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Architecture Misfit #33: Josef Frank

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Josef Frank
July 15, 1885 – January 8, 1967

Josef Frank was there at the first CIAM and was invited by Mies van der Rohe to exhibit at the Weissenhof Exhibition in Stuttgart so, in 1927, he was up there with the best of them. A quick scan of the following quotes shows why he’s not taught or remembered now.

“Contrary to most other architects of the interwar period in Vienna, he took the idea of settlement and not the creation of so-called super blocks in municipal housing.” [1] 

“Josef Frank, the Austrian-born Swedish architect and designer, never believed that a house was a machine for living.” [3]

“Frank sought to create homes which were warm, informal, free from the existing conventions of modernism, yet oriented towards modern living.” [2]

“[Frank] envisioned and practiced a type of modernism which was livable, popular, and defined the Viennese modern home during the early years of the 20th century. It was not the utopian modernism of the Bauhaus, but one which embodied a relaxed, everyday lifestyle, with a touch of historicism and ornamentation, a language which avoided the rigid geometry and abstraction for the favor of familiarity.” [2]

“Though not a star like Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, Frank thrilled with his furniture, lighting, and textiles …” [3]

“In addition to his architectural work he created numerous designs for furniture, furnishings, fabrics, wallpaper and carpet.” [1]

Frank was too interested in how people lived in houses and this was not how the wind was blowing mid-twenties in the alpha-male world of architecture. To have an excessive interest in colour, pattern and texture, especially when in connection with interiors, was never going to go down well. This is supported by the opening essay in this book [8] that accompanied the first exhibition of Frank’s work in 1996 at The Bard Graduate Centrer in New York. I found a copy at Book Bazaar run by Perth’s Spine and Limb Foundation.

It’s a very generous book with the catalogue preceded by ten essays providing different angles on the one life and work. Much of what you’ll read about Frank is written as a chronology which means the early housing projects before presenting the fabrics and furniture as his lasting legacy. It also means Frank’s thoughts on Modernism in the 1920s are framed in terms of how they differed from those of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and thus buried in time.

  • Frank believed that to be Modern was to be free and not in thrall to the newest dogma.
  • He objected to the codification of Modernism into a few simplistic rules It’s easy to imagine Frank had Le Corbusier’s “Five Points” in mind. 
  • He believed in freedom of the individual and the individual’s right to live freely in terms of furniture and furnishings.
  • He saw these as an extension of people and not of architecture.

This was his message and over the next forty years he never stopped spreading it or finding new ways to articulate it.

“The room in which you can live and think freeely is neither beautiful nor harmonic. It has come about by coincidence, it will never be completed and it can in itself absorb anything whatsoever to satisfy the changing demands of the owner.”

“Mix old and new, colours and forms. Things that you like will all the same melt into a quiet unity. The home does not have to be planned in detail, just linked together by parts that its occupants enjoy and love.”

• • •

Frank’s first fabric design is from 1909 and his first interior commission to furnish his sister’s apartment in Vienna was in 1910.

The Early Work

1910: Tedesco Apartment 

No two items have obvious similarities. The shape and pattern of each item is suited to what it is and how it is used but if this is functionalism then it includes an emotional component. Each thing is how we expect it to be. The chairs in the foreground are Frank’s redesign of the Biedermeier chair. The cushions have a printed design. The ceramic heater is almost vernacular. The vitrine against the wall is of no known style. Importantly, the position of all the things inside the room is arbitrary apart from the writing desk close to the window for daylight. This is the first and last time Frank used a wall covering to mediate between the space and the things in it. From now on, all internal walls would be white and the things inside the space would supply the interest.

