Josef Frank

Josef Frank has had an enormous impact on the history of Swedish design. Despite the fact that he was already 50 years old when he fled Nazism for Sweden and Svenskt Tenn, the Austrian architect and designer is considered to be one of Sweden’s most important designers of all time.

At Svenskt Tenn, Josef Frank received both a unique stage and invaluable help from Estrid Ericson, who was an exceptionally artistically inclined producer. He awarded her by being extremely productive: there are over 2,000 furniture sketches and 160 textile designs signed with his name in Svenskt Tenn’s archives.

Against the tide

As a young man, Josef Frank was a part of early Vienna Modernism’s front figures. But by the beginning of the 1920s, he had begun to question modernism’s growing programmatic streak. The French architect Le Corbusier’s belief that a house should be a “machine for living in,” was not to Frank’s taste. He was against puritanical principals and feared that standardized interior design would make people all too similar.

Frank represented a freer, more artistic style ideal, and he developed his own type of modernism with values such as comfort, hominess and a wealth of colour in focus. He perceived tubular steel furniture as a threat to humanity. By contrast he wanted to include nature’s colours and forms in interior design and to be able to breathe and feel free even in enclosed rooms. For the same reason he preferred furniture that people could see through, a chair should have an open back and a cupboard should be on legs that were so high that one could distinguish the borderline between the floor and the wall.

Swedish Modern

Frank’s ideas on harmony also went against the tide. When others advocated monochromatic environments, 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.”

Josef Frank began working at Svenskt Tenn in 1934 and just a few years later, the Frank/Ericson duo made their international breakthrough. Svenskt Tenn’s exhibition room at the World Expositions in Paris in 1937 and in New York in 1939 was completely contrary to the ideal of the time with its bold contrasts in materials, colours and patterns. The duo received a great deal of attention and became, somewhat paradoxically, the model for the expression Swedish Modern.

Treasured designs

During the Second World War, Josef Frank was forced into exile yet again. At the height of the war he fled to Manhattan and the border between fantasy and reality with his freely growing trees of life with flowers and fruit developed. This resulted in a number of textile designs, including the 50 which he gave to Estrid Ericson as a 50-year birthday present on September 16, 1944. Sweden’s Prince Eugen was one of many who rejoiced. He felt that the new designs exceeded those of the legendary textile designer and Frank role model, William Morris.

And that is what happened when a professor of architecture from Vienna, on the escape from Nazism, raised Swedish design to new heights.

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