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