Nature Runs Wild in Josef Frank's Beloved Designs

himalaya josef frank textile design image

'Himalaya' by Josef Frank. Image SFO Museum.

Vivid, almost psychedelic colors, swirling, tangled lines, and playful renderings of animals aren't what most people think of when they hear the stern word "modernism." These traits, though, are what characterize the style of one of the most beloved Swedish modernists, an Austrian refugee who captured the messy beauty of nature in his textile designs.In both his designs and his architecture, Josef Frank (1885-1967) sought to "break down the distinction between inside and outside... to 'bring a piece of "nature" into our rooms,'" according to the book Josef Frank: Life and Work, a biography of the artist whose work in the 1930s to 1960s helped define Scandinavian modern design. Frank believed the variety of nature in his textile patterns "could inspire a feeling of freedom even indoors in enclosed spaces, and at the same time provide a refuge from the pressures of life in the technological age."

greenbirds josef frank textile design image

'Green Birds' by Josef Frank. Image SFO Museum.

That approach is joyfully obvious in the examples of the artist's work currently on display in "The Enduring Designs of Josef Frank," a free exhibit open until Oct. 9 at the San Francisco International Airport Museum. Tulips sprout from undulating ribbons of earth; ripe fruit dangles from a thick forest of blue, green, and yellow branches; whimsical parrots perch amid cascading mountains in a rainbow of colors. Though the imagery is evocative rather than scientific, Frank often drew from nature or field-guide illustrations, including those in Trees of North America and the Red Book of Birds of America while living in New York in the 1940s

"In vibrant contrast to his rather austere and understated furniture... Frank's textiles, his joyful outbursts of color and pattern on linen and cotton, were a psychedelic trip of nature and life... almost pre-Raphaelite in their mad celebration of the natural world at its most ripe," the design blogger The Style Saloniste wrote of the exhibit. "When you remember that for six months ([or] more!), Sweden is plunged in gray winter, these almost kinetic patterns of voluptuous nature make total sense."

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