Monday, April 11, 2011

Celebrating the Dizzy Joys of Designer Josef Frank

The Rather Subversive Side of Modernism

I first encountered the ebullient and hallucinatory handblocked fabrics of Josef Frank at elegant Svensk Tenn, the century-old modernist design gallery in Stockholm.

In an austere white-walled store filled with very sincere and ‘correct’ and sober modernist masterpieces, Frank’s florid patterns were like a giggling Ministry of Fun among the serious, sober Bauhaus-ians.

Master drawing of Vegetable Tree
designed 1943–44
Josef Frank (1885–1967)
paper, pencil, watercolor, gouache

In vibrant contrast to his rather austere and understated furniture, lighting and incidental pieces, Frank’s textiles, his joyful outbursts of color and pattern on linen and cotton, were a psychedelic trip of nature and life.

designed 1950, produced c. 2010
Josef Frank (1885–1967)

His fabric designs—almost pre-Raphaelite in their mad celebration of the natural world at its most ripe—hardly seemed in the Swedish modernist taste. But happy, comfortable, homely designs are very much in the Scandinavian style.

When you remember that for six months (more!), Sweden is plunged in gray winter, these almost kinetic patterns of voluptuous nature make total sense.

Come with me for a visit to a new exhibit that celebrates Josef Frank, and learn about this important modernist…with fabrics and furniture still very much in production.

Green Birds
designed 1943–44, produced c. 2010
Josef Frank (1885–1967)

Rox and Fix
designed 1943–44
Josef Frank (1885–1967)

Three Islands in the Black Sea
designed 1936, produced c. 2010
Josef Frank (1885–1967)
linen, wood, cotton 

‘The Enduring Designs of Josef Frank’ which opens this month at San Francisco International Airport, in the airy and chic International terminal, presents a remarkable array of textiles and furnishings that Frank produced throughout the course of his career, starting in the 1920s. He has had a revival since the 1980s, so many of his most colorful textiles and classic furniture remain in production today.

The objects on exhibition include Primavera, a pattern designed for his home furnishings business in Vienna in the 1920s.

designed c. early 1920s, produced c. 2010
Josef Frank (1885–1967)

The furniture includes a highly popular asymmetrical nineteen-drawer cabinet-on-stand designed in 1938 for Svenskt Tenn.

Every elegant house in Stockholm must have one of these pieces by Frank, I was told by the manager of the store, which is situated along the prestigious Strandwegan along the harbor in Stockholm.

designed c. 1938, produced c. 2010
Josef Frank (1885–1967)
walnut, brass 

Lines of Frank's enduring designs are certainly modernist but the pieces are crafted with old-world materials and craftsmanship.

The Frank furniture, in precious woods, is handcrafted and not inexpensive, so I was not surprised that chic Swedes collect and prize the designs. They're heirloom pieces.

textile designed 1943–44, chair designed c. 1947, each produced c. 2010
Josef Frank (1885–1967)
mahogany, fabric

Frank traveled, whipping through the design centers in Scandinavia, and when he landed in Manhattan in the 1940s, he created numerous New York-inspired patterns such as Green Birds and US Tree. 

Armchair with Mirakel
textile designed c. late 1920s, armchair designed c. 1934, produced c. 2010
Josef Frank (1885–1967)
linen, wood, cotton 

Armchair and three-armed floor lamp
Armchair designed 1936, lamp designed c. 1939, both produced c. 2010
Josef Frank (1885–1967)
armchair: cherry, leather; lamp: steel, brass, linen 

Austrian-born designer and architect Josef Frank (1885–1967) was a pioneer of Swedish Modern design. While many of his contemporaries took a severe approach to modernism, Frank emphasized comfort and informality, using bright, bold colors and floral patterns to produce whimsical designs inspired by nature

Josef Frank and his longtime client and design collaborator, Estrid Ericson.

‘The Enduring Designs of Josef Frank’ is open to the traveling public—and non-traveling art lovers. It is located pre-security in the International Terminal Main Hall Departures Lobby, San Francisco International Airport. 

The exhibition is on view to visitors from April 2, 2011 to October 9, 2011. There is no charge to view the exhibition.

Master drawing of Manhattan
designed 1943–44
Josef Frank (1885–1967)
paper, pencil, watercolor, gouache 

Images courtesy SFO Museum.

Objects are exhibited courtesy of Svenskt Tenn, Stockholm, Sweden.

SFO Museum The superbly curated
SFO Museum program was established by the Airport Commission in 1980. It has the distinction of being the only accredited museum in an airport. Today, SFO Museum features approximately twenty galleries throughout the Airport terminals displaying a rotating schedule of art, history, science, and cultural exhibitions. For more information, please visit


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Very sadly it is highly unlikely that we shall be able to visit the exhibition which opens this month. However, this beautifully presented and informative post goes a long way to compensate for not actually seeing the textiles and furniture live.
All the designs you show here look incredibly contemporary, and it is difficult to believe that they are not, in fact, C21.

