Against Design is the title of the extensive retrospective at MAK—Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art in Vienna dedicated to the architect, designer and progressive thinker Josef Frank. It’s provocative for sure, but it’s also timely and apt, because Frank’s designs for buildings and interiors are characterized by a rejection of dogma and a rigidity of structure and order. In his speeches and seminars, Frank consistently spoke out against the uniform sameness of modernism and advocated diversity and freedom in design. ‘Striving for total simplicity’, as the journalist Hedvig Hedqvist quotes him, ‘becomes pathetic. It’s pathetic that everything has to be the same, with no room for variation. The same goes for the desire to organize people and force them to become one big homogenous mass.’
Frank, who was born in 1885 to a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, left the city in 1933 to escape the worsening political situation in Austria. In Sweden, he began working for the furniture manufacturer Svenskt Tenn under the artistic direction of Estrid Ericson, who stood for an upper middle-class culture of home décor. It was an extremely productive time that gave rise to numerous furniture and textile designs, for instance the blue-and-white Granatäpple and Orange rug designs that were minimal in color. By the 1960s and 70s, however, Frank was all but forgotten. It was only in the 1980s that he was rediscovered in the wake of postmodernism and a new demand for the decorative and sensuous. His ideas about comfort, nature and its connection to people and living spaces, chance, and process, as well as his playful relationship to historical epochs and styles provided a perfect departure point for bidding goodbye to the rational minimalism and rigid functionalism of modern architecture.
In this vein, Frank’s formal language went against the rules of orderly juxtaposition: windows on building façades were frequently arranged not in regular rows, but according to their own rhythm, often interrupted by round portholes, for instance on the street side of the Beer House, which he built in Vienna in the 1920s together with Oskar Wlach. On the other hand, his textile designs are dominated by floral shapes that are often surprisingly naturalistic, even where abstracted through combinations of bold colour. His patterns Teheran and Brazil, both from his period of exile in New York (1941–46), have an almost uncanny psychedelic effect. On the other hand, Manhattan, one of Frank’s best-known textile patterns, is based on New York City’s grid street structure. Ribbons of text wind around sections of a map, while the geometric structures that give rise to the form and framing are juxtaposed with organic forms; the resulting pattern takes on a lightness that nearly floats.
The exhibition is rife with Frank’s many textile and pattern designs – original painted designs on curtains and wallpaper, coverings for a range of upholstered furniture, and on a large panel that provides orientation for the viewer. A glass case contains two of the wooden printing models, together with two digitized notebooks on iPads. In addition, oversize photographs, most of them black and white, provide a peek into the living areas of the projects Frank realized, including the Werkbund Estate in Vienna, which Frank’s professional colleagues at the time strongly criticized for its wild mixture of various different patterns on the drapes and upholstered furniture. Liveliness and variety were important to Frank; he remained skeptical of austere as of rigidly overdesigned furniture sets. A declared socialist, he was committed to public housing, designing buildings that featured a compact living space with access to small gardens. As a founding member of the Vienna Werkbund, Frank was responsible for building the first Werkbund Estate in Hietzing.
The exhibition at the MAK presents a little of all. In an urge to show the viewer the versatility of this architect and designer, however, the very thing that makes Frank’s life work so special is what seems to have gotten lost: the impulse to defy boundaries and stake out new possibilities. Everything here is neatly subdivided into categories. The exhibition architecture unfolds in a manner similar to an archive, with the chairs presented in a row, followed by a section for tables and vitrines. Building projects that have been realized are reserved for one area, sketchbooks for another, and the textile designs are hung next to one another as drapes. Curator Sebastian Hackenschmidt and guest curator Hermann Czech arranged Frank’s many-layered work along a pre-determined path. Granted, they do this in a way that makes the work accessible in its full breadth, an achievement in itself. In the same breath, however, they take away Frank’s tactile freshness and chance magic.
Translated by Andrea Scrima
First published in Issue 23