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Free expression

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Josef Frank: Life and Work By Christopher Long. Chicago University Press, 2002. £49

Christopher Long, who teaches architectural history and theory at the University of Texas at Austin, starts his account of the Viennese architect and designer of furniture and textiles Josef Frank (1885-1967) in 1930, when Frank gave a keynote speech at the Deutsche Werkbund conference in Vienna.

In front of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, he 'insisted that it was pluralism, not uniformity, that most characterised life in the new machine age.' In Frank's words: 'The striving for complete simplicity is pathetic.' He felt that the Modern Movement, in its quest for freedom from style, had chained itself to various restrictive ideologies and completely missed the point.

Frank's whole life and career show a remarkable consistency of approach in this respect. He was close enough to the mainstream of the Modern Movement to be commissioned to build a villa at the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart in 1927, but he repudiated much of what that project and most of its participants stood for.

Frank sought a more informal approach to domestic living space that was carried out in a small number of other villa projects, in Vienna and in Sweden, where he emigrated in the 1930s and returned at the end of his life.

Frank produced furniture and textiles for a company called Haus & Garten in Vienna, in which he was the main design partner, and later for the Swedish company Svenskt Tenn, many of which can still be obtained. His brightly coloured floral patterns are the last thing to be described as Modernist, but he used them in spaces that were otherwise essentially plain. The style called 'Swedish Modern', which gripped the US during the war years when Frank was living in New York, owed much to his inspiration, although most of the ideas were Viennese in origin.

Frank's work as a designer was surveyed in an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center in New York and a Yale University Press book in 1996, to which Long contributed several sections (AJ 17.10.96). One really needs to have both books. This new one is more focused on architecture and describes all Frank's projects in some detail, including important theoretical ones in which he developed ideas like 'The House as Path and Place', the title of an essay of 1931: 'The shortest path is not the most comfortable one and the straight stairway is not always the best, indeed almost never.'

At the end of his life, out of tune with post-war architectural ideology, Frank produced a more extreme version of this theory and called it 'Accidentism'. Long helpfully describes the extent of Frank's interchange of ideas with Hugo Häring, who shared a common cause in criticising the ultra-Cartesianism of the Modernist mainstream, but whom Frank found too determinist in shaping form to function.

Since we have now reconstructed most of Modernism's leading figures so that they conform to a more Frankian model of pluralism and cultural depth, his opposition to the harshness of their actual pronouncements seems vindicated rather than excessive. His closest analogue, in range of activity and independent outlook, is probably Gio Ponti, who published Frank's designs in Domus.

Like Ponti, Frank was interested above all in living spaces, and his designs are almost entirely domestic. His two major buildings, the Villa Beer in Vienna, 1928-30, and the Wehtje House at Djursholm, Sweden, 1936, are convincing demonstrations that he had something special to communicate about how to live. They seem relevant to the present moment in architecture in which there is a crabwise move towards decoration and richness, not necessarily masked with irony.

Alan Powers is an architectural historian

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