Against Design. Das anti-formalistische Werk des Architekten / The Architect's Anti-Formalist Oeuvre

Josef Frank
red. Christian Thun-Hohenstein, Herrmann Czech, Sebastian Hackenschmidt

Birkhäuser, Vienna 2016

The publication accompanying the exhibition Against Design not only documents the collected works of Josef Frank, but also contains an extensive theoretical section, acquainting the reader with the figure of this remarkable architect and designer. The essays’ authors focus on a great variety of themes in Frank’s life and work, and the scale of their observations varies as well: from insightful analyses of a dozen or so chair models or textile patterns, to broader reflections on the theoretical position of the artist and his role in the world of architecture and design. However, what emerges from almost all the articles and strikes the reader is the coherence in Frank’s theoretical approach and designs, his refusal to take any of the well-beaten paths of his day and insistence on choosing his own way, and the contemporary feel of his work.
Comfort, normalcy, lack of pretension, practicality, naturalness, flexibility, mobility, empowerment, diversity, chance – these are perhaps the key words to describe the work of Josef Frank. He was not interested in dogmatically striving for Modernism, with its notions of standardisation, mechanisation, and its disavowal of bourgeois coziness (what Le Corbusier called “sentimental hysteria”) and the décor of the Wiener Werkstätte. He broke with the idea of theGesamtkunstwerk– the finished and complete work of art that ought to be left untouched. Perhaps it is the fact that Frank could not connect with any theoretical school, his theoretical approach and work itself being too eclectic, that has kept him from becoming a household name. His place on the sidelines of the architectural mainstream did cause him some bitterness; at the end of his life he confessed in a letter to a friend that he had not achieved what he set out to do.
It is a shame that his rejection of sharp and uncompromising slogans in favor of a consistent search for good architecture did not bring him the recognition he expected. From today’s perspective, his standpoint seems more contemporary than many of the popular Modernist catchphrases. Frank’s profoundly humanist architecture was focused on residents’ needs. Though he valued practicality and functionality, he also saw the importance in certain aspects of the home which serve no functional purpose, but give the inhabitants pleasure. Though he believed there were certain general guidelines for a good home, such as sufficient lighting, contact with nature (a garden, a balcony), and sensible passageways from one room to another, his overriding value was empowering the inhabitant – his or her capability to change the space, to adapt it to whatever needs may arise. We ought to note that this was not a popular approach among the Modernist architects who were Frank’s contemporaries. Though Modernism was meant to cater to man’s needs, it presupposed that man first had to be taught what is proper for him (hygiene, functionality, openness, etc.). Frank, on the other hand, believed that you had to give man the tools he needed to reshape his environment. Josef Frank’s housing concept is well expressed in his idea for the living room, which he considered the most important space in the house. The ideal living room, in his view, was never finished, it lived and evolved along with its inhabitants. It would therefore seem that the role of the architect, as Frank suggests, has clearly marked boundaries: the space he designs is not and should not be a finished and ready-made shape, a work of art, or a model of an ideally “functional” interior, but rather a space which is at a certain stage of development, and only evolves further when used. The word “chance” appears multiple times in analyses of Frank’s works and his own observations; this does not mean, of course, that the architect gives free rein to chaos, but that he believes in appreciating the power and beauty of the user’s unpredictable actions, which can give a home a touch of something which, for lack of a better word, we might call spirit.
The exhibition catalogue features twenty very diverse essays. Christoph Thun-Hohenstein shows the profound humanism at the core of Frank’s work, and points out that the beneficiaries of his work were not only the financial elite, but also the less wealthy – Frank was an activist who became involved in designing affordable housing after the First World War. Ursula Prokop writes of Frank’s Jewish origins, which had a major impact on his fate as a professional – it was the reason why he emigrated from Nazi Austria to the USA. This theme is also a vital part of another essay by Elena Shapira. She provides a very interesting description how, in designing his apartments for Jewish clients, Frank used them and his strategies for overcoming the role of the outsider. Frank saw this as a challenge that fit into his notion of empowering through design. Other architects approached this challenge differently: Josef Hoffmann used décor to emphasise the elite, distinct, and exceptional nature of his Jewish clientele. Loos did the opposite: guided by a desire to integrate and mobilise Jewish society, he designed them typical British interiors, as the Jews idealised England as a place where, unlike Austria, they were treated with respect. Frank, on the other hand, showed his clients the possibility of departing from bourgeois restrictions and Austrian provincialism, opening up their interiors to a broader European identity. His designs also show the Jews’ struggles to find their place and identity.
