Paul Frankl (1886–1958) furniture designer and maker, architect, writer
Born into a wealthy real-estate family in Vienna, Paul Frankl studied art and architecture in Vienna and Berlin. He pursued a degree in architecture at Vienna Polytech University with the intention of designing buildings for the family business and had a few architectural apprenticeships. However, in 1914 after the death of his father, he left for the United States, drawn to New York for its architecture and energy. There he opened a small shop selling modern decorative accessories, as well offering his services as interior decorator. In 1917 Frankl went back to Vienna where modernism was in glorious evidence everywhere. Returning to New York in 1920 he found the American public ambivalent towards modern design in the home and made it his mission to advocate for modernist tenets. At the same time acknowledging America’s fascination with its colonial past, in 1925 Frankly launched his first line, a trestle-style collection with pared down lines and an emphasis on handcraftsmanship. The collection met the American penchant for rustic charm, but with a decidedly modern interpretation.
Frankl’s biggest breakthrough came with his line of skyscraper bookcases. Designed originally to hold his own towering piles of books and magazines, these stepped shelves zigzagged to the ceiling, resonating with the skyscraper zeitgeist of the time. By 1927 the skyscraper line had successfully established itself in the public eye. According to Good Furniture magazine, Frankl had developed a unique furniture type “as American and as New Yorkish as Fifth Avenue itself.” With their sharp lines, bold angles and dynamic expressiveness, Frankl’s skyscraper designs captured the modernist spirit in an appealing way and established an iconic place in modern design history.
In 1934 Frankl moved to Los Angeles for its climate and lifestyle, which would prove a major influence on him and where he would remain the rest of his life. Almost at once, his furniture designs became simpler, lighter and more gracefully proportioned, with an emphasis on horizontal planes that seemed to reflect the more open and expansive surroundings. Always maintaining high standards of craftmanship and production, Frankl’s furniture featured precise detailing, with streamlined edges and corners, making for modern, elegant interiors that were in tune with flourishing Art Deco style and highly appealing to Hollywood society. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Alfred Hitchcock, and Charlie Chaplin were among the many Hollywood clients he cultivated. It has also been proposed that Frankl’s designs influenced the look of Hollywood film set design, which also became lighter, airier, and more streamlined.
Building further on his modernist vernacular and emerging California aesthetic was Frankl’s “Speed” chair. Drawing from a 1933 design he had first made for his New York apartment, he produced updated versions for a 1936 commission out of his Wilshire Boulevard gallery. Once again emphasizing horizontal planes, but with strikingly raked profiles, the low-slung, upholstered Speed chair and ottoman, sectional sofa, and accompanying pieces suggested a sense of motion. Luxuriously comfortable, monumental yet streamlined, these pieces became standard items at Frankl's gallery.
Some of Frankl’s designs had distinctive Asian influences, inspired by his interest in Chinese and Japanese arts. These included tables with upward-curving edges, rattan-framed sofas and chairs, as well as the use of red and black lacquers. In the 1940s he was one of the first designers to utilize free-form and biomorphic shapes, beautifully exemplified in his 1951 cork-topped biomorphic coffee table. As well as cork, he experimented with bamboos and hardwoods, and with non-traditional upholstery materials such as pony hide, denim, horse blankets and nubby fabrics. Throughout the 1940s and 50s Frankl designed lines of wicker, cane, bamboo and rattan furniture for both indoor and outdoor use. These developments aptly reflected the post-War trend towards more casual lifestyle, allowing Frankl’s designs to permeate the American cultural landscape.
In the early 1950s Frankl designed a series of pieces for the Johnson Furniture Company that remain standouts of the period. For example, a strikingly low coffee table with a cutout circle in the top combines Asian, California and minimalist elements in Frankl’s unique style. His Johnson Furniture series includes cabinets, buffets, end tables, desks, dressers, dining and bedroom suites that reiterate Zen-like lines and planes, often combining hardwoods and cork veneers in sharply contrasting browns and tans, and, when called for, round metal fixtures that accentuate their minimalist drama.
Now recognized as one of the most important designers to have worked in the US, Frankl had come from Vienna at an auspicious moment, passionately dedicating himself to forging a uniquely American design aesthetic and unequivocally shaping the look of American modernism. From Art Deco to free-form design, he contributed to every major stylistic trend of 20th century modernism. As a spokesman for modernism, he wrote and published numerous articles and books throughout his career, among which New Dimensions (1928) and Form and Re-Form (1930) stand as two of the earliest manifestos on modern design in America. By the time he died in 1958 he’d nearly completed an autobiography, richly documenting his life and ideas. Today no collection of American 20th-century design is complete without works by Paul Frankl.
Museums and Exhibitions
Solo show, Knoedler Gallery, New York, 1931
Solo show, Stendhal Gallery, Los Angeles, 1944
Objects: 1900 and Today, The Museum of Modern Art, 1933
Brooklyn Museum permanent design collection, Skyscraper Step Table, late 1920s
Paul Frankl exhibition, Kiesler Foundation, Vienna, 2007 (in conjunction with Christopher Long book release)
Form and Re-Form: Practical Handbook of Modern Interiors, Paul T Frankl, Hacker Art Books, 1975 (1st edition 1930)
Machine-Made Leisure, Paul T Frankl, Harper & brothers (1st edition 1932)
Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design, Christopher Long, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007