During Design Miami/ Basel this past June, Stockholm-based gallery Jackson’s exhibited a unique set of cabinets designed by twentieth-century architect-designer Josef Frank. Produced in 1958 by Swedish interiors company Svensk Tenn for a private residence in São Paulo, these objects are a perfect embodiment of Frank’s approach to design. While throughout his long career Frank upheld a principled and progressive design philosophy that kept modern human needs at the forefront, he disparaged the austere environments and puritanical aesthetics endorsed by modernists of his day.
Frank was born in Austria in 1885 and belonged to the same generation as the most prominent pioneers of modern design, including Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Like his contemporaries, Frank recognized that the machine age had brought new technologies and lifestyles that must, by necessity, have an affect on the way buildings and interiors are designed. Passionately committed to shaping a new era, he played a key role in propagating the modern movement in Vienna and beyond from the 1910s to the early 1930s, until the rise of Nazism forced him to emigrate to Sweden, where he continued to work but participated to a lesser degree in the international discourse.
Between the two World Wars, the most ardent proponents of modernism, most notably Le Corbusier, organized a number of conferences and exhibitions with the aim of codifying the modern movement into a set of standardized precepts. They were particularly concerned with the rationalization of housing, in terms of both urban planning and interior design. Frank was invited to participate in these landmark debates. Although the intention was to formalize the new era of design, it was through these exchanges that it became clear that Frank would never be a strict modernist.
Frank disagreed most vehemently with the voices of modernism that insisted that the machine age required a dogmatic, functionalist program encapsulated within a new aesthetic language characterized by reduced forms, high-tech materials, and the absence of ornament. While a general consensus existed among modernists to develop a “human-centered” approach, Frank stood apart from his colleagues by insisting that architects cannot decree a fixed universal program that works for every person in all circumstances, especially with respect to the designing of homes. Not only would such modernist orthodoxy be uncomfortable, it would be boring. Instead, Frank embraced personal touches, sentimentality, and asymmetry, outfitting interiors with boldly patterned upholstery, traditional furniture forms, off-grid furnishing arrangements, and eclectic displays of decorative objects.
In 1958, the same year that the Jacksons’ cabinets were produced, Frank wrote an essay for Swedish magazine Form and gave a name to his long-held version of modernism: Accidentism. For Frank, modern design should be simple, straightforward, and practical. He believed, however, that such modern precepts should not preclude character and comfort. The term Accidentism represents Frank’s belief that highly controlled designs are oppressive, and that the most welcoming environments are those that seem to have developed organically over time, as if by accident. He wrote: “Every human being needs a certain amount of sentiment in order to feel comfortable… Away with universal styles, away with all standardization of industry and art, away with the whole complex of ideas under the name of functionalism!”
Within his lifetime, Frank’s more dogmatic contemporaries overshadowed his contribution to modernism. Today, however, Frank is seen as one of the most influential designers of the twentieth century, one who foresaw the limits of functionalist aesthetics and ideology and led the way to a more organic, more individualized approach to design. This freedom in design is still embraced today. The cabinets exhibited by Jacksons last June are recognizable as modern design through their rectilinear forms and pared down style, but the asymmetrical, disordered patterning, along with the warm and sumptuous wood details, render these objects timeless, capable of making a house a home.