Read and download this article in its original German.
OR scroll down to read an English translation.
The Style Maker
He showed Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and Alfred Hitchcock how to live more elegantly. Paul T. Frankl, the Viennese designer who emigrated to the USA in 1914 [*see editor correction below*], was an icon of style for American modernism. Now, his autobiography, which was thought to be lost, has appeared.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was one of the shiest people that Paul. T. Frankl ever knew. And one of the loneliest. In 1936, Frankl designed a tennis pavilion for the film star. In his journal, Frankl wrote: “I only saw him alone — he sat by himself at breakfast. He even played tennis with himself against a wall.”
The Austrian furnished rooms for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He created tasteful environments for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Hideaway” in the Californian hinterland, designed Cary Grant’s luxurious beach house, steered the film mogul Louis B. Mayer toward his personal style, and refined the ranch of the young film star John Huston. That Frankl’s interiors and furniture (despite his limited fame) are so recognizable, we have to thank Cedric Gibbons, the Oscar-winning set designer who staged more than 1000 MGM films. Gibbons was a close friend of the Viennese architect and designer, whose drawings of the “speed chair” or the “skyscraper” [furniture] are in the collections of every noteworthy museum in the USA. Gibbons bought Frankl’s furniture and interior designs for MGM clients and used them for decades; in 1974, 14 years after Gibbons’ death, Frankl’s legendary deep-set Rattan chairs were used in GODFATHER II as seating for the Corleone family.
It is an Austrian paradox that so many such artists who found their fame in foreign lands are either considered irrelevant or are forgotten in their own cultural homeland. “In America, Frankl’s worth and influence is not challenged, only in Austria people barely know him,” says historian Christopher Long. That Frankl’s groundbreaking talent will not be ignored outside of the US we have Mr. Long—one of the leading experts of Austrian architecture and design history—to thank. In the course of Long’s research for a monograph on Paul T. Frankl, who first came to the USA in 1914 when the outbreak of the First World War held him unwillingly in New York, he [Long] also found Frankl’s recluse daughter Paulette Frankl: “Over time she came to trust me and surprised me with a treasure—the previously unpublished memoir of her father, which, due to his death in 1958 from cancer, he could not complete. In the end, she wanted me to publish this book.”
The publication is a cultural [and] historical gem: Paul T. Frankl who was born in 1886 tells about a Vienna where Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” is destroyed by the critics, [and about] the secessionist rebellion against the rigid art-establishment, [as well as] the aesthetic revolution in Vienna ateliers. He describes his trip to Japan and the difficult beginnings of his gallery in New York (founded in 1915), where initially he only sold handmade artwork from Europe and Japan. However, he celebrated his breakthrough in the same year, when he designed the first beauty salon, and later others, for the Polish Helena Rubinstein.
Frankl’s awakening as a designer came in the summer of 1925, when during a weekend trip to Woodstock he imagined a corner bookshelf for his collection of art books. It was a wooden, tower-like structure that evoked the silhouette of the then-new skyline of New York with its stepped form. His instinct told him that with these lines he was symbolizing the future, progress, and power, which could appeal to the American sensibility precisely. And, in fact, the series of “Skyscraper Furniture” was so received by the public; after bookcases there were also desks, cabinets, and bathroom mirrors. Aristocrats made the pilgrimage to his gallery at the lower end of Park Avenue, from the Whitney and Vanderbilt families to the avant-garde dancer Isadora Duncan, or later the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who, as Frankl remembers, “particularly appreciated our simple modernity.”
Starting as a craft and design gallerist, the architect Paul T. Frankl grew to become a genuine creator, in whom we find traces of the former difficulties of the Viennese ateliers and of Japanese and Oriental influences, Bauhaus-objectivity, and the opulence of French art deco. In the 1950’s, Frankl’s orders diminished; he suffered from the fact that “bastard-reproductions” flooded the mass market with his work. “The plagiarist injures the artist only indirectly, because he [the artist] can also indirectly profit from him,” Frankl comforted himself. “He is a parasite who keeps the artist from resting in the laurels, and forces him to keep his creative spirit awake.” Unlike contemporaries Raymond Loewy, Gilbert Rhode, or Russel Wright, Frankl was never able to let his work enter mass production—they should be reserved for the elite [*see editor correction below*].
Paulette Frankl, the now 77-year-old daughter, who has lived an illustrious career as a courtroom artist, a magician, and a mime, was moved to tears when she first held the exquisitely designed “Autobiography.”
“The design of the book breathes my father’s spirit exactly. My Daddy would have loved this book.”
CORRECTIONS TO THE ARTICLE from the editor:
Frankl didn’t really emigrate to the US in 1914; he was stuck in New York. He emigrated (returned) to the US in 1920, to stay. Frankl did mass-produce his work, but it came much later than for most of his fellow designers.