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 the burgeoning Nazism for Sweden and Svenskt Tenn, the Austrian architect is considered to be one of Sweden’s most important designers of all time.

Intro Josef Frank Part 1 - Svenskt Tenn

Estrid Ericson & Josef Frank in the store at Strandvägen 5 in Stockholm

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 prints signed Frank in Svenskt Tenn’s archives.

Josef Frank (1885-1967) grew up in Vienna in an assimilated Jewish family and studied architecture at Konstgewerbeschule. In the 1920s he designed housing estates and large residential blocks built around common courtyards in a Vienna with severe housing shortages. In 1925 he started the Haus & Garten interior firm together with architect colleagues Oskar Wlach and Walther Sobotka.

Josef Frank was one of early Vienna modernism’s foremost figures, but already in the beginning of the 1920s he started to question modernism’s growing pragmatism. He had little appreciation for the French architect Le Corbusier’s belief that a house should be “a machine for living in”. He was against puritanical principals and on the contrary, feared that standardised interiors would make people all too uniform.

Josef Frank represented a freer, more artistic style ideal and he developed his own type of modernism where values like comfort, hominess and a wealth of colour were at its core. He resisted limitations and models for his furniture and textiles came from across all boundaries both in time and space. He perceived tubular steel furniture as a threat to humanity. On the contrary he wanted to include nature’s colours and forms in his interiors to be able to breathe and exude freedom even in closed 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.

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"standardised interiors would make people all too uniform."
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Swedish Modern

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 New York in 1939 was completely contrary to the ideal of the time with its bold contrasts in materials, colours and prints. The duo received a great deal of attention and became, somewhat paradoxically, the model for the expression “Swedish Modern”.

Josef Frank Interior - Svenskt Tenn
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Treasured designs

With a strong botanical interest Frank developed his own floral print already in his youth. Favourites like lawn daises, tulips, roses, bindweed, forget-me-nots, violets, lily of the valley, crocuses and grape hyacinths were blended with pure fantasy flowers, frequently illustrated with a light touch.

With his prints, which were often based on the colours and forms of nature, in almost imperceptible repetition, Frank wanted the observer to feel freedom and a change of pace even in confined rooms:

“The monochromatic surface appears uneasy, while prints are calming, and the observer is unwillingly influenced by an underlying slow approach. 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.”

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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 where his tree of life, full of flowers and fruit came to be. This resulted in a number of textile designs, including the 50 prints that 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 actually exceeded those of the legendary print designer and Frank role model, William Morris.

And that is what happened when an architect from Vienna, on the escape from Nazism, raised Swedish design to new heights.