9 April 2017


Josef Frank, Villa Wehtje in Falsterbo, Sweden, 1936. Photo: Åke E:son Lindman.

For much of his working life, even after he left Austria in the early 1930s, Frank struggled to come to terms with the legacy left by Otto Wagner, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, and the other architects and designers of the early Viennese modern movement. In many respects, Frank carried on and even broadened the revolution they inaugurated in the 1890s … While he never completely shed the cultural and intellectual assumptions of Vienna of his youth, in the end he plotted his own direction, one that led to a unique, complex, and personal vision of the modern.

– Christopher Long, Josef Frank: Life and Work

A sort of introduction to Josef Frank (1885–1967) would be to take the reader for a spin in Frederic Morton’s very own Riesenrad A Nervous Splendour: Vienna 1888–1889: “Only in Vienna would a leading liberal journal devote a front page article to nerves. Only in Vienna had the bourgeoisie, this sustaining class of modernity, been born so psychically frail. Here it sickened faster of the machines and the depersonalising schemes of its own making. And here it became especially nervous at those rooting about in the malaise, namely artists and thinkers,” Morton writes. “In Vienna the middle class had no rugged burgher hide which could resist, at least for the time being, the rough gusts ahead. In these streets nerves were exposed dangerously and stung prophetically; the future evoked clairvoyant expression and pathological revulsion at once. Here stood the baroque hospital that saw the birth of the 20th century. Of all western capitals it was Alt Wien which telegraphed the crisis of New Man. By such a paradox Vienna attained greatness after all. It bred the geniuses who foretold the modern wound.”

Frank was a man with some qualities. He grew up in the Habsburg metropolis and became a significant architect and designer during these industrious times when the retrograde Austro-Hungarian Empire was heading towards a “joyful apocalypse” (as described by modernist writer Hermann Broch) and, concomitantly, when Alt Wien was modernity’s greatest laboratory of perhaps too many distinctive spirits.

Josef Frank was a contrarian, an aesthete, a socialist and a bon vivant – a well-informed modernist who subversively but earnestly was trying to find out what in fact constituted the modern. He contended against the trumpery of modernist certitudes, the eugenic “cleanliness” of modernism, and the persistent idea of the architect as a higher power with a mission to colonise reality and to make all the decisions for each and everyone else living in this arrant “Gesamtkunstwerk”. Frank, for his part, was in the pursuit of freedom from constraints, he cared about real needs, about comfort in a mixture of artistic quality. His buildings are indeed modernist white shoeboxes, but he diversified the heights and sizes of those boxes and created spatial eccentricities and spaces that were meant to be lovely to inhabit. He filled them with his furnishings characterised by round edges, upholstery, pattern and colour, and clashing elements, but never ever did he use tubular steel.

“There is nothing wrong with mixing old and new, with combining different furniture styles, colours and patterns. Anything that is in your taste will automatically fuse to form an entire, relaxing environment. A home does not need to be planned down to the smallest detail or contrived; it should be an amalgamation of the things that its owner loves and feels at home with,” he argued. If you were a wealthy person who desired a bohemian lifestyle bordering on the smartly tacky superior, Frank was the man. “Anyone today who wants to create something living must incorporate everything that currently lives. The entire Zeitgeist, including its sentimentality, its exaggerations, and its tastelessness, which are, at least alive,” he wrote in the early 1930s. “If people are so charmed by kitsch, then that at least is a genuine sentiment; they are not putting on airs. The work of art must speak to this legitimate feeling and shape into a meaningful form.”

