Learning From Josef Frank, The Freewheeling Modernist Who Shunned Prescriptive Thought

The Austrian modernist anticipated the user-centered design that is defining our era.

Over the course of his prolific career, Josef Frank produced thousands of designs: austere yet livable houses; exuberant fabrics festooned with vines, flowers, and vegetables; and furniture that was more about comfort than about representing a physical manifesto for Modernist theory. However, he never achieved the same prominence as his contemporaries, such as Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.

© Svenskt Tenn, Stockholm, Schweden

Josef Frank: Against Design, an exhibition at MAK in Vienna curated by Hermann Czech and Sebastian Hackenschmidt examines his life and work. “Frank’s critique stemmed from three sources: a background in classical tradition, a marked skepticism toward abstract doctrines, and a precept of chance that is anchored in his work and theory,” according to the exhibit.

Frank was a member of the Austrian Werkbund, a group of modern designers that sought to improve domestic living through design, and CIAM, an influential group of modern architects. Frank questioned the rigid philosophy of his peers, like the Bauhaus pursuit of a geometric or formal ideal at the expense of a truly functional design. For Frank, it was about putting the user at the center of the equation, which anticipated the ergonomic designs of the future.

For example, he believed that furniture should be adapted to the shape of the human body. An Inspiration for Jonathan Ive, Frank once proclaimed in a lecture, “No hard corners: humans are soft and shapes should be, too.”

© MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky

In the context of buildings, Frank believed architecture was less about applying general rules and principles and more about finding a concrete solution for a concrete problem. “The house for living is the house which does not exist to serve anything foreign to it, to be a place of production or of money making, it is an end in itself and through its existence it should make people happy and in every one of its parts add to their delight,” he wrote in the 1931 text Architecture as Symbol.

Though Frank was a prolific designer, World War II impacted the dissemination of his work. In 1933, fearing anti Semitism and Nazi occupation of Vienna, Frank and his wife moved to Sweden where he worked for the design company Svenskt Tenn. From 1942 to 1946, Frank lived in New York and was a lecturer at the New School. Afterward, he returned to Stockholm where he lived until he died in 1967.

Later in his career, Frank named his approach Accidentalism: “By that I mean that we should design our surroundings as if they had originated by chance,” he wrote. “Every place in which one feels comfortable—rooms, streets, and cities—has originated by chance.”


Considering how so much design today is derivative—ahem, Apple wannabes—Frank’s philosophy is worth revisiting now more than ever.

Josef Frank: Against Design
runs until June 12, 2016, at MAK.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.