March 1, 2015


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Lot 249: Paul Frankl

Lot 249: Paul Frankl

Two-tiered end tables (3)

Designed c. 1951
Model no. 5001
Johnson Furniture Company
Each branded "#5001"
Each: 24" x 36" x 33"
Literature: Long, Christopher. Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 158; Contemporary Designs by Paul T. Frankl, Johnson Furniture Company catalogue, c. 1950. N. pag.
Estimate: $3,000 - $5,000
Price Realized: $5,000
Inventory Id: 18148

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As both a furniture designer and author, Paul T. Frankl (1886–1958) had a powerful influence shaping the unique identity of American modernist design in the early 20th century. Stylish and astute, Frankl won a broad group of admirers, who ranged from Frank Lloyd Wright to a host of Hollywood stars, and a keynote of Frankl's talent was the degree to which he absorbed aesthetic cues from his surroundings. As he wrote in his 1928 book New Dimensions: The Decorative Arts of Today in Words and Pictures: "The art of today must be created today. It must express the life about us. It must reflect the main characteristics and earmarks of our own complex civilization." Few designers have been as attuned as Frankl to the forms and materials in their environment.

Born in Vienna, Frankl trained in architecture there and in Berlin before moving to New York in 1914. He designed interiors and theatre sets, and opened a gallery selling furniture designed by himself and others. Frankl's first great design success came with his "Skyscraper Furniture" line, first issued in 1925 and characterized by tall cabinets with staggered shelves meant to mimic the jagged setbacks of Manhattan office towers. In a few years, as buildings in the "Streamline Moderne" style rose, Frankl introduced his "Speed" club chairs and sofas—pieces with raked profiles suggesting forward motion.

In 1934, Frankl moved to Los Angeles, where he would live out the rest of his life. Taken by the climate, scenery, and the casual pace of life, he pronounced it "heaven," a perfect antidote to the "the mad rush, high tension and fierce pressure" he experienced in New York. Upon his move, Frankl's entire approach to design changed. His furniture became lighter, simpler, and inflected by Asian design forms. His work attracted clients such as Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Fred Astaire, and, Frankl biographer Christopher Long maintains, prompted a trend to brighter, airy movie set decoration within the film industry. Most tellingly, Frankl embraced natural materials: texture-rich upholstery like hide and nubby wool; "combed" wood panels with raised striations; chair and sofa frames made of rattan; and cork finished with beeswax, which featured in the line of tables and consoles designed, beginning in the late 1940s, for the Johnson Furniture Company. These fresh, elegant designs are, perhaps, a testament not only to Frankl's talents, but also to the transformative power of Southern California.

Long, Christopher. Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print. Frankl, Paul T. New Dimensions: The Decorative Arts of Today in Words and Pictures. New York: Payson and Clarke, 1928. Print.