The home for Frank was most of all a place where one lives. “He took decided pleasure in the idea that the apartment was in some measure an ‘accident’,” explains Christopher Long in The New Space: Movement and Experience in Viennese Modern Architecture. “Accidentism” was a word that Josef Frank introduced in a manifesto-like essay in the Swedish magazine Form in 1958. Accidentism, however, had very much been the customary practice of Frank’s since his early days of jolting things around until an amalgamation of the banal and the everyday and the extraordinary occurred. As Long elucidates in this book:

“The conception of an architecture made up of such ‘accidents’ was by its very nature a radical overturning of the whole premise of the Western classical tradition. In place of regular, considered, and logical space – the belief in harmony and equipoise that had been the guiding rule of classicism – this way of thinking about space posited a building art founded upon what was seemingly random, jumbled, and messy. It privileged happenstance over punctilious planning, apparent disorder over rationality and disarrayed (or, at minimum, composite) spaces over those that were regular and readily legible.”

Frank was never a modernist’s modernist, unsurprisingly, although he was constantly at the centre of things until the dark valley of 1933 when the Jews of Europe were rendered stateless. Frank felt the urgency to relocate to Stockholm in December that year with his Swedish wife Anna. The professor from Vienna who knew all the big names in architecture spent almost thirty years in Sweden, but never once was he asked to teach at either the KTH School of Architecture or at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design. After the war there were no more requests for further architectural works of Josef Frank. His saving grace in the country of lagom was Estrid Ericson and her furnishing company Svenskt tenn (Swedish Pewter) for which he designed two thousand items. (A fair amount of them are still produced for the shop at Strandvägen 5 in Stockholm.)

Among these are his formidable one hundred and sixty textile patterns with a riot of swirly colours and forms and flowers manifested by a huge sense of living. Frank’s private correspondence, on the other hand, was tagged by hopelessness and isolation in the late 1940s: “It is not what I had imagined and what I wanted and would have been able to do, but only rather what I was able to accomplish under the circumstances. When I look back it makes me very sad.” The Swedes discovered Josef Frank’s accomplishments more than fifty years later when he became the most celebrated designer of the 19th century at the country’s auction houses.

Kieran Long, the new Director at Arkdes and the great white hope for this national Centre for Architecture and Design, must be thankful to arrive at whatever else than the folksy gingerbread house competitions that have been the yearly clou of his predecessors. And it is not just whatever else in here but the most extensive Josef Frank exhibition ever made: Josef Frank – Against Design runs all summer on the most central dot in Stockholm.

Josef Frank – Against Design is an inexcusable title. The exhibition very interestingly shows that Frank was an average designer who utilised the finest craftsmanship for most of the motley objects he originated. “We hope that our visitors will discover other sides of Frank that are not as well-known, and perhaps reconsider their view of him as well,” says Karin Åberg Waern, Head of Exhibitions and Education at Arkdes. “The exhibition comes from Vienna, but we’ve been working quite a lot in the past year to adapt it to the Swedish public. It has partly to do with that in Vienna Frank is best known as an architect and urban planner, but not so much as a designer of furniture and patterns, so it is the opposite conditions to Sweden. We have worked a lot with the balance. We have also built in a good deal of additions that we think are relevant to show here in Stockholm, among other things we have a lot of material from our own collection.”

The architect Hermann Czech – who has co-curated the show with Sebastian Hackenschmidt from the MAK, the Museum of Applied Arts – appreciates how “much more visual and impressive” the Arkdes exhibition is from the one they did in Vienna. He is a man who knows what he is taking about: “In Vienna around 1900 there were people who could do very beautiful things, also in literature and music – Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gustav Klimt, Richard Strauss and Josef Hoffmann himself – but in the same city there were people like Arnold Schönberg, Karl Kraus, Wittgenstein, Freud and Adolf Loos who made clear that art is not so much a question of beauty but of truth,” he utters in Bavarian English. “With Frank you could say that he did not need to choose side in this dispute, you could say that Frank’s way represents the synthesis of these irreconcilable sides.” Spot on.

