Updated: Aug 16, 2021
This story rather led me to it, revealed itself slowly instead of me one day simply deciding to write about it. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say this story has been 12 years in the making, haunting me every now and then, until in the end all pieces came beautifully together.
It was in Shanghai in 2008 in my perfectly harmonious, neutral tone living room when I was browsing through an interior design magazine, when there it was: a fabric out of this world! Bright, vibrant and simply joyful! A fabric with fascinating colors and patterns, in an upholstered chair within otherwise neutral living room just like where I was sitting. I simply loved the fabric! It was fresh and somewhat reminded me of Marimekko’s bright colours and patterns, but at the same time it was also more complex and decorative. The fabric simply made my soul sing. But it also challenged me: “Why on earth would anyone want this fabric in their living room? It’s not classy enough... Maybe the chair would work better in bedroom or kids’ room, or this fabric on decorative pillows.” To my great disappointment there was no reference to the designer of the fabric in the magazine, just the famous interior designer and Italian furniture brands were mentioned. I tried to find the fabric by googling it without any luck, so I decided to let it go. Except that I couldn’t…
Fast forward 12 years during which I moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong to Brussels to Vienna and became an interior designer myself. I was now sitting in my very colourful living room browsing through an interior design magazine when I stumbled upon a beautiful chair designed by Josef Frank. So, I googled Josef Frank and voilá! There was the fabric! - The fabric called Nippon designed by him during 1943-45.
As I continued to research more about Josef Frank, even more inspiring details emerged which made me almost feel as if I was meant to tell his story: Frank was an Austrian (Viennese) living in Scandinavia and I am a Scandinavian living in Vienna. He moved to Sweden when he was 48 – the same age I moved to Vienna. Later, I also came to know that Frank had designed many of the private houses in the neighborhood I happen to be currently living – one of them just down the road (currently under renovation - hopefully restoration). Numerous times I had admired these houses walking by thinking that their modern exterior is very different from all the other typical Viennese houses around them. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that these houses were designed already in the 1920s and 30s and by the one and only Frank. And further, as I learned more about Frank’s design philosophy, I admired how much ahead of his time he was and how relevant his ideas still are today.
So, this is a story of colourful fabrics and a design rebel Josef Frank.
Viennese architect and design rebel
Josef Frank was born to a Jewish family in Austria (Baden bei Wien) in 1885. He studied architecture, and during 1910s and 1920s he became one of the founding members of Vienna Werkbund, a group of local progressive designers. Since the beginning, Frank’s work was difficult to categorize as he refused to follow any of the design movements of his time. His creations were often eclectic mixture of many styles drawing inspirations from various historical eras. Frank wanted to create interior spaces and objects which would last, feel comfortable and easy to use. Other Austrian architects at the time (Josef Hoffmann for example) believed the interiors should be a complete work of art (‘Gesamtkunstwerk’). Frank was very much against this idea. “The house is not a work of art, simply a place where one lives”, he said. Frank was also against the standardization of modernism, and Le Corbusier’s idea of buildings being designed as machines.
In 1925 Frank co-founded an interior design practice Haus & Garten with fellow architects, Oskar Wlach and Walther Sobotka in Vienna. House & Garten became very successful, and Frank designed many houses (mainly for wealthy Viennese clients), interiors, furniture and fabrics under the name of the company. The exteriors of his houses were usually modern with large gardens, but Frank was also very concerned about making the experience of living as pleasant as possible. For example: he carefully studied the natural light in each room and added spaces with no obvious functions which occupants could use as they pleased. But Frank’s work was not only limited to the wealthy. When Austria suffered from a severe housing shortage after the World War I, Frank became a leader of a group of design activists who campaigned for affordable homes to be built. The workers’ apartments he designed had always aesthetic views to the nature, good airflow and abundant natural light. Many of these houses still exist today in their original use and have become part of the cherished architectural heritage of the city.
By the early 1930s, Frank had become an influential architect, interior designer and design reformer in Vienna. In 1933 however, at the age of 48, he decided to move to Stockholm with his Swedish wife Anna to escape the ever-growing Nazi discrimination in Austria. For few years Frank returned regularly to Vienna, but when Austria became part of Germany in 1938, the House & Garten was forced to close and Frank found himself stateless. He applied for a Swedish citizenship and never worked in Austria again.
