Josef Frank: From Fantasy to Fabric

25 September, 2018

Nearly 50 when he fled Nazi-occupied Austria for Sweden in the 1930s, architect and designer Josef Frank’s second act changed modern design forever. It was there he met Estrid Ericson, the founder of legendary interior design group Svenskt Tenn. Together, they created joyful, vibrant, fun fabrics and furniture that acted as an antidote to standardized interior design and machine modernism. Their work continues to define Swedish design, even to this day. As huge fans of Frank’s freeform motifs, we were thrilled to sit down with Thommy Bindefeld, Svenskt Tenn’s Marketing and Creative Director, to discuss Frank’s work and legacy.

Could you tell us what Josef Frank means to you, to Svenskt Tenn, to Sweden, and to the rest of the world?

To me Josef Frank is an outstanding designer and architect who was very productive. He did some 2,000 furniture drawings and 200 print designs, all in Svenskt Tenns' archive.

For Sweden, Josef Frank brought a new and more humanistic aesthetic to our country when he emigrated in 1933.

Together with Estrid Ericson, they created the philosophy our company is built on. Svenskt Tenn is owned by the Kjell and Märta Beijer Foundation, which is securing that heritage for the future. All of our profit is given to medical and ecological research, so Frank's heritage is also important in other ways for future generations.

How did this peculiar collaboration between Josef Frank and Svenskt Tenn come about?

Estrid Ericson saw the work of Josef Frank in the beginning of the '20s and fell head over heels. She tried to contact him, but he was busy being one of the most important architects in central Europe. When the antisemitism grew in Austria, Frank got fewer architectural assignments, so he and his wife Anna decided to move to Sweden. They arrived in December 1933, and he started to work with Estrid Ericson in January, 1934. So there had been a dialogue between the two of them.

Baranquilla Textile by Josef Frank
Aralia Textile by Josef Frank

How did Josef Frank used to work?

From what we understand, he was quite free and creative. Most of his fabric designs were created at his kitchen table. When the Nazis occupied Norway and Denmark, he and his wife left Sweden and lived in New York from 1941 to 1946. During that period, he did most of the fabric designs we have in production today. Most of these were inspired by books and exhibitions at museums in New York at that time. There's a quote about the collaboration between Ericson and Frank: “He did everything she wanted, and she accepted everything he did.” She was the curator and the entrepreneur; he was the creator and designer.

What is the evolution of his style, as his work spans a good part of the 20th century?

He had a very humanistic view on design. Everything he did was done with human needs and comfort in mind. All his furniture is extremely comfortable and timeless, and his prints colorful and joyful. He thought it was important to get carried away in his designs with your own fantasy and creativity.

Eldblomman Wallpaper by Josef Frank
Vårklockor Wallpaper by Josef Frank

How do you manage to keep the legacy of "Swedish Modern" alive?

By being true to the original, and never changing anything in his (or their) designs. Much of this we're able to do because of the foundation. But it's also important that we work with the heritage in a contemporary way, that we show we're here and now, otherwise we might as well be a museum. We continuously add contemporary design to our assortment, and we show our historical products in a contemporary environment.

What makes Frank's textile designs so lively to you, and so successful to this day?

Frank had the idea that a plain white room is tiring and stressful, but a printed textile lets your mind get carried away. I really think this is true. Looking at his prints is like meditation, like hypnosis; you get fixated on the different parts, different flowers, animals, and shapes. Not many other designs do this for me. During my ten years at Svenskt Tenn, my favorite print has constantly changed, because I see new things, new angles that are vivid, joyful, and full of fantasy. His joyfulness and colorfulness attract people no matter what age, reference, or aesthetic. They're timeless. It's hard to tell that some of the prints are almost 100 years old.

Josef Frank

Do you have any secret Josef Franck textiles you'll be releasing one day?

Out of the 160 prints for fabrics we have in our archive, I would say that it's only a handful that have never been in production. Right now, I don’t see that any of these are “in line” to be produced, but there are some prints that I hope we'll relaunch during my time. We have between 40 and 45 prints in production, and every second year we let one rest and take a new one into production. The last one was Baranquilla (that really is a favorite), and we'll add the same print with black ground this fall. Frank did this in three different colorways: white, red, and black. It's stunning in black.

Words by The Editors and Thommy Bindefeld.

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