Josef Franks’s design has a timeless modern quality to it. His furniture and fabrics have become Swedish classics, loved by every new generation.
Forty years after Josef Frank passed away, the Jewish Museum in Stockholm is presenting an exhibition entitled, “Josef Frank, Architect and Outsider”, the starting point of which is Vienna, around the time of the turn of the previous century. Vienna, at that time, was richly influenced by different cultures, not least the Jewish, and it was a hotbed of intellectual and cultural creativity, which naturally had a strong impact on Josef Frank, both as a human being and as an architect.
Frank and his Swedish wife, Anna, moved to Sweden in 1933, from Austria, a country which at that point had become more and more antisemitic and tainted with nazism. At the age of nearly fifty, Frank was asked by Estrid Erikson to be Svenskt Tenn’s designer. His collaboration with Estrid was to be lifelong, and pivotal for his success. When Norway and Denmark were occupied, the Franks left Europe to live and work in the United States. In 1946, when the war was over, they decided to return to Sweden, however.
What was the private person, Josef Frank, really like? From where did he get his drive and inspiration? Which were the personal and political circumstances that determined his choices in life – and professionally? How did Frank, at age fifty and an outsider, manage to embark on a new career to become an icon of Swedish design? Why did Frank not remain in America, when he had the opportunity?
Outsiders move in the border lands of creativity and renewal, something the undogmatic Frank really demonstrated in his lifework. Frank’s collaboration with Estrid Ericson was a great source of inspiration for him. He was a loner, who loved sitting at his drawing table. At his home in Gärdet, Stockholm, he used the dining area both as a study and a bedroom.
While several other exhibitions in Sweden have shown Frank’s architecture and design, the Jewish Museum have chosen to primarily portray the person, Josef Frank, as well as his life as a Jew, European and outsider. I hope you will enjoy “Josef Frank, Architect and Outsider”.
The exhibition is shown in co-operation between the Jewish Museum in Stockhom, the Austrian Embassy in Stockholm and Svenskt Tenn.
Vienna during the twilight years
During the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, during the time that was later to be called the “happy apocalypse”, arose some of the most outstanding talents of my country, creators of a revolutionary and visionary modernity that stays with us until this very day. The architect and designer Josef Frank was one of those great talents.
At this time, his main forum for theory as well as practice of aesthetical reform, from architecture and city development to the designing of items for every day use, was “Der Österreichische Werkbund”. There Josef Frank worked together with famous fellow artists like Josef Hoffmann, Oskar Strnad, Dagobert Peche, Clemens Holzmeister und Oswald Haerdtl.
Within the “Werkbund” Josef Frank devised his own convictions of how architecture and design should work. As he describes it in “Architektur als Symbol”, he wanted the living space to be a place of relaxation and at the same time to harmonise with tradition as well as with technical development, in contact with nature, but also with culture and refinement. Already there we find the attitude he was later on to develop even further in his second homeland Sweden. The living spaces he designed were always full of gentleness and charm; he rejected sterile, stark white and stern environments and went for light and airy colours instead – yellows, light blues, soft greens and pinks.
How well I remember these patterns on the curtains and sofa covers of my grand parents’ home in Vienna! They were a magical part of my childhood, but here in Sweden they seem to fit even more naturally. Hedvig Hedqvist is certainly right in thinking that it was not just a coincidence that Josef Frank settled down in Sweden.
One does know the “bare” facts of Josef Frank’s curriculum, one knows about the forces that shaped his professional career and his migrations. But what do we know about him as a human being?
He was born into an assimilated and ascending Jewish middle-class family that was open to all sorts of new ideas and developments. His was of a liberal, open-minded attitude, with a humanistic intellect that was opposed to any ideological rigidity.
Coming from the background of a multinational empire, his approach to art was also complex. And the Jewish experience and the Jewish fate added even more to this complexity.
The exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Stockholm focuses more than any previous exhibition on the attempt to present the man Josef Frank, the human being, the secular Jew, the insider and the foreigner in Austria as well as in Sweden. Personally, I was enthusiastic about this exhibition from the very beginning and I wish it all the success I believe it has truly earned.
