Review by Kristina Wilson
Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design

Christopher Long. Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. xi + 225 pp.; 42 color and 120 bw illus., bibliography, index. $50.00.

Paul T. Frankl (1886–1958) was one of the most important and influential designers working in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. His skyscraper bookcases, produced in New York City in the late 1920s, captured the optimism and bravura of modern urban life with their jaunty angles and expressive personalities. Not only were these objects popular enough in their day to inspire New Yorker cartoons, but they have become, in our time, the essential centerpiece in almost every major collection of twentieth-century American furniture. Frankl’s ability to divine the attitude of an era did not end in the 1920s, however; his low-slung, upholstered Speed armchair of the early 1930s is a poetic, comfortable embodiment of streamlining, and his biomorphic cork-topped coffee table of 1951 aptly expresses the more casual lifestyles of the post–World War II era. In addition to his work as a designer and decorator, Frankl was an ardent, effective publicist for the modernist cause, and he published numerous articles and books over the course of his career; his New Dimensions (1928) and Form and Re-Form (1930) were among the earliest American modern design manifestoes.

With so many iconic designs and writings to his name, it is surprising that Frankl has not received more scholarly attention. When, in the 1980s, curators and academics began to study pre–World War II furniture, Frankl was always accorded a central place, yet the substance and complexity of his career were never fully examined.[1] A handful of master’s theses and Ph.D. dissertations have been written on him, but before the arrival of Christopher Long’s Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design, Frankl was a bit of a mystery: easy to recognize, hard to know. Long’s thoughtful, comprehensive monograph thus fills a major gap in the field. Long follows Frankl from his student days in Vienna and Berlin to New York, then to Southern California, where he lived and worked for the last two decades of his life. His narrative weaves together at least three different strands: it is a history of Frankl’s furniture designs; a history of Frankl’s interior decorating; and a history of the retailing of modern design in the United States. It is buttressed by an impressive wealth of research, both in archival collections and in period publications. Indeed, one of the most valuable parts of this book is its extensive bibliography, which includes a list of Frankl’s own writings and of publications devoted to his work: in response to his modernist proselytizing in the 1920s and 1930s, he was the subject of countless articles in popular magazines, art journals, and newspapers across the country (such as the Indianapolis News and the Allentown [Pa.] Call), an impressive number of which are listed here.

Long’s book reveals many new facts about Frankl and teaches us several important lessons about the rise of modern design in the United States. Long is a professor of architectural history and theory at the University of Texas at Austin, and his previous scholarship has focused on European modern architecture and design. He thus approaches Frankl’s career with a sophisticated understanding of the cultural and artistic milieu in which Frankl trained, to which the designer looked for inspiration throughout his career. One of the great pleasures of this book is the ease with which Long perceives, and then dissects, the many European trends that informed Frankl’s designs. His approach does not diminish the originality of Frankl’s work but, rather, has the virtue of placing these iconic American objects in a thoroughly transatlantic dialogue. It is a model that the field of American furniture and design history would benefit from following.

Frankl was born into a wealthy Viennese family. The artistically inclined son reached a deal with his father: he would be allowed to pursue a degree in architecture with the understanding that he would design buildings for the family real-estate business. After mixed success at art schools in Vienna and Berlin, a few brief architectural apprenticeships, and the death of his father, he sailed for the United States in 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, Frankl decided to stay in the States. To make money, he opened a small retail store specializing in modern decorative accessories and hired himself out as an interior decorator. He returned home after the United States entered the war in 1917, but life in New York had clearly thrilled him, and he traveled back across the Atlantic, this time for good, in 1920.

As Long describes it (relying extensively on Frankl’s own unpublished autobiography, written circa 1954), Frankl found New York City an exciting place with a surprisingly ambivalent attitude toward modernism: although modern technology had transformed daily life, the buying public was skeptical of modern design in the home. Frankl sensed an opportunity to make himself a prominent spokesman for the new cause, and he threw himself into a variety of projects, including his store, interior decorating, writing, and involvement in various art and design groups. He launched his first complete line of furniture in 1925, called Peasant Furniture. This rustic collection, which included trestle-style dining tables and benches to match, resonated in several arenas. As Long explains, Frankl was responding, in part, to American fascination with the colonial past, but the furniture’s emphasis on handicraft also situates it in relationship to British and Continental arts and crafts sensibilities. Moreover, the severe simplicity of the forms has an ahistoric quality, as if Frankl were wresting modernism from the blunt realities of handcraftsmanship.

Frankl’s unquestionable breakthrough came just a year or two later in the form of the skyscraper bookcases. These were tall case pieces that climbed to the ceiling in a series of irregular step backs, echoing the silhouette of the new building form rising throughout New York and other urban centers. The account of their origin is marvelously pragmatic: as Frankl recalled, he had piles of large magazines and books in his small cottage in Woodstock, New York, and he designed a bookcase to hold each pile efficiently; the inadvertent effect was a series of stepped-back shelves that his guests immediately associated with skyscraper architecture. By 1927 the skyscraper line had taken off, and Frankl was inundated with more orders than he could handle. This led to a problem that has concerned curators and collectors ever since. To keep up with demand, Frankl contracted with a variety of woodworkers in the city, and quality was thus uneven. In addition, several companies and many small-scale producers copied the idea, creating, in essence, a market of pirated skyscraper pieces. (To further confuse historians, some of these objects may have been made by Frankl’s own suppliers, working after hours.) Although Frankl attempted to designate authentic designs with a paper (and later metal) label, this did little to prevent the sales of copies.

