I had been looking forward to this exhibition since it was announced last year. Despite it being rather an expensive venue (£7, compared to many other London museums being free) the Fashion and Textile Museum is an important source of inspiration and one that really does its best for the sewing, knitting and textile community in London.
I love the Josef Frank fabrics which have been stocked in Liberty for as long as I can remember. The colourful organic style of the fabrics appealed to both me and Nick (and it is not always easy to get agreement on style with one’s partner) and when we first decorated our flat in neutral shades with cherry wood furniture Nick wanted some colour and pattern. So we bought some off cuts at Liberty and I made cushion covers. We also bought a couple of trays that are very handy and nice. And when we had a chance to go to Stockholm for a conference we went to the shop and bought some more small pieces – the fabric is not cheap but it is really something special.
In addition, to put the top hat on it for me, Frank as an architect was responsible for some very interesting and enlightened designs for public and social housing. Here is a good article that gives great context.
So the exhibition was something of a pilgrimage for us, as we were keen to know more.
The exhibition celebrates the work of Austrian architect Josef Frank (1885-1967), exhibiting his paintings alongside his fabulous textile designs.
There were also some interesting drawings of “fantasy houses” he designed for his friends. These were pretty interesting but impossible to photograph. He fled Austria due to the rise of the Nazis in 1933 and settled in Stockholm with his Swedish wife Anna. He is widely regarded as Sweden’s most influential designer. I think the designs have a clear Scandinavian feel – especially in terms of the scale of the pattern, the use of organic forms and the colour palette. But they seem to have another element – a challenging, modern take on how to live I think. He designed homes that were functional, but also comfortable and personalised. Not for him the beige, ultra tidy lifestyle, but rather one where you feel at home. Throughout the exhibition one is invited to sit on chairs covered by his fabrics.
Here are some of the fabrics – and their stories. The earliest print featured in the exhibition was rather delicate and protected with glass. You can see how the leaves pattern was applied with the first block and then the dark red branches were printed on top.
This next one from 1925-30 (which I have at home) is called Mirakel (miracle). This is strongly influenced by William Morris, although it is also very much modernised. The black background and the use of complementary colours really makes it a vibrant print.
The next one Mille Fleurs, which is considerably later (1940) loses the joined-up-ness of the earlier prints. I like it slightly less as it looks more like a text-book rather than a fantasy garden. In fact Joseph Frank did use reference books – richly illustrated scientific books, maps and historical tomes – to help create a sense of verisimilitude. Mille Fleurs means “thousands of flowers” in French, and the name and idea come from medieval French tapestries where floral backgrounds leant a romantic and colourful context to the embroidery. I found this an interesting print as it is created from relatively small wood blocks that make up a very large pattern.
Finally US Tree (1943-45). Frank moved to New York during the Second World War with his American wife and this design was influenced by the very different types of tree he encountered in the States. I don’t know about you but I often find the trees abroad very different to what I am used to – especially in Australia, but also in America. While I think we expect people to speak and look different, and the architecture and towns to looks different, It is very shocking to encounter tree species that you could not have imagined before. You grow up with trees and somehow consider then immutable and eternal (silly, I know). Nevertheless Frank had the same experience and used field manuals to discover more about US trees. In this design he created a tree with 20 different fruits, leaves and flowers, sharing the branches. Maybe America’s diversity was being celebrated here. .