Like many others at the turn of the century, Frank admired the English Arts & Crafts movement and his early furniture shows a unity of construction and decoration. Some have likened the richness of Frank’s fabric designs with the wallpaper designs of William Morris but Frank never designed wallpaper. His fabrics were extensions of the occupants and not additions to the architecture. Frank had no sympathy for Secessionists such as Olbrich and Hoffmann who were trying to contrive yet another new style but we was in full alignment with Adolf Loos’ objections to the house as Gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art. In 1910 Frank was 25 but already on a collision course with what Modernism was to become. In Italy, The Futurists were alling for the wholesale rejection of history but Frank never thought that necessary. He didn’t mind redesigning a Biedermeir chair, or a Windsor chair, or a ladderback chair and saw no reason why everything had to be completely new. The Futurists’ legacy was to legitimize the rejection of history. It is true that some things such as the provision of housing required some new thinking as the old models were no longer working but the Futurists encouraged a degenerate kind of Modernism of newness for the sake of it. Before that had even come to pass, Frank was trying to find the good in the past and bring it into the present. This does not make him a pre-modern post-modernist.

1913: Summer House for Hugo Bunzl, Ortmann, Austria

In Frank’s houses over the next decade and a half, living rooms are always on the ground floor and connected to the garden and bedrooms are on the floor above and open onto terraces and balconies.

“It was my intention to link the living rooms of the garden by means of large glass doors, and to open the bedrooms on the upper floor to all sides with added on balconies.” “The few furnishings are placed independently of the space.”

1914: Haus Scholl, Wilbrandtgasse 12, Vienna (with Oskar Wlach and Oskar Strand)

Frank also admired the informal planning of the English house and preferred rambling plans without symmetries and axes. Because they lacked a controlling geometry, his rooms were open to having furniture arranged in them in arbitrary ways.

1919–25: Taught at Vienna School of Arts and Crafts
1921: Workers’ Housing 

Frank thought a living room pretentious in worker housing of this size and so provided kitchen/sitting room in line with the Austrian vernacular tradition of the Wohnküche.

1925: Opened the store Haus & Garten (with Oskar Wlach) 

The store promoted a vision of the home for the “common man” and the anti-aesthetic it promoted placed it in opposition to notions of the machine and the championing of machine-produced objects. This is some furniture on display at the store in 1926.

Municipal Housing

1921–24: Hoffingergass Municipal Housing in Altmannsdorf, Vienna (with Erich Faber)
1924-5: Wiedenhoferhof Municipal Housing Vienna

Frank’s plans allowed for the maximum number of dual aspect apartments with their advantages for daylighting and ventilation (and their benefits for the prevention of tuberculosis, though this is forgotten). Rooms generally lead off the central living space in an arrangement that allowed apartments of many different sizes to be configured.

1925: Winarsky-Hof Vienna (with Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann, Peter Behrens, Oskar Strnad, Oskar Wlach and Karl Dirnhuber)

By Priwo – photo taken by de:Benutzer

This was a large housing project to which the architects worked separately on the various apartment buildings and communal facilities. The entrance is by Oskar Strnad.

1928–9: Sebastian-Kelch-Gasse Apartments Vienna

1931–32: Leopoldine-Glöckel-yard Municipal Housing

1931–32: Simmeringer Municipal Housing Hauptstraße 142–150, Vienna (with Oskar Wlach)

For Frank, Modernism continued to have the moral imperative of housing people. These apartment and the next ones had larger rooms and larger courtyards than the 1924-5 Wiedenhoferhof Municipal Housing, as well as having a lower site coverage. Frank did not think apartment size was the dominant criteria in housing. Frank saw the apartment block as a compromise and never gave up on the house.

“The best living space does not consist of the number of size of the rooms but the quality of life that they enable.” 

The Houses

1927: Weißenhofsiedlung Duplex (House #12) Stuttgart

Here’s Frank’s building. Of the original twenty-one buildings, it’s one of eleven remaining [1]. Again there is the tidy ground floor plan with minimal circulation leading to various corners for activities, the living room has direct access to the garden, and the bedrooms to the roof terrace. Theo van Doesburg criticized Frank for his “femininely appointed” interiors. Another critic likened them to a brothel. Clearly, the new Modern movement didn’t like pattern and had no time for sentimentality, or even personality. The “femininization” of textiles seems to have come from Gropius (who was dismayed by the prominence at van de Velde’s Weimar and, at the Bauhaus, made the textile course obligatory for all women students).

