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Paul T. Frankl – Avantgardist and pioneer of American modern design
In the years between the two world wars, many Viennese artists, architects, and designers moved to the United States. Some were on the search for better opportunities; others were fleeing from an impending war. There were also those who had already come earlier, before the First World War. In the case of Paul T. Frankl, it was the pure interest in architecture and art that initially took him to New York, and later, to Los Angeles. In his adopted home, Frankl established himself as a furniture designer who was a pioneer for American modernism. East Asian forms and modern lines shaped his style. His works can be seen currently at a photo exhibit at the Kiesler Stiftung in Vienna.
It’s not a typical Austrian emigrant story that took Paul T. Frankl first to New York and, later, to Los Angeles. There he – similar to his friend Friedrich Kiesler – realized visionary spatial concepts in modern design.
Born in 1886, Frankl was a child of the Fin de Siécle; his father had made a fortune as a contractor in Vienna during his early days. [Paul] and his 3 brothers were supposed to have taken over their father’s contracting business, however, he decided against this and in 1904 began to study at the TU-Wien (Technical University in Vienna). However, this was only for a short time, because he found the climate too conservative and therefore transferred to TU-Berlin Charlottenburg. After he received his degree and served his military time, his path lead him once again to Berlin and Copenhagen, where he worked in an architecture firm.
The Search for the Contemporary
During a trip to Italy with his first wife Paula, Paul T. Frankl summarized his views on art and architecture as follows: “It was all architecture done to perfection by centuries past placed into the most enchanting surroundings to be enjoyed by coming generations. But why should we go on endlessly perpetuating what others had done, continue to use outmoded forms to express our time?” Probably as a result of these thoughts came the 1914 decision to travel to the USA, to learn on location from the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. Chicago, Washington, San Francisco were other stops before he returned to New York, which would become his adopted home.
News of the outbreak of the First World War reached him during one trip to the Far East. Returning from Japan, he opened a business in New York with the furniture that he had brought with him. To succeed as an interior designer, little by little Frankl created a network for himself in his new homeland. He did not need to wait long for his success: in 1915, he designed the first beauty salon for Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.
After a short return to Vienna, Paul T. Frankl emigrated two years later to his adopted home and opened the “Frankl Galleries” in New York.
Pioneer for American Modernism
Frankl’s decision to design his own furniture coincided with an extensive reception of “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” in 1925 in Paris, which attracted a lot of interest in the USA. Frankl translated the influences of French art deco into a separate, modified form of language. In the mid-1920s, his “Skyscraper Furniture” was at the forefront of American Modernism. As an interior decorator and designer, he remained influenced by the Japanese art aesthetic as well as open to the Neue Sachlichkeit movement [Modern architecture movement of German-speaking Europe].
In 1928 his key work appeared titled The Decorative Arts of Today in Words & Pictures. Frankl’s trailblazing and formative ideas on American Modernism are found within this book. In 1930, he wrote another standard work: Form and Re-Form: Practical Handbook of Modern Interiors. A year later, he participated in the exhibition “Modern Industrial and Decorative Art.” Materiality, design, and craft also played a large role here. During his time in New York, he taught with great success at the New York School of Interior Decorating. There he also met with Frank Lloyd Wright for the first time.
Settling in Los Angeles
At the turn of the 1930s, Frankl created a sensation with his streamlined “Speed Chair.” The onset of the global economic crisis was decisive for Frankl’s settlement in Los Angeles in 1934. Frankl opened a business there on Wilshire Boulevard. With his business skills and targeted advertising, he soon became one of those interior decorators who designed the estates of Hollywood producers and film giants like Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Katherine Hepburn, and Alfred Hitchcock. His mix of style, which came out of the Austrian language of form combined with new modern lines, was received best by his wealthy clients. Some of his more unusual furniture pieces even [were seen in films] and are still today considered high-value pieces.
The shapely Rattan seats with their characteristic “pretzel” side panels and the organic, amorphous cocktail tables of the 1940s with their cork top anticipated the prevailing styles of the 1950s. Some of these models were industrially manufactured by the Johnson Furniture Company. Nevertheless, his strength lay in interior design, with selected furniture and matching accessories that often resembled film sets. The photos shown at the exhibition [at the Kiesler Stiftung] give a very good impression of this. The value of Paul T. Frankl and his formative influence on American modernism is fully explored in this remarkable exhibition and in the autobiography edited by the curator Christopher Long and Aurora McClain.