The Jewish Designer Who Transformed the Future of Modernism

World-renowned designer Josef Frank rebelled against artistic norms, delivered scathing critiques of fellow artists, and was repeatedly forced to defend his identity. Despite this, he became one of the most famous, if also one of the most controversial, Jewish designers in history.

Mia Amran
Josef Frank's original watercolor from a 1936 tufted carpet, The life of Josef Frank, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

“We should design our surroundings as if they originated by chance,” wrote Josef Frank in his essay Accidentism. This may seem like a strange sentence from a celebrated interior designer – someone famous for placing color, light and object with such focused intention. But Josef Frank was never going to fit into the mold and adhere to the conventions of those around him – it simply wasn’t in his nature as a defiant, opinionated, Jewish artist.

In the agricultural, Ashkenazi Jewish village of Heves in Eastern Hungary, Isak and Jenny, two young religious locals, fell in love and were betrothed to one another. Moving to Austria to start a new life of opportunity together, they gave birth to a son and named their little boy Josef – little did they know how important the name Josef Frank would become.

Josef Frank grew up to be a proud Austrian, and a creative, opinionated youth. He enrolled to study architecture at the Vienna University of Technology, and it was there that, despite his professors’ best efforts, he discovered a hatred of interior design. “Away with universal styles,” he wrote. “Away with the idea of equating art and industry, away with the whole system that has become popular under the name of functionalism.” – The idea that homes and buildings should be fashioned by a designer who has never experienced those spaces and will never have to live in those spaces frustrated him. He believed that a home was a sanctuary and not something to be filled with artistic yet essentially useless objects.

But, as most of us turn away from the things that we despise and pursue other passions in their place, Josef Frank did the opposite. He ran towards interior design head first, and decided that instead of abandoning architecture to those whom he felt didn’t do it justice, he would enter the field himself, and rip up the rulebook from within.

In 1921, only two years after Frank and his unconventional attitude had been accepted into the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, his father Isak passed away. Isak and Jenny were traditional Jews and Josef knew that it was important for them to be buried in Jewish graves. He went and sought out the Jewish section of the Vienna Central Cemetery, looking for two side-by-side plots for his religious parents, but he couldn’t find a grave that pleased him.

Grave of Isak and Jenny Frank in the old Jewish section of the Vienna Central Cemetery. It was designed by their son, Josef Frank. Via Wikimedia Commons

Thus he was faced with his first real-life design task. He wanted to create a set of Jewish gravestones that would satisfy his parents’ traditional roots, while remaining true to his own ideals of functionality, so he came up with a simple modernist design. This morbid project resulted in Josef Frank’s fateful realization that object design was an area he excelled in, and pursing this dream together with two other prominent designers of the day, he set up Haus & Garten in 1925, a design and furniture company that focused, in the words of architectural journalist Marlene Ott, on “the use of light, flexible and convenient, stand-alone pieces of furniture, combining different forms and materials, and allowing homeowners to arrange them according to their own precise needs.”

In this way, Frank rebelled against the prominent Austrian trend of Gesamtkunstwerk, the idea of creating a complete stylized interior in which everything has its own place and comes together to form one singular piece of art. Instead, Frank focused on workable items which would allow each individual to customize their own space, rather than conform to uniform standards.

Terrazzo 1885-1985, Josef Frank commemorative poster, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

So it was that Frank found himself looking for a way into the already crowded European design market, but he had an edge that many others lacked: his religion. Many of Frank’s peers and community members were middle- and upper-class Jews with money to spend on home furnishings. The majority of Haus & Garten’s clients in those days were therefore rich Jews who had ties to Frank and his family, and helped boost his brand to fame. Design historian Elana Shapira writes that Frank “developed a unique principle of empowerment in design during his early career while designing the homes of members of Viennese Jewish families.”

