Upon hearing the words modern, modernism, or modernist design, what are your first thoughts? “Form follows function,” universal, structured, machines, red, yellow, blue, black, white, tubular steel, leather, Cubism, geometry, straight lines, circles, squares, triangles? What about knotted carpeting, irregular shapes and patterns, whimsy, a denial of the machine aesthetic, comfortable, cozy, eclectic, personal, humanistic, lilac, burnt orange, green, tan? How about a little of each?

In a 1927 essay entitled “Fassade und Interieur” published in Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration 31 (June 1928, p. 187), Josef Frank, a Viennese architect and furniture and textile designer who would be 128 on the 15th (b. July 15, 1885; d. January 8, 1967), offered up an argument for the aesthetics of feeling over both the importance of “‘appearance’” and the Functionalism that characterized early Modernism. Frank said, “[t]he goal…in designing an interior…is not to make it as luxurious as possible or as simple as possible, but rather to make it as comfortable as possible…The most comfortable interiors have always been those that the occupant himself has put together over the course of time which betray no sense of intention or plan.”[1] Frank suggests that a sort of personal, individualized eclecticism can bring unity and warmth to a space through a sense of shared form. This sort of “new” and “styleless” eclecticism pulling from both modern and historical forms was meant to “undermine the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) ideal that [his contemporaries] Hoffman, Olbrich, and the other Secessionists had long championed.”[2] And, it can be seen on full display in the 1932 interior view (below) from Innen-Dekoration 44 (1933), which depicts Frank’s designs for Haus & Garten, a home furnishing business co-founded by Frank and Oskar Wlach loosely modeled after the Wiener Werkstatte which was characterized by the unity of art, design and production. [3]

“Bedroom, house for A.S.F., Vienna, ca. 1932. From Innen-Dekoration 44 (1933).”From Josef Frank Architect and Designer, Nina Stritzler-Levine, ed.

If we look to the ground in the image above, we see the plush predecessor of today’s object peeking out amidst an array of items drawing influence from all over the globe and across time. Today’s object from the collection is Frank’s Bows, a length of printed linen and cotton dated to ca. 1960. This later textile finds its origin in this pre-war Haus & Garten carpet design from 1929 produced by the Swedish textile firm Almedahl’s (the original design is in the Backhausen Achives in Vienna). [4] Unlike Frank’s other printed and early textiles, which draw both their emphasis on pattern and their inspiration from more natural forms from textiles of the Arts & Crafts Movement, Wiener Werkstatte, and textiles born out of the Austrian concept of the total work of art, this pattern is highly geometricized and more typically “Modern” [5]. In his acknowledgement of eclecticism and the mixing of styles, Frank’s work shows us just how flexible and personal Modernism can be. His work also highlights the ways in which movements in art and design are reciprocal, and how Modernism boasts styles that celebrate geometry and the machine, styles that reject it, and some that fall somewhere in between.

Looking at the design below from 1933 and the carpet in situ, we see how colors and shapes work together dynamically to create patterns within the confines of the carpet itself, as well as how the carpet activates its surroundings. The design plays with our eye, tempting us to perceive depth and a pictorial, representative scene, but when the pattern is repeated, as is the case in the Museum’s example of Bows, we again become lost in its artful patterning. The textile is light-hearted, fun and unexpected, but not undisciplined. In a way, due especially to their shared influence of the Arts & Crafts Movement, the tenets of which are “truth to materials, honesty of construction, joy in labor, and the dialectic relationship of beauty and utility,” Frank’s interiors can be related to interior of the home of Charles and Ray Eames and its “functional decoration,” which is comprised of “carefully composed arrangements of disparate objects…within interior spaces. The aesthetic [is] one of addition, juxtaposition, composition, changing scales, and ‘extra-cultural surprise.’” [6] All of these elements can be identified in Frank’s Haus & Garten interior. Not unlike Frank’s interior, the Eames’ interior elements seem to belie the sense of Modernism’s functionality, transmitting a narrative about livability, comfort, warmth, charm and real-ness. In Frank’s work and in looking at Bows we are made aware of a larger design narrative imbued with the human spirit and nature melded with geometry and pattern, the result of which is a unique, eclectic Modernism, but Modernism, none the less. This textile suggests a Modernist space touched by humanism and by Functionalism. In Frank’s own words, “The home must not be a mere effective machine. It must offer comfort, first, and coziness (soothing to the eye, stimulating to the soul)…” [7]

“Carpet Design for Haus & Garten, c. 1933. Sammlung, Universitat fur angewandte Kunst, Vienna.” From Josef Frank: Life and Work by Christopher Long

Works Cited:
[1] Nina Stritzler-Levine, ed., Josef Frank Architect and Designer: An Alternative Vision of the Modern Home (New Haven: Bard & Yale, 1996): p. 51.
[2 & 3] Ibid., p. 47-48 and p. 51.
[4] Object record. The Museum System.
[5] Nina Stritzler-Levine, ed., Josef Frank Architect and Designer, p. 51.
[6] Pat Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996): p. 143 and 164.
[7] Charlotte and Peter Fiell, Scandinavian Design (Koln: Taschen, 2002): p. 67.

Additional Sources:
Long, Christopher. Josef Frank: Life and Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Wangberg-Eriksson, Kristina. Josef Frank: Textile Designs. Lund: Signum, 1999.

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