“the modern person who is increasingly more exhausted by his job requires a domicile cozier and more comfortable than those of the past. He has to obtain relaxation in more concentrated ways in a much shorter time. Therefore rthe domicile has to be the absolute opposite of the workplace. This applies not only to the … sitting and resding areas but to every visible object …; ornament and variety create peace and eliminate the pathos of the purely functional.” 

Frank had a different conception of what it was to be modern.

1929–30: Villa Beer (with Oskar Wlach)

His Villa Beer is modernist on the outside and could be mistaken for a building by André Lurçat another misfit architect and exhibitor at the Werkbundsiedlung exhibition. While it manifests itself in different ways, Frank’s attitude towards the interior is very similar to Eileen Gray’s at E1027 in that it is relaxed and haptic, perhaps sensual. The space with the circular window in Villa Beer is not a room. It has no name. It’s just a corner off the first floor landing and is a pleasant place to be. That’s it at the top on the top left in this plan.

The entrance hall is a complex arrangement of levels, open stairs, galleries and spaces.

In a 1930 speech to members of the German Werkbund, Frank questioned the “radical” modernist’s drive towards stylization, arguing that it was not singularity but diversity that defined modern culture. When he said the new architecture should be allowed to grow from pluralism and not from rigid principles, I suspect he was referring to Le Corbusier’s Five Points because the main living areas of Villa Beer are at ground level (as they are in all his houses). The sitting area projecting into the garden is no summer conservatory. Radiators beneath the seats show Frank intended this as a place to enjoy the outdoors and the garden whatever the season.

Frank said “Modernism is what gives us complete freedom” and this is not some conceptual middle ground between principles and utility but a different way of thinking about what being modern is meant to be, not what it could be represented by. The Miesian “blurring of inside and outside” and the Corbusian rooftop unconnected to the garden both make spaces neither totally inside nor totally outside. If someone really wants to enjoy being out in the garden then they take a chair and go sit there. If it’s too cold, then this seating area at Villa Beer is the next best place. Inside is inside and outside is outside. People have the freedom to choose and do not have some homogenous space forced upon them. I think this is what Frank meant.

1932: Werkbundsiedlung Exhibition House #12

Housing exhbitions are a good idea. I don’t know why we don’t have them anymore. We hear a lot about the twenty one houses in 1927 Weissenhof Exhibition in Stuttgart but little of the 70 houses in the 1932 Werkbundsiedlung Exhibition in Vienna. [4] Frank’s house was #12. The house is divided into three functional zones, each split down the middle by circulation. The dual-aspect living room therefore has cross ventilation in one direction and cross traffic in the other, forming two defined yet connected zones for dining and sitting.

“A well organised house should be planned like a town – with streets and paths leading to places free of traffic, where relaxation is possible”.

All furniture and furnishings and the matching fabric for curtains and day-bed were by the company Haus & Garten Frank and Oskar Wlach had founded in 1925.

By now, Frank’s interest in how people are going to live in the house was fully developed along with his proposal of a bright and relaxed comfort in which soft furnishings were important. Curtains and upholstery fabric were important not because they were “art for the people” as the Constructivists had maintained, but simply because they made living more pleasant.

