. Some have a mildly Fau­vist air, but the ma­jor­ity, al­though pleas­ant, don’t match up to the orig­i­nal­ity or dis­tinc­tive style of his tex­tile de­signs.

By far the most in­ter­est­ing are those in the small ‘Fan­tasy Houses’ series of imag­i­nary homes for his friends, painted in 1947 when he was faced with a dearth of ac­tual com­mis­sions. Al­though few in num­ber, they show Frank’s out­stand­ing abil­ity as an ar­chi­tect and de­signer. Sadly, none of the houses were ever built.

The ex­hi­bi­tion aims to es­tab­lish Frank’s un­doubted tal­ents as an in­te­rior de­signer and the dis­play of tex­tiles is both en­gag­ing and mood-al­ter­ing. It dis­ap­points in pro­vid­ing in­suf­fi­cient de­mon- stra­tion of his lay­ered in­te­ri­ors or of his abil­i­ties as a fur­ni­ture de­signer. This may be be­cause the mu­seum spe­cialises in tex­tiles, or per­haps re­flects the bias of the ex­hi­bi­tion’s Swedish cu­ra­tors. De­spite this, the tex­tiles are worth a visit on their own. Over­all, the show is ter­rif­i­cally cheer­ing and just the thing to buck the mid­win­ter gloom.

‘Josef Frank; Pat­terns-fur­ni­ture-paint­ing’ is at the Fash­ion and Tex­tile Mu­seum, 83, Ber­mond­sey Street, Lon­don SE1, un­til May 7 (020–7407 8664; www.ftm­lon­don.org)

Next week: The Bruegels at the Hol­burne Mu­seum, Bath

Hawai (1943–45) was in­spired by a visit to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, New York. In the mu­seum, Frank found a col­lec­tion of Trees of Life from north­ern In­dia, upon which this print mo­tif is based

Above: A par­tial room set with Frank’s prints, wall­pa­pers and tex­tiles, demon­strat­ing his be­lief in lay­er­ing colour, form and pat­tern. Right: Many of Frank’s print mo­tifs came di­rectly from Na­ture, but some came from il­lus­tra­tions in field man­u­als.

But­ter­fly draws its in­spi­ra­tion from the books But­ter­flies of Amer­ica and In­sects of Amer­ica

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