Lush, five-color, screen printed fabrics depicting burgeoning flora and fauna seem an unlikely product to emerge from wartime Sweden, but their creator, Josef Frank, was anything but an ordinary textile designer. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in late 19th-century Vienna, Frank’s early aptitude for drawing led him to pursue architecture at the Vienna University of Technology, where he completed his doctorate in 1910. During the First World War, Frank served as a lieutenant, and on his return took up a professorship in architecture, simultaneously gaining a reputation as a talented practicing architect.
By the mid-1920s, Frank had given up his teaching post, and was at the helm of his own successful design and furnishings firm Haus & Garten (that’s House and Garden FYI) with former colleagues Oskar Wlach and Walter Sobotka. The firm took a stance antithetical to the structure and rigidity of the Wiener Werkstätte, creating lightweight and functional furniture models, experimenting with bright, colorful textiles, and taking inspiration from nature as opposed to adhering to strict geometry.
Though distinctly anti-doctrinaire, through Haus & Garten Frank developed definite ideas about interior architecture. “For example he said you should never use furniture like architecture,” says Teresa Collenette, curator at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, where a retrospective of Frank’s work has just closed. “You should always see the demarcations of the room, so you see where the wall meets the floor. You shouldn’t have a sofa bang on the floor, because it decreases the space—which is to say that everything should be on legs.
“Though he was a great fan of covering a wall with plain colour, he was very pro-pattern. He said that, in fact, the optimum was to have eight patterns together.
He was a functionalist, and after the First World War very much a Socialist—he was involved in designing social housing and workers’ settlements.”
Haus & Garten would no doubt have continued in this vein were it not for the rise of the Nazi party in Austria and the heightening atmosphere of anti-Semitism. In 1933 Frank was forced to leave Vienna for safety’s sake, moving to Stockholm with his Swedish wife, Anna. It was here that his career and international reputation really began to flourish.
Before moving Frank had maintained a correspondence with Estrid Ericson, a former teacher and founder of Swedish design house Svenkst Tenn (Swedish Pewter) credited with bringing Modernism and Functionalism to Sweden. Ericson had invited Frank to design some patterns for the firm in 1932, and upon his arrival in Sweden he took up a post as chief designer.
By this point Frank was well into his 50s with a celebrated career as an architect behind him. Instead of resting on his laurels and repeating himself in his new home, he left architecture behind almost entirely. Under the employment of Svensk Tenn, Frank became a textile designer par excellence, bucking trends and defying critics all over Scandinavia.
“He creates this sofa—the Liljevalch—that’s literally twice the size of any other,” says Collenette. “Not only that, but it’s covered in this crazy, huge sort of organic fabric. He puts it in a room with an animal rug and this lovely cocktail cabinet and the critics don’t really know what to say. They just can’t take it. This is so unlike anything they’ve ever seen before, and it really causes a stir.”
With his newfound bad-boy status, Frank began to push himself to create ever more ornate and elaborate textile designs, embracing the new medium of screen printing and working at a scale previously impossible with woodblock printing techniques. He made use of fluorescent pinks and acidic greens and yellows, determined to create a fantastical world within his fabrics quite opposed to the outside world.
But once more, as a Jew in Sweden, Frank’s life became complicated at the outbreak of the Second World War, and he was forced to move again, this time to New York, where he continued to design for Svensk Tenn.
In the New World Frank’s designs became more vibrant again, and the U.S. influence can be seen in his Dixieland design; a punchy textile featuring oversized sunflowers and watermelons.
“The thing about Frank,” says Collenette, “is that he often gives names of places to his fabrics, but they don’t necessarily relate. It’s about transporting himself.
“If you think, he’s fled war, it’s dangerous times, and he’s trying to get that out of his mind, so he creates these kind of fantastical places that aren’t really specific. But if you look, Dixieland is obviously a map design. You see the sunflowers and watermelons—these typical symbols of Dixieland—but then if you look closer, the sunflowers are actually in the outline of Africa, and the melons in South America.
“He’s exact in some representations, but a lot of the time he lives in this dream-like world where he’s optimistically looking at different things—and yet all the other plants in the pattern are actually poisonous, so there’s a slight twist. Everything he does it either is naughty or has a twist, which makes his fabrics so interesting.”
Elsewhere in Frank’s oeuvre during his tenure at Svesnk Tenn are Italian Dinner, an imagined landscape populated with all the plants and animals required for a traditional Mediterranean meal, Poisons, a tessellation of hops, tobacco and vines floating on a rich black background, and Manhattan, a topographic aerial view of his new American home—all of which display a disregard for the fashions of the time and a pure delight for color.
In 1946 Frank returned home to Stockholm and continued to produce textiles for another four years. His last, Himalaya, manages to encompass his entire textile career in one exuberant pattern that imagines a simpler, more natural world. “It’s the idea of garden of Eden, a paradise,” says Collenette, and a poignant way to bow out of textile design for good.
For the rest of his life Frank traveled post-war Europe with close friends, often decamping to France for long periods of time, during which he attempted to master watercolor painting. Despite producing nearly 400 finished images and sketches, none of his watercolors display the same experimental flair as his textile work. In his later years it seems Frank was content to leave the fantasy world of his imagination for the real world, and spend his days simply painting what he saw.