It was ironically while he was rising to artistic fame with the help of his Jewish roots that life started to turn on its head for Josef exactly because of this Judaism. As the Nazis came to power, Josef Frank had the foresight to know that this would not be a positive development for him. He decided to move to Manhattan and the relative safety offered by the USA, but soon after meeting his Swedish wife Anna, she convinced him that he would be both safe, and able to continue flourishing as a designer, in Sweden, and together they moved to Anna’s home country, where Frank gained citizenship in 1939 and lived out the rest of his days in the Scandinavian town of Stockholm.

Josef Frank’s application to emigrate from Austria, Application submitted in Vienna (Austria), May 14, 1938, the Vienna Jewish Community, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel
Josef Frank’s application to emigrate from Austria, Application submitted in Vienna (Austria), May 14, 1938, the Vienna Jewish Community, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

It was there that he found Svenskt Tenn, or more likely, Svenskt Tenn found him! Just 9 years earlier, the wonderfully artistic Estrid Ericson had set up her design company, and it was soon flourishing. When she hired the controversial Austrian Jew Josef Frank, she was taking a huge gamble, especially as his Jewish genealogy meant that his citizenship in Sweden wasn’t guaranteed to be permanent, but the risk paid off and Frank helped boost the firm to become the most prominent design company in all of Sweden (IKEA hadn’t yet been founded!)

Svenskt Tenn order form, 1985, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

Frank believed that design should be an answer to the day-to-day functionality of life, and reflect modern needs. Pursuing this ideal, he mixed trends from the past with future predictions, and created a new way of designing which shocked many. In the media, he was criticized for his “feminine interiors,” and he was often forced to swim against the tide of modern-day architectural norms.

Despite this, Josef Frank fit into Swedish society well, and he loved the socialist values that he was greeted with. As the Nazis continued to rise to power, it was not just Jews who sought refuge in neutral Sweden, but many minority groups, and those who were fleeing what would become the battle grounds of World War ׀׀. Many of these refugees ended up in Sweden, for which the country was not well equipped. But that’s where Frank fit in. He had experience designing functional homes, and was commissioned by the municipal government to create vast social housing blocks for these fleeing Jews and refugees, many of which are still standing today. In stark contrast to other social housing, these blocks were attractive and meticulously designed with aesthetics in mind. Blending together livability and beauty was, after all, Frank’s objective. This may seem normal to us, but actually this was one of the many forays that led to his expulsion from the International Congress of Modern Architecture, who found that he held an “increasingly critical attitude” towards the harsh functionalism, metals, and concrete on which they believed that the new world would be constructed.

The life of Josef Frank,  the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

But Frank was not only a master of design, he was also an intellectual. Brother of philosopher Philip Frank, Josef did not escape the curiosity gene which was so clearly part of his DNA. Frank’s assistant Ernst Plischke said of him that he “wasn’t really an architect, but an intellectual who built ideas.” Most of Frank’s time was spent in deep philosophical ponderance of architecture, and he wrote widely on the topic, including authoring architectural novels which spanned 400 pages or more! After his death, another 800 or so pages of manuscripts with his musings on design were found, and wait eagerly to be published.

Most of Frank’s writings were derisive criticisms of modern design, which he said was led by “extremists.” As a man who had experienced the Nazi uprising, it is unclear how he could have believed that glass coffee tables represented extremism, but he acutely felt that home designers were misguided. He thought that houses were becoming art galleries instead of places for living, and one can only image what he would have thought of the stylistic minimalism which is so popular today! He was probably the first proponent of what we might call ‘Scandi’ design – simple spaces with lots of room to move around, and furniture carefully placed to meet the needs of its occupants.

In his work Accidentism, he attacked German designers, saying that their “applied art has become a problem and destroyed the whole meaning of those objects with which it has become concerned, filled them with pathos, and hence rendered them useless.” It is clear to see what he means but the critique is perhaps a tad unfair, as his own furniture design was sometimes whimsical or colorful and often made use of space in unconventional ways too. But above all, Frank really never did stray away from his priority of well-being, saying that “one can use everything that can be used and making sure that if nothing else, his furniture would be comfortable and agreeable to use. He was widely criticized for his usage of patterns and upholstery, as well as vivid colors and movable furniture. He left blank spaces in rooms, intended for users to fill, in stark contrast to the predominant attitude of filling a designed space. Almost every prominent Scandinavian and German designer had some comment on Frank, and often they were not positive. Thankfully he could dish out the scathing remarks as fast as they were received.

