Josef Frank (1885-1967), Founder of Swedish Modern

An interview of Christopher Long,  Professor for Architectural History at the School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in the history of modern architecture, with an emphasis on Central Europe from 1800 to the present.

Josef Frank is considered as the founder of Swedish design. He said that “An ornament must be a game, otherwise it is bad and offers the onlooker no peace.” or that  "The living room, where one can live and think freely, is neither beautifully harmonious nor homogenous. It has come about through coincidence, will never be complete and can within itself absorb whatever the residents’ varying needs may require.”

Christopher Long, Professor at the University of Texas, give us an interview about the ideas and the work of Josef Frank, a designer who argued that modernism should come from a careful study of the history and culture of everyday and not from advances in technology.

Liljevalchs sofa
The sofa was first shown at an exhibition at the Liljevalch Art Gallery and Museum organised by the Swedish Handicraft Society in 1934. With its challenging, anti-Bauhaus curves, Frank may have wanted to signal his presence in Stockholm, or it may have been a frank and fiery protest against what he called "the usual handicraft boredom." The sofa, which upset certain arbiters of taste, called the "Liljevalch sofa or Estrid Ericson’s English cretonne sofa," was later placed in Estrid’s home on Strandvägen.
L 280 cm, D 140 cm, H 80cm
© svenskt tenn


1/ He defied contemporary sensibilities defined by Bauhaus and modernist designers like Marcel Breuer or Le Corbusier. So what are the characteristics of Frank’s style ?


Throughout his career as a designer, Josef Frank sought to forge a modernism that was responsive to people’s needs, both physical and psychological. His furniture was comfortable—he typically used soft, upholstered seating, rounded edges, and pieces that allowed their users to relax. He rejected the then common practice of employing tubular steel, which Frank thought was cold to the touch and unyielding. But his designs also sought to respond to our need for the familiar. He did not reject older, historical forms. Like Loos, he believed that many things and ideas from the past still had validity. And he often relied on color and pattern to make his rooms and individual pieces appealing.



2077 vitrinskap ; the display case 2077 was designed 1946 material : Mahogany ; H 169 cm, W 90 cm, D 31 cm
© svenskt tenn

2/ We say that he is the founder of Swedish modern design. But was not there Swedish modern style before his contribution with Svenkst Tenn ? What ideas did he bring ?

The Swedes were slow to adopt modernism, and it was not only in the later 1920s that modern furniture began to appear in the country. The early Swedish modernists were drawn to German and Dutch functionalism—the 1930 Stockholm exhibition featured many examples of a hard-edged modernism. When Frank began to work for Svenskt Tenn in the early 1930s, he introduced the idea of a humane, mitigated modernism. It was this vision of the new design that eventually began the dominant direction in Sweden, and which later became widely known as Swedish (or, sometimes, Scandinavian) Modern.

3/ Has Frank had a different approach between his first products (fabrics, furniture…) made in Vienna and the last ones in Sweden ?

Initially, Frank’s work in Sweden was very similar to earlier Viennese designs. But within a year or two his work became more colourful and more varied. His interest in an even brighter color palette was probably the result of the influence of Swedish folk art, but it was also undoubtedly a reaction to the dark Swedish winters. Frank hoped a lighter look would help counteract the bleak winter days. His work also became more eclectic, a result of working with Estrid Ericson, the owner of Svenskt Tenn, who pushed him to explore new design possibilities.


4/ Did he work in close collaboration with the craftsmen either did he content with making some sketches ?


From his earliest days in Vienna, Frank was very much aware of the requirements and abilities of craftspeople. He frequently consulted with them, but typically worked out his many designs—over 2,000 for Svenskt Tenn alone—on paper, without being directly involved in the production process.


5/ Frank has produced a lot of fabrics, furniture, household products. Did he draw many projects which were not produced ?


Over the course of his career, Frank probably produced nearly 2,500 designs. Fewer than half were ever made, and, of those, only a small number, a few hundred, were made in larger quantities.


6/ On the web we see especially Frank’s cabinets. He nevertheless designed other furniture (tables, chair, armchair…). Were cabinets his speciality ?


No, Frank designed many different types of pieces, from sofas and tables, to lamps and accessories. He did design a number of cabinets, some of them quite remarkable, but his true specialty, if he could have been said to have one, was textiles.

The textile was designed 1943-45 when Frank was living in New York
© svenskt tenn


7/ For him, a piece of furniture was to be above all functional ?


Yes, but functional had a special meaning for Frank. A piece of furniture was not only functional because it allowed one, for example, to sit or recline or write; it also needed to bring pleasure to its users. That, too, was part of its function. Frank was always concerned with making furniture and interiors that were pleasant to inhabit, not just functional in the narrower sense of the word.


8/ What are the sources of inspiration of his furniture ?


Frank was very much a student of history. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on Alberti, and throughout his life he studied past forms and ideas. He drew from a wide array of epochs and traditions, but he was particularly interested seventeenth and eighteenth English and American furniture. He also greatly admired American Shaker furniture of the nineteenth century.

