Tropical birds, exotic flowers, fruit and even meatballs. The Austrian architect Josef Frank is well known for his intricate and experimental textile and wallpaper designs. But for paintings, not so much. Ten years in the making, the Swedish art museum Millesgarden have curated a series of watercolour paintings unearthed after Frank’s death in 1967. These vivid visual stories of his life were first exhibited in Stockholm, and now they’ve come to London.
The focal point of Josef Frank Patterns-Furniture-Painting which opens at The Fashion and Textiles Museum tomorrow is a show-home-style living room with patterned paintings, rugs, painted chests of drawers, wallpaper, upholstery – all clashing. Frank believed in “random selection,” says Dennis Nothdruft, curator at the museum, “that you should embrace all the different elements, both old and contemporary. He liked to mix eight different patterns in a room.”
The architect emigrated from Vienna to Sweden in 1933 and started designing for the Swedish furniture brand Svenskt Tenn in 1934. Together, he and Estrid Ericson, the owner, and life-long friend, developed a new style that has become known as Swedish Modern.
Frank’s 160 patterns for the company are ablaze with life. ‘Dixie Land’ has vibrant sunflowers and watermelons of oversized proportions. ‘Himalaya’ (his last ever print, 1950) is a Technicolour tropical maze of parrots and exotic flowers. And in ‘Italian Dinner’ Frank’s humour really shines through: a quaint stream flowing with squid, clams and lobsters is at the foot of trees dotted with lemons, garlic, olives, peppers and even meatballs. These luxury foods would have been unheard of during war time rationing. Nothdruft comments, “It is so amazing that 50 of his most colourful designs were done in this incredibly dark period of history.”
His watercolours were equally as positive too. They were only discovered 10 years ago when a relative Anna Sievert discovered them in a family member’s loft. Since then she has unearthed nearly 450 paintings, dating from 1953 to 1966 (Frank died in 1967 in Stockholm). There are feather light landscapes, vibrant flowers and fruit, and a series of city scenes that were his observations from his windowsill in Stockholm. Sievert says, “It's a private part of Josef Frank, it's a private part of his career. He just wanted to keep on doing something that made him feel good.”
Accompanying the exhibition is a book Josef Frank (£35 available to buy at the museum shop) which logs his life through his watercolours, unpublished letters, and his five favourite women. Josef Frank Patterns-Furniture-Painting opens this Saturday at The Fashion and Textiles Museum and will be open until 7th May 2017.
Text by Abigail Southan