Milo Naeve Reviews
Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design
Christopher Long Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
228 pages (120 black-and-white illustrations and 42 in color)
Hardcover Only, $50.00
Christopher Long’s book cuts away the jungle of misconceptions about the life, career, and contributions to modern American design by Paul T. Frankl (1886-1959). Dates of Frankl’s birth and death, his education, and episodes in his career all have been mis-reported. The book is the first complete record of the man.
Frankl became the subject of a book by accident. He came to Long’s attention through a research paper in an elective course---a holiday from Central European cultural studies---at the University of Texas at Austin in 1982. Dissertation research in Vienna about the architect Joseph Frank, eventually leading to the book published by the University of Chicago Press in 2002, accidentally and constantly offered new information about Frankl, because his name followed that of the architect in alphabetized records. Long wrote the book on Frank a decade later and returned to Frankl as a potential subject for research in depth. He traced Frankl’s daughter, Paulette. She shared documents and photographs which she had preserved about her family. The career and life of the designer and architect immediately became the subject for a book. In it the author’s expert knowledge of innovative architecture of the period became a great asset.
A peripatetic lie led to disparate biographical sources for Frankl that contributed to his obscurity. Born into a prosperous family in Vienna, his studies for example, were there, in Berlin, Paris, and Munich. Long solves documenting and presenting the episodic life by short chapters on each fact. Many readers will be surprised to learn that Frankl lived in New York City from the spring of 1914 to the winter of 1917 before immigrating in 1920. Remaining there until 1934, he then moved to Los Angeles and lived in or near the city until dying of colon cancer in the winter of 1959. Frankl’s fortunes shifted often over his career from prosperity to poverty, and his personal life ranged from depression over the death of his first wife and bitterness with divorce form his second to emotional security with his third.
Trained as an architect, Frankl early decided that a lack of capital for establishing an architectural firm required reliance on design. He applied his talents to a broad range of projects, from interior design, posters, greeting cards, and theater sets to selecting objects from Europe, the Orient, and Mexico for sale in his shops.
Furniture design is the major theme of his career. He used many approaches to his fundamental interest in modernism, though he occasionally mined the themes of simplified Biedermeier and vernacular furniture from Europe and America. Long devotes a chapter to Frankl’s “Skyscraper Style”, which echoed the attenuated and irregular rectangular shapes of its namesake (pp. 65-91). The Style expressed Frankl’s search for a distinctively American design, and the popularity of it made him the leader of the American modernist movement.
The author and the press have fashioned a book of good quality with a few disappointments. The prose is clear, though the reader sometimes searches for the date of an episode under discussion. Documentation is thorough. Long gives readers an excellent “Bibliography” with three divisions: “Archival Sources”, “Frankl’s Writings”, and “Other Sources”. The color and black-and-white illustrations are superb in quality. Other features of the book are unfortunate. Captions for illustrations often lack measurements, identification of woods for furniture, and the owners of objects or the source of photographs, such as magazines or brochures. The section entitled “Illustration Credits” at the back of the book is difficult to read as a single paragraph, and readers must already know or guess sources to find them in the alphabetical list or read through it; the information easily could have been included in the captions, where readers could conveniently refer to it.
Long’s book is more than a responsible treatment of Frankl. It presents insights into the efforts of other designers, into American taste, and into business practices in the arts. The information is not available elsewhere.