Skap 2170
The chest of drawers was designed 1954
Material : elm burl (root) and wlnut
H 82 cm, W 130 cm, D 45 cm
© svenskt tenn


9/ Could you describe your favourite piece of furniture of Frank ?


I don’t really have a favorite design. I’ve always admired his Biedermeier-inspired chairs and his later cabinets-on-stand, which borrowed from English and Shaker ideas. But in the end, it is his ensembles, his ability to create whole environments, that I admire most. And my favorite of those is the living room he designed at Tolvekarna, Estrid Ericson’s country home in Tyresö, Sweden, from the late 1940s.

Tolvekarna (Sweden)
interior designed by Josef Frank for Estrid Ericson's house
© svenskt tenn


10/ Was he successful outside Sweden ?


Although he made several efforts in his later years to find a foothold in the United States, Frank’s work during his lifetime was mostly confined to Sweden. But because he had a marked influence on other designers in Sweden, his ideas were disseminated through their works. The Swedish Modern design of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, which became famous around the world, bore the strong imprint of Frank’s conception of a softened modernism. And when Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA in the mid 1960s, the new aesthetic it offered, a comfortable and humane modernism, became nearly ubiquitous. Frank’s real legacy is the Swedish style that IKEA now sells throughout the world.


11/ For conclusion Christopher, could you explain to us why Frank’s design interests you ?


I first saw Frank’s designs at an exhibition at the Austrian Museum of Applied Art (MAK) in the early 1980s, when I was studying in Munich. At first, I found them troubling, a strange, even perverse reading of modernism. I wrote my dissertation about Frank in part because I found his work so odd and disquieting. Over the years, as I came to understand his ideas, I began slowly to appreciate the designs. But it was not until I spent time in Sweden, where I saw several intact Frank interiors, that I grew to like his work. His design for Tolvekarna, in particular, which I think is a masterpiece of sorts, awakened in me a true appreciation for him as a designer.


Svenskt Tenn, éditeur de Josef Frank

Table 2139, one of the most sold furniture of Frank
H 38 cm, D 120 cm
© svenskt tenn

About Svenskt Tenn

Josef Frank did 2000 furniture sketches and donated all of them to Estrid Ericson and Svenskt Tenn. He mostly used hardwood and liked to mix different sorts of wood for the same furniture. One of our most sold furniture is table 2139. We have around 100 pieces of furniture in production today. And one our of task is to keep our brand contemporary that is why we have some in production and some not. But we look in our archive continuously to find new pieces and let others rest for awhile.

Svenskt Tenn is own by a foundation (Kjell and Märta Beijer foundation) which funds research in fields of medicine and science as well as the preservation of cultural and artistic values in interior design.

You can buy our products here in Stockholm, at Liberty in London, Just Scandinavia in New York and Beams in Tokyo. And we also have a web shop at


Quelques repères de la vie de Josef Frank (1885-1967)

détail du textile Mirakel qui recouvre le canapé Liljevachs de Josef Frank
© svenskt tenn

1885, born in Baden, son of a well-to-do Jewish textile manufacturer and whosaler

early 1900, he studied architecture at the Vienna Polytechnic and graduated in 1910

1925, opened Haus & Garten in Vienna with Oskar Wlach and Oskar Strnad, a office and shop for interior design. Many of his textiles created for pour Haus & Garten will be manufactured later by Svenskt Tenn

1933, fleeing the rise of nazism, he left Austria with his Swedish wife Anna and settled Stockholm

Estrid Ericson had founded in 1924 Svenkst Tenn, a shop originally featured high quality pewter ware. The collaboration between Frank and Ericson began in 1934

1934, exhibition of a suite of four rooms at Liljevalchs (art gallery of Stockholm) designed byr Svenskt Tenn which was a success

1939, World's Fair in New York where the Swedish pavilion was reviewed as one of the best examples of Swedish modern

1940, at the beginning of the war, Anna and Josef Frank moved to the USA to which his brother Philipp had already emigrated in 1938. Frank was invited to lecture at the New School for Social Research but it was difficult to find American clients at a time when everything was focused to the war. His American settlement was not successful

After the war he returned to Stockholm and continued his collaboration with Estrid Ericson et Svenkst Tenn

1967, Josef Frank died


Des liens


Un article de Christopher Long sur Josef Frank
par la revue en ligne Scandinavian Review, édition automne 1996


Un article de Hedvig Hedqvist
publié dans LOFT The Nordic BOOKAZINE, été 2008, Volume #6, à lire sur le site


Un livre en anglais


Josef Frank, Life and Work
by Christopher Long
Editions University of Chicago Press, 2002, 402 pages
An interesting and long-neglected Austrian modern architect, Josef Frank is important not so much because eof his built work, but because of his opposition to what the mainstream of the modern movement in architecture. Christopher Long’s book will be an excellent contribution to the literature on the twentieth-century architecture.






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