Ambassador of Austria to Sweden
A Jewish 19th century culture – model for the bourgeoisie
Modernity was the guiding principle for the emancipated Jew. The way back to the ghetto was closed and before him lay a world with no national boundaries. Trade, industry and banking offered enormous opportunities to create a new urban culture, unlike the old feudal system. The French revolution was a starting point, but emancipation, that is, obtaining the same rights as everybody else before the law, was in most countries not attained until around 1860-70. Jewish enterprises were often the first ones to present the big news; they financed railway construction already in the 1830s, played a leading role in the major 19th century transformations of Paris and Vienna, and they went into the advanced electro industry towards the end of the 1800s.
The pioneering years are best illustrated by the five Rothschild brothers, sons of a banker from the ghetto in Frankfurt am Main, who grew up during the French revolution and Napoleon, when the walls of the ghetto were razed and monasteries closed. They ran their successful banks in Frankfurt, Naples, Vienna, Paris and London, and their cultural sphere was to be called “a European upper court”. When in 1871, during the Franco-German War, the German emperor to be stopped at James de Rothschild’s palace, Ferrières-en-Brie outside Paris, he said, overwhelmed by the modernity and luxury, that this no king could afford. To be able to, you had to be a Rothschild. The Swedish king, Oscar II and his courtiers were of a similar opinion. Style Rothschild was spread among the European upper classes, and the old aristocracy took after them, too.
The interiors of Paris banker James de Rothschild’s palace, Ferrières, created a style, although the images of the furnishings were never spread when they were new; they were much to exclusive. It was the rumour of the enormous glass ceiling, the disrespectable mixture of new and old, contemporary art and the finest there was of Western furniture and paintings, that was spread across Europe, and soon also in America. To these aesthetics of collection, as Walter Benjamin has labelled 1800s interior design art, belonged the most modern conveniences of the time, the very finest wines and the world’s best chefs.
The expressions, as abundantly rich as they were astonishing, correspond with the Jewish composer Jacques Offenbach’s resplendent and respectless operettas, the most loved in the 1800s, in Paris and Vienna as well as in Stockholm. In both cases there was a foundation in the Jewish mixing of East and West, new and old, sacred and profane, like in the synagogues, where you could hear Verdi operas together with old Hebrew texts.
Jewish design tradition
Vienna is the major European city where Jewish merchants have made their biggest imprint. Here is the foremost parade street of the 1800s, the Ringstrasse, financed by Jews and lined with their own palatial buildings, in between the institutional and cultural buildings of the empire. At the entrance of one of them, Musikverein, we still find the inscription boards, bearing the names of the donors: following a few arch dukes is the entire band of Jewish merchant aristocracy, elevated to the level of knights or barons by the emperor.
In palaces and apartment buildings a world of art was developing, rich in colour, with greens and reds, contrasting with the gilding and the white of polar bear skins. Bankers preferred to collect paintings from the Dutch 17th century, with which they felt a kinship, and we find the yellowish red tones of Rembrandt paintings also in their homes. The development of Jewish self-reliance here in Vienna paved the way for a cultural elite of journalists, doctors, architects and musicians, a movement that grew so strong that at the beginning of the 1900s one could talk about it as a Jewish renaissance. Ancient Jewish mysticism came to fore, in texts, theatre and music, to a large extent the result of growing Jewish immigration from all corners of the empire, such as Hungary, Bohemia and Galizia. An advanced form of jugend architecture became known in Europe, as a l’Art Juif. In Hungary, where nearly ninety per cent of the architects were Jewish, one can rightly speak of a colourful Magyar-Jewish jugend architecture. The new city was built in a style that could be interpreted as a new Jerusalem.
The overly rich, style mixing aesthetics of the 1800s were transformed without loss of sophistication into styles that the young architects of Vienna created for their Jewish clients, at the beginning of the 1900s. Adolf Loos, who though not Jewish himself, spent his whole life working in a Jewish environment, is the architect who has best expressed the new spirit, with buildings that were outwardly anonymous and inwardly rich in materials and colours, and often stylistically simplified even if old and new could still be mixed.