Swedish Modern and Svenskt Tenn
In 1933 it was difficult for Frank to find work as an architect in Sweden; his main contribution being mainly to design holiday homes for the wealthy. It was therefore when in 1934 the Svenskt Tenn design company founder Estrid Ericson offered him a possibility to design objects for her brand, Frank was happy to accept the offer. Although Ericson’s own design taste followed Swedish functional and utilitarian style of the time, she decided to give Frank full creative freedom. Like in Vienna, Frank was not willing to follow any mainstream design style of the time – in this case a restrained Swedish style - and his first pieces for Svenskt Tenn were glamorous, made of luxurious materials and had vibrant patterns. Despite the initial differences in their styles Ericson’s and Frank’s collaboration continued and morphed, until they gained a major professional breakthrough at the 1937 World Expo in Paris where they presented a fresh, new interpretation of the ‘Swedish Modern’. The style was an eclectic mix of old and new, patterns and colours.
Frank designed chairs, sofas, lamps, bowls, vases, trays, tables, stool and cabinets for Svenskt Tenn, but it was his fabrics that made him famous. “The freer the pattern, the better,” Frank said of his creations. He created altogether 160 prints for Svenskt Tenn featuring surreal organic forms and vibrant colors.
In the beginning of World War II, Frank and his wife left Sweden for the United States for safety. Also during this time Frank kept in contact with Ericson, and designed some of his most striking textile patterns (for example Dixieland, Italian Dinner and the hand-drawn map of Manhattan that highlighted his favourite streets). In 1944, he sent 50 new designs to Ericson for her 50th birthday. In 1946, Frank and his wife returned to Sweden. After his return Frank decided to abandon architecture and focus solely on designing for Svenskt Tenn. And so he did until his death in 1967.
To this day Svenskt Tenn owns all Frank’s world-famous designs (altogether 2000 furniture and 160 fabric designs), and they are continued to be produced according to his original drawings. Although Frank’s designs for Svenskt Tenn are known worldwide, they are seen as somewhat hard to get, since Svenskt Tenn doesn’t have a showroom outside of Sweden and sells only selected items worldwide via its online store. If one is lucky, one could find a fabric store which also carries some of Frank’s fabrics, but usually the selection in such places is quite limited. There is only one other fabric producer in the world, Schumacher, who is able to produce Frank’s fabric designs which it commissioned for itself back in 1947 (Citrus Garden and Exotic Butterfly). It is therefore fair to say it is mainly because of Josef Frank and his fabrics why Svenskt Tenn has become such a go-to-place for the interior designers around the world.
People centric interior design
In addition to his fabric designs, Josef Frank gained much fame also as an interior designer. His design philosophy of comfort, cosiness, use of prints and rich colours created a whole new interior design style. He believed each home should have its unique character reflecting its owners’ personalities, and also enough flexibility to move things around (furniture and use of space) according to changing lifestyles. This was a radical idea during Frank’s time.
The concept of comfort and experienced atmosphere at home was especially important to Frank. He believed one had to soften white walls with prints and patterns to be able to truly relax in a space. Also, his furniture was comfortable, often with rounded edges, and he used colour and pattern to add warmth and personality in them. “It doesn’t matter if you mix old and new, or different styles, colors, and patterns,” he advised in 1958. “The things you like will always blend, by themselves, into a peaceful whole.”
Frank’s interior design philosophy remains relevant to our modern life, and it brings positivity and vibrancy to our homes in the dark days of the pandemic. It also reminds us that a home does not need to be planned down to the smallest detail, but rather should be a thoughtfully orchestrated mix of things that one loves and feels at home with.
(Sources: Svenskt Tenn, Guardian, New York Times, Arhitectural Digest, MAK publication: Josef Frank – Against Design)
I'm an interior designer who writes stories about interior design inspirations, ideas, furniture and architecture from around the world. My mission is to entertain you during your morning coffee - to show you how the world is full of interesting design stories - and to make you look your own surroundings differently. You are part of a story! I also run an interior design studio Onni Interiors. Welcome to be part of Design Stories!