Iris Meder’s essay focuses on architectural critiques, particularly the articles by Max Eisler on Frank’s work. He points out that Frank and his contemporaries were united in understanding architecture as a system not unlike language. The ethical dimension was also important. Meder also shows the basic divisions of the architectural environment; Frank most closely resembled Loos and Strand, while a great deal separated him from the Wiener Werkstätte, Hoffmann, and Holzmeister.
Otto Kapfinger describes Frank’s involvement in communal buildings and his apartment designs, though his decision to list the events in chronological order might tire the reader. More interesting are Frank’s priorities in his housing designs (from p. 107). Every apartment had to have its private open space (a garden substitute) and a balcony. Frank saw the apartment’s relationship with its outside environment, the light it received, and the possibility of accessing the bedroom and the kitchen/dining room from the living room as crucial elements. His colour choice also set him apart from other designers: burnt sienna in place of the official dark colours.
Christopher Long turns his eye to the flexibility of Frank’s designs, Frank’s care in making moveable furniture and disdain for immobile and built-in solutions, and Frank’s allowance of a certain degree of unpredictability and an element of chance. Mikael Bergquist and Olof Michélsen describe Frank’s critical approach to Modernism (though he considered himself an exponent of the movement) and his conviction that a home and its interior are the architect’s greatest tasks. The home was to be an oasis in which one could find shelter and be oneself without adapting to external circumstances. In her second text, Iris Meder covers the subject of gardens and nature, organic elements, which Frank opposed to the world’s increasingly mechanistic character.
Sebastian Hackenschmidt stresses the importance of handwork for Frank. The architect forecast that the craftsman’s products would be entirely pushed aside by mechanisation. He argued as follows in one article: “We are accustomed to surrounding ourselves with handcrafts in our homes, for we understand that they console us better than machine-produced objects – they communicate the tranquility with which the craftsman’s hand slowly made them. We feel more at home in a room furnished with such objects than surrounded by furniture whose hasty and soulless production merit only the hastiest of glances.”
Part Two of the publication strikes me as more appealing to the reader, because some of the articles are devoted to very specific issues, while the earlier pieces show Frank’s work in a broader context and emphasise more his theoretical views. Jiří Uhlíř provides a detailed analysis of chair models from Thonet Mundus which are attributed to Frank, wondering which might be his design. Yet a more interesting issue seems to me that our rediscovery of the TON chair demonstrates the enduring value of Frank’s designs. Angela Völker, Claudia Cavallar, and Sebastian Hackenschmidt explore the fabrics Frank designed. We should note that, like everything he did, his fabric designs were complex, dynamic, and varied. In a text devoted to Frank’s connections with the USA (where he lived for a time), Christopher Long observes that, although Frank drew from British designs as well, he valued the lack of pretension in American interiors, their practicality and comfort. The final three articles deal with Frank’s ties with Sweden, where he immigrated in the 1930s and where he worked for Svenskt Tenn as head designer. The interesting article about IKEA by Jan Norrman is perhaps the only one that seems entirely divorced from the work of Josef Frank, which is a shame because it would be desirable to have a wider analysis of how far Frank’s approach differed from those of the creators of IKEA (Frank unquestionably opposed mass/mechanical production, yet the stacks of books on the night tables of the stores’ arrangements show an awareness of the chance and dynamics that Frank described).
Designing apartments where people feel good and at ease, which serve their inhabitants, growing and evolving with them, which are a balance between the decorative and the functional, and which allow for flexibility and change – these aims might seem a trifle bland to us. The postulates of Josef Frank offers, however, an alternative for the history of architecture that sometimes became too enmeshed in the struggle between various “isms,” and too dogmatically focused on a mission, losing sight of people and their needs.

Marta Skowrońska