31 January 2016

Josef Frank: Post-Modernist

"Styles have a way of announcing themselves timidly some time before they become insistent and popular and they often linger on because people are accustomed to them and feel affectionate toward them years after a new style has established itself." - Russel Lynes, excerpt from The Artmakers (1970)

Oh, and there is something more: that a style may reach its fullest potential when a new style incorporates what was not assimilated before.  In the case of Josef Frank (1885-1967) the key is in his beautifully rendered architectural paintings.  They are charming and  make clear the debt owed to Frank by such diverse practitioners as Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, the Smithsons (Alice and Peter)  and Rem Koolhaas. My favorite is his design for a University of the Applied Arts; its stone chimneys look to me like two curious giraffes looking back at passersby.  
Now there is a new exhibition  Josef Frank: Against Design that runs through April 3 at the Museum for Applied Culture (MAK) in Vienna. that makes the case for him as one of great architect-designers of the twentieth century  and the precursor of Post-modernism.   Frank was, in the words of  Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, museum director,  “the great humanist in modern architecture and design.”  Although Frank designed furniture, textiles, wallpaper, and carpeting, it is his prospective paintings that charm me.

“Frank was absolutely against that (the idea of totally controlled design, the German the term is Gesamtkunstwerk) and also against the standardization of Modernism, and Le Corbusier’s idea of buildings being designed as machines for living,”  according to exhibition curator Sebastian Hackenschmidt. Frank himself wrote “The house is not a work of art, simply a place where one lives.” 

Why did so many talented designers in fin de siecle Vienna choose architecture?  There had long  been a housing shortage in the capitol city of the Hapsburg Empire.  The magnificence sweep of the Ringstrasse concealed from view the inadequate and unhealthy living conditions that most of the population lived in.   There are affecting photographs of Koloman Moser’s apartment, his modern wallpaper designs peeling off its old moisture-cracked walls.  Frank became a leader in the campaign for affordable homes.  He designed apartments for working people that included pleasant views, abundant light, and good ventilation.  Modern design should respond to human needs; there was no need to reject the charms of color and pattern.
Frank designed his first interior in 1910, an apartment for his sister and her husband in Vienna. During the 1920s Frank had worked with Peter Behrens and Josef Hoffmann,  architects from the first wave of Viennese modernism and, in turn, he became the most influential architect of its second wave.  Villa Beer, a residence Frank designed in 1929 with Oscar Wlach, his partner in the successful design firm Haus und Garten (founded in 1925), is now considered the most important Viennese residence of the interwar period, as  Hoffmann’s  Palais Stoclet (1905) was the pinnacle of an earlier generation

Frank founded a design company, Haus und Garten (House and Garden) with Oskar Wlach in 1925, that was forced to close in 1938.  He never worked in Austria again.  Frank, who was Jewish, left Vienna in 1933 with his Swedish-born wife  Anna.  First they settled in Stockholm but fled to the United States as war in Europe became increasingly likely, living in New York from 1939 to 1947.  Frank's  design with Estrid Ericson of the interior of the Swedish pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair was a hit with thepublic and with the critics, who,dubbed the design  'Swedish modernism.' Frank taught at the New School in Manhattan but was unsuccessful at getting commissions to design the public housing projects dear to his heart.  After the war the Franks returned to Sweden.
In his last years, with all that he had achieved during a long career, Frank expressed disappointment.  “It is not what I had imagined and what I wanted and would have been able to do, but rather only what I was able to accomplish under the circumstances,” he wrote in a 1948 letter to a friend. “When I look back it makes me very sad.”
Finally, with all the idiosyncrasies Frank introduced into his designs, the balanced proportions that he so admired in the buildings of Renaissance architect Leon Batista Alberti  were his foundation. In Frank's arrangements of solids and voids I see the influence of  the Nolli technique, named for Giambattista Nolli's  revolutionary Plan for the city of Rome (1748), an early example of humanist urbanism, a gift from the past that is also a gift to the future.

Architectural drawings by Josef Frank are in the collection of the Albertina Museum, Vienna.
1. House with blue walls, 1910.
2. University For the Applied Arts, undated. 
3. House for Dagmar Grill, Number 8, c.1947-55
4. House for Dagmar Grill, Number 9, c1947-55. 
5. House, 1953.