What greets the visitor at Arkdes is a room with a group of black café chairs and tables on a vast checkered floor (which is very Frank) and a slideshow that doesn’t give you that much – to a score that of course in a perfect world should have been of Josef Frank’s Viennese contemporary Lotte Lenya. “Vienna’s cafés were as much symbols as real venues for the new transitional times; arenas where the artistic and eager-to-debate audience meet and where the talks could develop into both small seminars and hearty disputes; where scientists hang out with artists in spontaneous openness,” writes Hedvig Hedqvist in her little Swedish book on Josef Frank. “The special cultural atmosphere in Vienna culminates during the years between 1895 and 1909 and leads to considerable influence throughout the Western world – a time that coincides with Josef Frank’s schooldays and years of higher education.”

Lena Landerberg, Project Manager at Arkdes, says that, “There are an incredible number of interesting ideas in this exhibition, but it takes quite a lot of knowledge about Josef Frank to understand all the texts from Vienna. We have decided to make an addition with our colourful display texts for each area, so that one can orient oneself more easily, and also get an introduction to each section that doesn’t require that you actually know that much about him.” The Swedes seem so incredibly fearful of anything that requires any effort and learning. Booth sets of texts are very helpful indeed, if only you bring your head and a little time.

The “café” grounds us in fin-de-siècle Vienna, introduces some of the great names in architecture of the time, quotes Adolf Loos’s admiring words for the simplicity of the door handles in Karl König’s residential building in the city, and mentions the German translation of Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott’s instrumental and Arts and Crafts-y Houses and Gardens (1906/1912) where he defines the house as “a congeries of conveniences” (there was another book of importance for Frank, Hermann Muthesius’s Das englische Haus which came out in 1905). A fine discovery in here is Frank’s precise and excellent drawings of Alberti’s churches, produced during his seven-month tour in Italy in the late 00s for his dissertation on the great Renaissance architect.

In 1896, Otto Wagner published his work Moderne Architektur in which he announced that an era of new architecture and new design was in the offing: “The basis of today’s predominant outlook on architecture must be adjusted, and we must be fully aware that the sole point of departure for our artistic work can only be modern life.” He and a bunch of other progressive “outsiders” – Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann and the painter and designer Koloman Moser – formed the Jugendstil-oriented Vienna Sessions the following year (it was Olbrich who designed their white stronghold Sessions Building with the golden foliage cupola) which later lost most of its power when Klimt left the group in 1905. In 1903, Hoffmann and Moser founded the influential “WW”, the Wiener Werkstätte (or Vienna Workshops) on ideas drawn from the British anti-industrial Arts and Crafts movement. Josef Frank began his life towards architecture in October that year at the conservative Technische Hochschule with Karl König at the helm of the school’s predominant classical studies.

“[König] had a lasting impact on Frank’s thinking. The sense that history was not a warehouse of motifs to be ‘appropriated’ but a source of endless dialogue never left him; it lingers behind even the most seemingly original and austere of his works. Although he soon jettisoned the visual language of classicism and any other outward signs of König’s teachings, he maintained throughout his life a deep respect for the achievements of the past. It was his commitment to history, to continuity rather than to revolution, that was among the most important lessons Frank took from König,” explains Christopher Long in Josef Frank: Life and Work. “For all of König’s teachings about the uses of the past, his classes proved to be a fertile training ground for future modernists.”

During his year in the practice of Bruno Möhring’s architectural office in Berlin, Frank understood how different everything was in this town from Vienna. Berlin was pragmatism and industrialisation, Vienna fiction and art. Loos designed the Café Museum in the building he had built at 6 Friedrichstrasse in 1899, which was both Vienna, Berlin and a wanted future. The regulars gathered to listen to his lectures on design, like his enraged text “Ornament and Crime” (1908) in which he declared that, “Modern ornament has neither forbears nor descendants, no past and no future”:

“Now that ornament is no longer organically integrated into our culture, it has ceased to be a valid expression of that culture. The ornament that is designed today has no relevance to ourselves, to mankind at large, nor to the ordering of the cosmos. It is unprogressive and uncreative […] The death of ornament has brought the other arts to unbelievable heights. The symphonies of Beethoven could never have been written by a man who had to wear velvet, silk, and lace.”