To argue for an architecture based in pluralism and not in rigid principles was revolutionary at the time and it is revolutionary now. Had his call for a conceptual middle ground been heeded in 1930 we might have been spared the violent conceptual lurch from the extremitites of a supposed Modernism and, after thirty years, to a supposed Post Modernism. [5] Frank viewed the Bauhaus with suspicion and questioned if it was even functional to have a design aesthetic concerned more with principles than utility. [7]

1927–36: Five villas (Haus Seth, Haus Claëson, Haus Carlsten, Haus Wejtje) in Falsterbo, southern Sweden

Frank’s wife was Swedish and they spent much time in Sweden in the late 1920s. Of the five villas Frank designed there, Haus Claëson is the best documented. All feature assymetrical living rooms at ground level with bedrooms and terraces above.

There are at least two unbuilt house proposals for Salzburg, at least a dozen for Vienna, and one each for Munich, Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. Here’s one of the three versions of the Los Angeles one.

1933: The year after the Werkbundsiedlung exhibition, Frank was to emigrate to Sweden (as he was Jewish). He had a job waiting for him designing furniture and textiles for the Svenskt Tenn company. Since 1921, owner Estrid Ericson had followed Frank’s work through journals. She promoted the company’s designs in national and international exhibitions and obtained influential commissions such for Swedish embassies. Around the world, Frank’s work came to be understood as the important new style Swedish Modern.

Although Frank continued to design houses and schemes until at least the mid-1950s, there’s no built work after the 1930s. This is partially due to there being few opputunites to build during the war years in Sweden, and also because he and his wife were to again relocate, this time to the US for the period 1939-1947 where he could continue to do what he was now best known for.

Textiles & Furniture

Frank’s fabric patterns were always free – “The freer the pattern, the better,” he said – and often dense with colorful flowers, fruits, birds, mountains, and waterways but not always. Some such as Koralle appear more early 1950s than early 1930s.

1939: Furniture and furnishings for the Swedish Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair

On the left is an image of the interior of the Swedish Pavilion and already apparent is the looseness and lightness that was to become part of Scandinavian style in the 1950s. The room in the other image contains Franks “Brazil” sofa from 1930 and his “881” cabinet from 1952. This was to become how we live.

It didn’t go well for Frank in the country that had recently accepted Mies van der Rohe and Gropius’ versions of Modernism. On the left below is a New York slum clearance proposal from 1942 and on the right is a 1950 proposal for a town for 2,000 families. Sometime between these two projects, Frank must have realized he was fighting a losing game. Even though his rebellion against austere stylistic interpretations of Modernism didn’t continue in built form, he maintained his conviction Modernism had the moral purpose to promote human comfort.

His late watercolours were not so much proposals but statements showing that joy and being modern were not incompatible. The houses below are mostly from either the 1950 series of Thirteen House Designs for Dagmar Grill or the 1953 series of Six House Designs for Dagmar Grill. Complete designs with plans etc, they are all attempts to solve the problem of the sterility of post-war modern architecture.

The late watercolours show a person just doing what pleases.

1958: Essay – “Accidentism” [8, see 7 for the full essay]

In this essay, Frank says it all over again, restating his belief that our environments should appear to have been designed as if by accident.

In the words of Sebastian Hackenschmidt, curator of a 2016 retrospective at MAK in Vienna, Modernism had imbued domestic objects and spaces with the aura of art, ignoring the well-being of people for the sake of aesthetic exaltation.

“I do not believe,” Frank asserted, “it is possible to be entirely comfortable surrounded only by objects that make such demands.” Instead, it seemed to him that comfort shares affinities with chance, best summarised in the suggestion that “we should mold our surroundings as if they had come into existence by accident.” [8]

What I like about Josef Frank is that he sees the house as the house and the remit of architecture, and what’s inside it as the remit of the occupants. By 1958 Frank had worked out when he said “It doesn’t matter if you mix old and new, or different styles, colors, and patterns. The things you like will always blend, by themselves, into a peaceful whole.” This is not styling to a received look or curating to an intellectual agenda but stating the right to exercise personal choice. Apart from saying every famous Modernist had got it wrong, this call for people to limit the remit of the architect and exercise their freedom of choice can’t have helped his reputation any.