Frankl had been approached by an acquaintance in 1925 who offered to build a furniture factory for him in North Carolina. Had Frankl accepted, he would have had a centralized place to manufacture enough skyscraper objects to meet demand, and he would have obviated the subsequent piracy problem. The furniture made in this factory would also have been more affordable because of lower overhead and more efficient production. Ironically, Frankl rejected the offer because, from his base in New York, he would have been unable to oversee production and thus guarantee quality. The incident reveals much about Frankl’s particular modernist vision: although he celebrated the power of the modern machine, and although he believed modern furniture should be available to the middle classes, his commitment to the object as an aesthetic expression usually led to individually crafted pieces that were far too expensive for most consumers. Long highlights incongruities such as this throughout Frankl’s career without defending or casting aspersions on them. The result is that Frankl’s modernism is carefully traced against competing models, with similarities and divergences highlighted. If the final assessment of Frankl is somewhat surprising, it gives us a more nuanced account of how modernism developed in this country, and what it represented to consumers, than heretofore.

With the rise of industrial design in the 1930s, Frankl’s emphasis on the aesthetic, expressive object placed him further outside the mainstream of modernism. His style changed in this decade to encompass smooth curves, soft lines, and an even greater simplicity of overall form. Long describes a variety of furniture pieces designed in the early 1930s, situating them in an arc of stylistic change that should be helpful to scholars trying to date unprovenanced Frankl objects. Long attributes the shift toward curves and simplicity to the influence of streamlining as well as trends in European design, which Frankl learned about through magazines, trips, and fellow émigrés. But he goes on to highlight features of Frankl’s work that were unique to him: an abiding interest in sensuous, tactile experience and in physical comfort. One word Long uses to describe this sensibility is “cozy” (p. 109), and it proves to be an apt, if unexpected, adjective for Frankl’s most successful design of these years, the Speed lounge chair. The Speed chair is undoubtedly streamlined, with its forward-thrusting arms and reclined back, but Frankl covered it in a variety of rich materials, ranging from deeply textured upholstery to pony skin. The deep seat envelops the sitter, creating the effect of being ensconced in a forward-surging cocoon.

After World War II (which he survived, financially, by selling plants at his Rodeo Drive store), Frankl finally found an opportunity to produce his designs affordably through collaboration with the Johnson Company, a Grand Rapids furniture firm. Between 1949 and 1953 he designed several lines of furniture, some quite conservative, with brass-colored drawer pulls or tambour fronts, and others more austerely modern, with bleached cork and mahogany. It is for this last group that the biomorphic coffee table was developed. Although the Johnson Company furniture was financially successful, on the whole it did not suffice to place Frankl at the forefront of postwar modern furniture design; Long himself notes that in comparison with the work of Ray and Charles Eames or Isamu Noguchi, Frankl’s objects look “dowdy” (p. 164). It is at this point that Long’s narrative seems lacking in the depth and nuance of previous chapters. While he illustrates a few advertisements and objects from the Johnson lines, several are not depicted at all; these are not as avant-garde as Frankl’s earlier designs, but their presence in the book would have helped to articulate Frankl’s aesthetic (and, one suspects, ideological) ambivalence at this late date in his career. In addition, a more sustained analysis of Frankl’s relationship to popular modernism in the postwar years would have been helpful. What did Frankl think of the furniture being produced by manufacturers such as Herman Miller and Knoll? Is the biomorphic coffee table, the only piece in these years that resonates with the dominant aesthetic, simply his attempt to show he could stay on the bandwagon, or is it a glimpse of a nascent aesthetic idea, derived from changing patterns in domestic living, that he did not have the space to develop?

On a larger scale, Paul T. Frankl suffers from an insufficiently theorized and historicized account of American taste and design identity. At the outset, Long explains that his monograph “is also about the search for ‘Americanness’ in American design culture” (p. ix). Yet the quest to identify and isolate a characteristic that represents a specific national identity—whether in art, design, or literature—is problematic. As Long’s own account reveals, with its rich layers of overlapping European and American ideas, irreducible “Americanness” in design is at best difficult to find, at worst a chimera. What is irrefutable, however, is the fact that many designers and artists working in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States were obsessed with the thought of establishing a uniquely American aesthetic. Frankl, despite (or, more likely, because of) his immigrant status, was eager to promote the idea of a distinct American taste, as countless quotes attest. Here he is describing, in his autobiography, one of his early skyscraper bookcases: “That large piece was made of redwood, which I used extensively to underscore the American origin of that furniture” (p. 67). Thus, Long would be more successful if he historicized and contextualized this search for “Americanness,” rather than referring to it, as he sometimes does, as a given quantity (see, for example, pp. 55 and 96).

This is, however, a minor complaint about a book that offers so much to the field. Not only has Long exhumed the complicated career of a pivotal figure in American furniture, but he has also provided an excellent example of how American design can be set in a global context. Long situates Frankl in dialogue with European design, but he does not force a comparison between the Continental work and the American work; the result is a much enriched understanding of some of the iconic pieces of American modern furniture. More broadly, the book offers a nuanced account of the rise of modernism in the United States—of its multiple sources, its varied interpreters, and its complex meanings.

Kristina Wilson
Clark University

American Furniture 2007

  • [1]

    See, for example, Karen Davies, At Home in Manhattan: Modern Decorative Arts, 1925 to the Depression (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1983); Alastair Duncan, American Art Deco (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986); and Richard Guy Wilson, Dianne H. Pilgrim, and Dickran Tashjian, The Machine Age in America, 1918–1941 (New York: Brooklyn Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 1986).