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Swedish American Museum exhibit builds up a legendary furniture designer
Exhibit on architect Josef Frank shows off his influential designs.
By Madeline Nusser
Published: September 26, 2012
When Jewish architect Josef Frank turned 50, the Nazis began to close in on his hometown of Vienna, Austria. He fled to Sweden, becoming a furniture and fabric designer in a country that would forever change him—and be changed by him. “Almost everybody would have some kind of Frank piece,” Karin Abercrombie, director of the Swedish American Museum, says about Sweden during the midcentury. “Anyone who knew about design would definitely own Franks.”
Traveling from the museum at the San Francisco International Airport, the exhibit “The Enduring Designs of Josef Frank” shows the breadth of Frank’s designs from 1930 to 1960. Here are a few exhibition highlights.
Plant it Frank’s fabrics were bright, loud and always infused with a trippy vision of the natural world. “Swedish fabrics often tie to nature,” Abercrombie says.
Cabinet of curiosity When Frank fled the Nazis, he landed work as the principal designer at Svenskt Tenn, a furniture house in Stockholm. Today, the famed company continues to produce many of Frank’s designs, including this 1938 cabinet. The drawers, covered by veneer of the vavona root, seem to smile out at the viewer from loopy handles—an example of Frank’s trademark humor, which diverges from many of his stolid, modernist contemporaries.
Lending color If this chair and lamp contain colors that look familiar—like hues out of an IKEA catalog, perhaps?—that’s no accident. “Frank influenced many Swedish designers over the years,” Abercrombie explains. To show his importance, the museum partnered with the Swedish furniture giant to create a window display of designs based on Frank’s work.
Grin and bear it Frank gave all his furniture pieces numbers and nicknames, including Rug Josef Frank No 7, dubbed the Beast. “As a general rule, everything in Sweden has to be practical, but it has to be inviting,” notes Abercrombie. “If it’s too boring, then it doesn’t really appeal.”