Karena said...

Diane how fascinating to see the difference from Frank's furniture and lighting pieces.

It is almost as if he broke loose and began to fly with his designs! I adore the Vegetable Tree and the Green Birds!

Art by Karena

Joanne Angelina said...

Beautiful images, and a wonderful post- it's always exciting to learn about a designer whom you really haven't much knowledge of, but now I am flooded with interest for Josef Frank, thanks for a wonderful post!

Take care!


Jeannine 520 said...

Beautiful! Thanks for the heads-up, I'll stop by to view this.

The Fashionable Traveler said...

Thanks for the info on Josef Frank, I've been a big fan of his designs for several years. A few years ago the fabric section of Liberty in London had a Josef Frank shop, and there was a fabulous chair at Anthropologie a few years ago covered in one of his fabrics. I wish I was going to be in the San Francisco Airport; would love to see the exhibit

Luke Hoy said...

These are EXACTLY what I want to recover a chair in my plant room! I LOVE the "Himalaya" print as well as "Green birds"

Anywhere that I could somehow get a few yards of this? is that even possible?

Keep up the good work, love the blog!

Philip Bewley said...

Loved this superb post, an examination of the inventive and delightful side of 20th century designs and textiles, and the fact that one of the best museum exhibition venues is actually at the San Francisco airport! I can recall the first time when I did a double take at the airport in passing the exhibitions there. These are an unexpected surprise and the changing exhibitions are "top-Notch".
I loved the furniture designs you highlighted as well,that cabinet on stand and that continuation of the Gustaviansk in those chairs. Very informative.

Concrete Jungle said...

Another wonderful introduction! He created a little heaven on earth. As always Thank you.

Wooden Garden Furniture said...

The furniture stuff designed by Josef Frank is so beautiful and awesome.In future i will but=y the designer product of Josef Frank for sure.
Good Share.!!!!!

Love Your Homes said...

Oh Diane, I am so pleased to read this post of one of my country's absolutely strongest design profiles ever.
I've always admired their classic timeless design, it is still today most highly respected and seen in many homes in Sweden. I have to stop by the shop every time I pass to explore the show.

Ericsson started her company very young, in the early 20 as a tinsmith of pewter (means tenn in swedish) and 10 years later she invited Josef Frank to join her company, when he was forced to leave Austria during the war. This became a very successful collaboration that lasted for 33 years until Frank passed away 1967. He brought on a very generous design at the time when the strict design of Swedish modernism was popular.

Estrid ran her business for 56 years. Svensk tenn was turned into a foundation 1975 (age 81) and she stayed head of the organization another couple of years. The last years before her death 1981, she went back creating in pewter. One strong lady...

I'm delighted to read about the Airport exhibition in SF and I will feel much at home the next time I visit.

Josef Frank's furniture is of sublime quality and was developed as he returned from New York 1944.
Right now I have the pleasure along with a saddler to restore a set of 14 chairs from the period. They are in a extremely good condition and all we have to do is some preserving and polishing.

I do enjoy good craftsmanship!

My best,

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-
I'm so thrilled you liked this post on Josef Frank.
Like you--I had not heard of him until I chanced upon his work a few years ago at Swenskt Tenn in beautiful Stockholm!

Lance and Jane-Welcome to THE STYLE SALONISTE. I'm delighted you're members and look forward to hearing from you soon.
Karena, Joanne, Jeannine, Luke, Catherine, loved your enthusiasm of this discovery! Yes, you are right--his furniture is quite understated and spare in its lines and approach--and then the fabrics cut loose and are witty and playful.
A reader asked where to get the fabrics: Liberty of London (in London) had a collection last year, but have not been able to trace a retailer (except for Swensk Tenn in Stockholm, but I'm sure they would ship.)
Philip--yes, a very good point! This exhibit is at a very fine airport you can see the show, nibble on a salad, and catch your flight. Great.
Heather in Phuket--you are right, heaven on earth!
Ingela in Sweden--thank you for your informative note. Yes, in Sweden, Frank is part of the design vocabulary. In the US, not yet. I love your comment on the history of the shop and this wonderful designer.
Thank you to everyone for this brilliant and vibrant dialog. I love every word.
cheers, DIANE

mary said...

I have always loved Josef Franks furniture; the fabric collections came as a complete surprise. Thanks for highlighting them.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,
Josef Frank furniture and fabric is available at Just Scandinavian furniture store since 7 years back.Welcome to visit website