Virtually all of Loos’ collaborators were Jewish, just like Josef Frank. With his roots in Hungary and having grown up in the Ringstrasse bourgeoisie spirit, Frank brought the design richness of his culture to Sweden, when he left the German-speaking world like the rest of the Jewish intelligentsia in the 1930s. Just as in Wittgenstein’s plain house in Vienna, designed by the philosopher himself together with one of Loos’ assistants, as well as in several of the large houses designed by the great modernists, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, for descriminating Jewish clients, the contradictory demand of modernism and tradition lives on in Frank’s colourful world of design. But in Frank’s case, with an even greater sensual splendour.
Professor in History of architecture
Square seats – totalitarian thoughts
The quality of Josef Frank’s design for Svenskt Tenn (Stockholm design and furnishings store) was re-evaluated when post-modernism reached its peak in the mid-1980s. His furniture, lamps and printed textiles were suddenly hot again. The desirable Frank furniture also made auction houses aware of the commercial potential in modern design of the 1900s. Young and old alike were attracted by the fine craftsmanship, the stylish turn of colour, form and materials, and with a function that brings out sensual and tactile qualities.
Josef Frank had, at that point, been out of the limelight for a couple of decades, now known only among a narrow elite of architects and designers. His elaborate style of design did not fit into the 1960s’ and 70s’ radical ideas of beauty for all, at IKEA prices. This was when quality aspirations and allusions to pre-modernist styles were considered reactionary – the domain only of the passé and moneyed few.
But around the turn of the new millennium, young design afficionados created a boost for Josef Frank and Svenskt Tenn that extended far beyond Sweden’s borders. The super trendy British-American design magazine, Wallpaper, keep referring to the strength of Frank’s design and architecture.
At the end of the minimalist era, a new longing for the decorative and sensual emanated. Frank’s lush and artistic patterns proved ideal; freshly contemporary yet classical. This was vintage style, ready for recycling. The Consulate General of Sweden in New York was given a Frank interior, duly noted in a full-page article in the New York Times.
The strength of Frank’s design patterns was also confirmed by Ballantyne Cashmere, who papered the walls of their highly prestigious Milan store with Frank’s Brazil textile pattern, to create a modern concept for their famous knitwear.
The renewed interest in Josef Frank as architect and designer has also attracted the attention of a number of researchers in Sweden, Austria and the United States. Looking back, it is apparent that the collaboration between client and designer – Estrid Ericson and Josef Frank – was unique. The legacy of their joint work does not only show a quality of timelessness, but is also a treasure trove for all those who are interested in creative processes.
Writer and researcher
The Småland bag
I see a grandmother who’s getting sweets for her grandchild out of a Småland bag with flowers on it. A few turnings later I see the same bag, but with Manhattan rather than flowers as the motif, carried by a girl with her hair dyed black wearing black tights.
They’re only a few turnings apart. And about fifty years. If they’d met there in the street, they would have spotted each other, and both would have thought: “That could have been me.”
At my friends’ houses the walls are covered with Josef Frank; we speak of him as the ultimate man to have on the wall. We’re old-fashioned romantics imagining other cities, Tehran, and mysterious birds that are blue. We’re wondering if our parents thought like us; used his fabrics to escape. If they also thought of them as a substitute for a painting.
At a time when everything’s been said and done, where every fantasy seems to have a more surrealist origin, and where the idea of what’s good taste has become general knowledge, it’s easy to buy something that’s recognised as good taste. There’s something special about someone who can put colour and form together into a fairyland. There’s something nice about someone who can make something pure and simple seem bohemian. A design that every personality of every age can identify with.
At a time when everything’s changing, where from one day to the next we learn to be afraid of things that weren’t dangerous last week, we look for security. Something we recognise from the past, from mum. Something that reminds us of where we’re trying to take our lives. Something that gives us freedom, but at the same time helps us find our way back home. Something that gives grandmother a chance to sit down, when she’s getting a present for somebody. And for once it’s something we both understand. She employs it on a large scale, for everything; to me it’s the piece of art in my home. The Swedishness of my room. With the flowers, imagination and clarity of expression.
Pictures from the exhibition