Frank designed the furniture for his sister and her industrialist husband in 1910. These dark, heavy walnut pieces are full of “hidden” high-finished inlays of various woods, and the chairs are punctuated with large rivets – think Biedermeier and props from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). (To a new world of gods and monsters!) The Tedesko furniture in the show are the originals from the photos of their apartment, but the thing of interest in here is Frank’s checkered floor design with its triangular pattern in black an white. “These furniture are very characteristic. They are not trying to create a style. Each of these pieces stands alone. And what is very important, 1910 is the high time of the Wiener Werkstätte and Josef Hoffmann’s interiors, and Frank is definitely not following this trend,” says Hermann Czech.

In his book on Frank, Christopher Long describes how much “The years between 1910 and the outbreak of the First World War was a time of restless experimentation, as progressive architects tried out new forms and ideas. It was also a time of exploration for young Frank as he sought to define his own ideas and attitudes toward architecture and design. Over the course of the next four years, he experimented with a welter of different sources and approaches, gradually developing his own distinctive vision of the modern.” He not only experimented, he had a great career. Spaces were decorated, houses built, and objects were being made for the new social ranks with privileges.

Josef Frank was drafted in the beginning of 1915 and was separated from his wife almost till the end of the World War I. Rotes Wien commenced in February 1919 when the Social Democrats took over the city (the Empire had been terminated the year before) where chaos and immense flows of refugees demanded hurried social reforms. Sixty thousand new homes were produced. Frank was very engaged in public housing projects and realised some townhouses with little garden patches and bright workers’ apartments. This year he received a professorship at the Kunstgewehrbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) where he taught for six years until he founded Haus und Garten together with Oskar Wlach and Walter Sobotka. He sold his design company in 1938 when he no longer could return to Austria.

“He is by now Austria’s most noted young architect and receives the invitation to design a two-family villa for the German Werkbund’s housing exhibition Die Wohnung in Stuttgart [in 1927],” writes Hedvig Hedqvist. “He contributes with a house in pure functionalist style, in other words he has followed the program, but the interior is a cold shower to his colleagues.” (“The task of the architect, however, consists of creating spaces, not in arranging furniture or painting walls, which is a matter of good taste, something anyone can have,” Frank argued. “It is a well-known fact that in well-designed rooms it does not really matter what type of furnishings there are, provided that they are not so large that they become artificial elements. The personality of the inhabitant can be freely expressed. The space will emphasise those areas where every place and path should be.”)

Noted or not, the late 1920s were a slow time for Frank as an architect. He only built that house in Stuttgart, and two of his five summer villas in Falsterbo in the southwest of Sweden – from Villa Claëson in 1927 to Villa Wehtje in 1936 – and the first and the last of these overrated shoebox ferries are the best ones. There is a white 1:100-model at Arkdes showing the whole layout of the Werkbund’s Vienna exhibition in 1932, for which Frank produced another white shoebox. He went from being an architect that blended simple refinement with not so exciting elements of classicism, to someone who did it like anybody’s modernist and only added some inside-outside terraces to his houses to make them appear as ships. Tom Wolfe, in From Bauhaus to Our House, called these kinds of buildings “insecticide refineries”.

“Frank’s buildings do not have Loos’s closed cubic exterior volumes. Instead they are influenced by the free grouping of spaces in the English house and the formal compositions of modern architects like Le Corbusier,” write Mikael Bergquist and Olof Michelsen in their publication on the Falsterbo Villas. “As a result, Frank’s architecture is not free from oppositions and self-contradictions – it is open and inclusive; it lets itself be affected by its surroundings and by those who shall use it. What may seem like an ambivalent and uncertain attitude is actually a conscious strategy.”

Josef Frank – Against Design has a room with projected images from his best architectural work, Villa Beer (completed in 1931) in Vienna – indeed another white shoebox except for his orchestration of ingenious naval balconies on the rear side of the house. Also facing the garden is a small room with a beautiful large round window. The insides of the house are thoughtful and varied with curious details everywhere (like the round cavity in the hall for the doormat), stunning parquet flooring and storage spaces for the whole ship. Villa Beer is a rare but successful example of Frank’s design where art and craft and the industrial get along very well.

