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“Extended until 1 March: at The Kiesler Foundation of design you can discover Paul T. Frankl, who once worked for Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin and Katherine Hepburn.
It’s not a large exhibit, but it is pioneering: because, currently, who knows Paul T. Frankl in his hometown of Vienna? Some of his Austrian colleagues who, like him, migrated to America between the two world wars, are better known in this country: Richard Neutra and Frederick Kiesler. Still, Frankl was, in his day, a star of the design scene in the U.S.
The son of a contractor, he studied architecture in Vienna and Berlin, took his first trip to America in 1914, and opened a gallery in New York. At first moderately successful, with time he was able to take on the design of some businesses and homes; he designed beauty salons for Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. After a brief interlude in Europe after the war’s end, Frankl settled once again in New York in 1920. In his design gallery near Fifth Avenue he sold imported handicrafts from Europe before he gained success with his own designs in the mid-20s. It was by chance that he worked on a tiered shelf for large art books; his friends came over and said that it looked like a skyscraper. Frankl embraced the notion and created a few pieces that he called “Skyscraper Furniture”: The American taste, which was geared toward modernism, he addressed precisely. His business quickly became the meeting place for the artistic and social elite; even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a customer.
Subsequently, Frankl refined his skyscraper designs; with further work his talent allowed him to seemingly integrate the diverse influences effortlessly. Art Deco, Bauhaus, Wiener Werkstätte, Asian minimalism, streamlined shapes: Frankl was not a dogmatist, but a man who mastered many styles; but his own style he maintained and never forgot to take into account convenience and comfort.
In addition to the skyscraper furniture, among other things, he created a “fatter” armchair whose tapered shape embodied the dynamism of American capitalism, and was called, appropriately, “Speed Chair”. As Frankl, due to the economic crisis, relocated to Los Angeles, he gained many Hollywood employers: John Huston, Walter Pidgeon, Fred Astaire – the list of stars who were his customers is long.
After the war, he withdrew from sales and worked for industrial furniture companies, where he continued to enjoy working with new materials, whether it was rattan or cork. He knew how to make something, even from propeller blades, pony fur or denim. In 1958 Paul T. Frankl died in California. He was forgotten and was only rediscovered in the 80s.
A star in American design history, Frankl is still a nobody in his homeland. This small exhibition was only a first but important step. Curator Christopher Long, who presented an essential publication about the designer a few years ago, recently (together with Aurora McClain) has published the autobiography of this American treasure. A book that deserves more attention than the five thousand publication about the Wiener Werkstätte.