Josef Frank was constantly under attack for his ideals and creations. But more than that, he was under attack for his identity. He had suffered greatly under the auspices of antisemitism, and despite the fact that his Jewish connections had bolstered his career, they also nearly brought about his downfall. Some German artists didn’t take his criticism seriously, assuming that it was just a rebellion against their country’s complicity in the Holocaust, and they saw his insurgence against traditional European art as one born from a place of trauma and rejection.

Josef Frank’s original watercolor from a 1936 tufted carpet, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

In fact, Frank became so distressed by constantly having to defend his Jewish identity that he decided to distance himself from religion altogether. Despite having been born to traditional Jewish parents, Frank didn’t follow religious customs, and promised that Judaism’s influence on his art was negligible. It is a great shame that the negative forces of antisemitism pushed Frank to abandon his roots, especially as this Judaism was what propelled him into architecture in the first place.

Even further, his art almost seems reactionary to his Judaism. Take, for example, his candelabra – a gorgeous set of candle sticks, fused together with gold tubes – they look exactly like Shabbat candle sticks, aside from only being created in sets of 3, never 2, forbidding a Jew to use them for sanctification of the Sabbath. Or his dishes – beautiful glass kitchenware, which he labeled as “for lobster and seafood” – meals which are decidedly non-kosher. A candlestick in the shape of a sun – reminding the viewer of Christ’s halo and also portraying a symbol prohibited to depict in Judaism. Add to this the even more explicit Christmas baubles, Easter decorations and an entire dining set created for a “crayfish party”. His only noted Jewish design (his parent’s gravestones) was of tragically morbid origins. Frank’s rebellion against Judaism makes sense in the context of his life – it was due to his Judaism  that he was forced to flee his home country, and many critics discredited him, believing that his fame was due only to his Jewish connections. His troubled relationship with Judaism shines through in his work, but despite this, his philosophy was Jewish in its entirety – to make use of life’s offerings, to utilize spaces to host guests, lay down roots, and feel safe in one’s own family-friendly home. Despite his insistence on secularity, there is something uniquely Jewish in his large dining tables, bright table cloths, pomegranate and grape vine patterns – these are pieces that simply couldn’t help but fit into the home of an Ashkenazi Jewish bubbe.

Josef Frank left behind a rich and full legacy. He wanted design to be “fun and accessible,” but he felt that he had not succeeded in this goal. “Everyone needs a certain degree of sentimentality to feel free. That will be lost if we are forced to make moral demands of every object, including aesthetic ones,” he wrote in Accidentism, but he supposed that he never quite managed to convince the world around him of this value. He died not knowing what an impact he had made on the future of modernism, and feeling lonely and isolated. He had abandoned his religion, his home country, and belittled many of his peers in pursuit of his one true passion, and despite dedicating his life to a philosophy of design, he had not managed to convince many people of its correctness.

Memorial plaque for Josef Frank in Vienna’s 4th district, Wiedner Hauptstraße 64, Feldkurat Katz, via Wikimedia Commons

Depressed and disconnected, he passed away, not quite understanding how celebrated he had really been. Maybe he was not able to convince the whole world of his own beliefs, but it didn’t mean that people didn’t listen. They did. In the 1980s, there was an upsurgence in demand for his joyous and colorful works, which started to do exceedingly well on auction floors. IKEA decided to model some of their pieces after his signature style of modernism, and now his designs sell for tens of thousands of dollars. If only he could have seen that his life was not in fact a waste, as he sometimes believed it to be. In actuality, he is surely one of the most celebrated of all Jewish designers, and maybe even one of the foremost designers in world history.


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