Josef Frank was one of the names during the first year of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne – and only this year, in 1928 – and as Hermann Czech elucidates, “In Frank’s opinion, modernity is something that gives us absolute freedom. And this is why he was sceptical about the establishment of modernism as a new style. He formulated a scepticism that twenty years later, in the 50s, took place when the Team Ten, a group of architects around Peter Smithson, were preparing the tenth Congress in 1956.” In 1930, Frank expressed that, “It is pathetic that everything has to be the same, so that there is no room for variations, as well as the will to organise and drive people to become a great homogeneous mass.” What a sad irony that he ended up in Sweden.

“I am building on a cultivated tradition. I have saved the whole of the Swedish interior design and created the Scandinavian style. Before my time there was just the Bauhaus tradition,” Frank boasted. Estrid Ericson’s first letter to Frank, years before he left Vienna, was left unanswered. They needed one another just as much of course, and the truth of the matter is that Josef Frank would have been a nobody in Sweden without Svenskt tenn.

The Stockholm Exhibition of 1930 introduced hard-edged functionalism to the Swedes, and the first kind of furniture that Ericson sold at Svenskt tenn was the unmarketable Bauhaus-y chairs with the cold tubular steel frames. “Frank’s approach seems very fruitful to later Scandinavian design,” says co-curator Sebastian Hackenschmidt. Frank’s first design years at Svenskt tenn were characterised by the colourless, heavy stuff we know from Vienna. The rooms that Frank and Ericson twice presented at Liljevalchs konsthall in Stockholm in 1934 were a shocker to the members of Svenska slöjdföreningen (The Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, today Svensk form). The 280 cm long and 140 cm wide Liljevalch Sofa is an ordinary, dull and bulky furniture with classicist leanings that goes for €11,500 today, excluding the price for Frank’s flowery fabrics.

There are a few of his classicist furniture from Villa Beer in the exhibition, and a lot of things that he designed both in Vienna and in Stockholm. His vitrines, drawers and cupboards are having too large a load of classicist elements (he never jettisoned that visual language), wonky handles and things that don’t work internally. (As he stated, “Every great work of art must border on kitsch.”) His chairs are nothing special at all, nor are his tables and lamps. His lively fabrics were/are often employed as to make up for the unprepossessing quality of his designs. The exception is the beautiful simplicity of the furniture he made in the tradition of the Shakers, like the cupboard Wellpapp from 1954, which is a piece of Scandinavian Modern to be proud of.

The term “Swedish Modern” was used to describe the contents of the rooms that Frank and Ericson decorated at “The World of Tomorrow” for the New York’s World Fair in 1939, and at the Golden Gate International Exposition the same year. Frank and Anna decided that they would be safer in the United States so they moved to Manhattan and stayed there during the World War II. Apart from his evening classes at The New School once a week, there was no other substantial source of income for Frank in New York. Consequently, he spent much of the war years like he had spent his time near the Bosnian border during WWI – by putting new design ideas on paper. Most of them were the fifty textile patterns that he sent to Estrid Ericson. You can enjoy many of these cretonnes in the exhibition, and certainly many of the originals as well.

“I would love to want to start building something new, but I have no idea how,” Frank wrote in a letter to a friend in 1946 upon his return to Stockholm. “I am now preoccupied here with the problem of boredom in art and architecture. Why, one must ask oneself, are the streets and dwellings here so uninteresting? […] What good is the art here and carefulness in building if everything is so dull? I am now completely of the opinion that much that is good comes about merely through chance and not through careful planning.”

His wife’s cousin, Dagmar Grill, received a lot of architectural drawings and watercolours of fantasy houses as if they were the most intimate love letters. He made a sketch for her of a fantastic dream house in the Stockholm archipelago as early as the 1920s, but what followed was quite a remarkable parade of “letters” to her: thirteen in 1947, four “D-Houses” in 1953 and six “Double D-Houses” in 1958. When Anna died in 1957, Dagmar Grill became his new woman.