Frank died in 1967 and so missed the beginnings of post-modernism but I doubt he would have been pleased by it. True, buildings were suddenly allowed to be colourful and appear accidental but architects were still the ones making the decisions. It does Frank no service to see him as a precursor to post-modernism. Frank did not want a new aesthetic or style but a new way of living. [7] This was a new idea then and is still new now. It’s perhaps even more revolutionary and subversive now when how to live in buildings is not something that’s even discussed anymore and when it is assumed that modern life is what we’re told it will be. Frank saw Modernism as the opposite of freedom and I’m sure he would have thought the same of its “replacement”.

Exhibitions of his work usually feature his fabrics and furniture and are given names like Against Design. Articles about Frank are given subheadings like Beyond the Dogma of the Modernist Movement. It seems we’re condemned to remember him only in relation to what he was against and not what he stood for. We’re allowed to like his joyous fabric designs and wondrous furniture as long as we treat them as either dated curious or period art pieces and don’t think about them as extensions of people and not architecture.

It is Frank’s attitude towards how people should live inside their dwelling that has proved resilient. His work with Svenskt Tenn came to represent Scandinavian modern design and, indirectly, had a huge influence on Italian modern design via Gio Ponti. [9] Ponti had known about Frank’s and Wlach’s work from the Haus & Garten exhibit at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Indusgtrial Modernes in Paris, but began to write effusively about it in Domus in 1936, including 40 illustrations. Haus & Garten exhibited at the Fourth (1930), Fifth (1936) and Sixth (1936) Trienalle exhibitions in Milan. In a 1937 Domus article, Ponti introduced the “interesting collection objects by Casa & Giardino, a Milanese initiative in the field of home furnishings”. The company’s director was Leo Carminati but Ponti was both designer and promoter. Haus & Garten and Casa & Giardino both promoted the designs of local craftspeople and both had ranges of lounges and outdoor furniture for use in gardens and on terraces. Ponti wrote “From the architecture and decorative arts of Germany, Austria, Denmark and Sweden we have taken the lesson of energy, intergrity, organized production, perfect execution, virtuosity.” Ponti’s and, later, Carminati’s designs shared Frank’s values of comfort, craft and “classical” values such as form, proportion and simplicity. Carminati’s early fabric designs were unashamedly similar to some of Frank’s but they too became a popular way to “brighten up” a room. Another characteristic shared by both Frank and Ponti was a respect for the vernacular. Italy was forced to rely upon Italian materials when the League of Nations imposed economic sanctions in response to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. One result was to upholster dining chairs and stools using Italian-produced hemp. Marketing them as the new fashion rather than the new frugality is testament to Ponti’s genius.

But parallels are many. The exterior of Ponti’s (own) 1936 house Casa Laporte has a definite Viennese influence but the interior is very Frank and Villa Beer. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Much is known about Frank’s contribution to Swedish modern design even if there was never that much recognition of it. I knew nothing of the Gio Ponti connection and Frank’s influence on Italian modern design. Swedish modern design and Italian modern design are still highly regarded in general, even if Swedish modern design is best known as IKEA and Italian modern design best known for expensive sofas and fitted kitchens. Frank provided the principles on which the domestic design cultures of these two countries were built. This is a phenomenal legacy. History has proven him right.

 • • •

Josef Frank!

For seeing how people live as being their own responsibility
and not part of the remit of architecture and architects,
For keeping that dream alive as long as you could,
wherever you could, and in every way you knew.

misfits salutes you!

* * * [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] (an auction house) [7] ** [8]
[9] “Josef Frank and Gio Ponti: Reflections on the “House” and the “Garden,” A View From Italy” Marianne Lamonaca (Essay 9 on p128-139 in the book I mentioned.)

• • •

Special thanks to Mark Macy of Last December Mark suggested I look into Josef Frank as a potential misfit and he was so right.

I can’t help thinking of Josef Frank every time I go by this house in Umm Al Quwain.