In The New Space, Christopher Long – who rightfully observes how “Frank’s designs were just as methodically plotted as those he criticised” – describes how Frank “churned out new fantasies intended to demonstrate his ‘cure’ for what he saw as the ills of late modernism and to show new ways to evoke a forceful yet livable spatial experience. Some of these last designs still made recourse to standard right-angled planning, all the while employing an amalgam of the strategies he had honed over the course of a long life: contrasting room heights and volumes, a gradual scaling of a hillside, contrived and repeated alterations in direction. Often in his late years, though, Frank simply employed sinuous lines and rooms that in plan looked almost like indiscriminate splotches.”

“We know that throughout his time in Sweden – he arrived here when he was forty-eight years old, and quite a large part of his professional life was ahead of him – he felt a kind of sadness that none of the houses he designed were built,” explains Lena Landerberg.

“We have some very exciting Josef Frank material in the collections here at Arkdes. The fact is that the City of Stockholm triggered a competition to redesign Kungsträdgården. It was in the beginning of the 1950s, before Stockholm’s seven-hundred-year jubilee and there were eighty-two architects who participated. And we have the plans and watercolours that he submitted to the competition. Frank wanted to emphasise Kungsträdgården as a place for recreation – a haven, a green lung with the real character of a park,” she says. “He went over to Helgeandsholmen and drew a twenty-two-storey high Parliament building. And he was completely deprecated by the jury, and you can also read their statement that they thought it was ugly and that he had totally lost it with this building.”

Next to these is his suggestion of a triad of skyscrapers connected by bridges as the Headquarters of the United Nations. In 1952, the year that Oscar Niemeyer’s UN building was completed, Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum arranged its first ever exhibition with a living artist, Josef Frank – Twenty Years at Svenskt tenn. In 1960, Frank was awarded a special art prize from the City of Vienna, and while exhibiting there in 1965 he received the Grand Austrian State Prize for Architecture. Two years later he was dead.

Josef Frank – Against Design is set in a scenography that is not as good as it pretends to be. But what Arkdes does show us is a good way to get to grips with one’s own jarring feelings about Josef Frank. His watercolour fantasy houses for Grill are wonderfully bonkers (yet realisable) structures – a mix of Mid-Century Modern, rural rustique and unadulterated imagination. They are all here, together with many of his vegetative prints that show us what life can be.

What started here in a Ferris wheel will end with a walk in Josef Frank’s garden state of mind, when he made these patterns and plotted his own direction. Words by Robert Walser, from “The Walk” (1917):

Houses, gardens, and people were transfigured into musical sounds, all that was solid seemed to be transfigured into soul and into gentleness. Sweet veils of silver and soul-haze swam through all things and lay over all things. The soul of the world had opened, and all grief, all human disappointment, all evil, all pain seemed to vanish, from now on never to appear again. Earlier walks came before my eyes; but the wonderful image of the humble present became a feeling which overpowered all others. The future paled, and the past dissolved. I glowed and flowered myself in the glowing, flowering present. From near and far, great things and small things emerged bright silver with marvellous gestures, joys, and enrichments, and in the midst of this beautiful place I dreamed of nothing but this place itself. All other fantasies sank and vanished in meaninglessness. I had the whole rich earth immediately before me, and I still looked only at what was most small and most humble. With gestures of love the heavens rose and fell. I had become an inward being, and walked as in an inward world; everything outside me became a dream; what I had understood till now became unintelligible. I fell away from the surface, down into the fabulous depths, which I recognised then to be all that was good. What we understand and love understands and loves us also.

Josef Frank, watercolour sketch of his fantasy house in Dieulefit, France. Arkdes Collection.

Josef Frank – Against Design at Arkdes in Stockholm through August 27, 2017.