The late Jean-Michel Frank was an undeniable creator of Modernist French design who largely influenced the interior design landscape in Paris during the decades before the Second World War. An avid appreciator of arts and literature with no formal training, Frank accidentally became a decorator and designer when renowned poet Louis Aragon requested him to furnish his apartment. He is now most remembered for his aesthetic that explores materials, maintains minimalism, and amalgamates various old and new styles and textures. One of the most significant designers of the 20th century, Frank and his designs were admired by the Parisian elite as “impoverished luxury,” or luxe pauvre. As soon as they discovered his distinctive style, the glitterati and literati of Paris entrusted him with the design of their residences.
The first cousin of German diarist Anne Frank, Jean-Michel, was born in Paris in 1895 into an affluent German banking family. Having inherited a sizeable family fortune, Frank was able to travel about Paris, interacting and collaborating with the elites until 1925. Though Frank was void of orthodox design education, in 1927, style leader and modernism patron Eugenia Errazuriz became his mentor and introduced him to her own contemporary, minimalist aesthetic. Frank distinguished himself with his material integrity and clarity in an era dominated by modernists like Le Corbusier. Developing the principles he acquired during his time as a pupil of Errazuriz; Frank created a clean and coherent aesthetic by harmonizing multiple styles.
While most of Frank’s designs are characterized by sparsely furnished spaces and neutral tones, he began experimenting with colours in his thirties, creating stunning and striking interiors for surrealist Elsa Schiaparelli and the Rockefellers. Between the timeframe of 1927 and 1933, Frank created designs for the Desny studio. He was the principal innovator of white-leaded wood in the 1920s.
Frank established a partnership with Parisian decorator Adolphe Chanaux in the late 1920s for lighting and furnishing commissions out of unusual materials such as terracotta, graphite, and parchment, amongst others. Together they decorated various interiors. He had also developed formal relationships with sculptor Diego Giacometti, artists Salvador Dali and Christian Berard, and architect Emilio Terry. After partnering with Adolphe Chanaux for a year in a decorating business in La Ruche, Frank founded a store in Paris in 1932 wherein he offered artwork created by himself, Chanaux, and others – Terry, Diego, amd Alberto Gio.
Frank’s early designs were orthographically inclined and hard-edged on account of influences from architects Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens. However, he also experimented with more intricate forms as his work took on a more theatrical tone. Lastly, Frank undertook an academic tangent in the 1930s at Parsons in Paris, where he idealized the Parsons table, one of his most notable, simple yet iconic modernist pieces with modern renditions existing to date.
A Maestro of Materials and Methods
“Frank’s pursuit of rigorous, simple forms, graphic in their clarity, can perhaps be seen to most striking effect in his lighting designs. He favored a classically modern mix of understated luxury, combined with exotic and unexpected materials” (Weaver, n.d.). Frank also experimented with simpler, traditional materials in novel ways – using marquetry made of straw for wall coverings and upholstery made of canvas. A recurring theme in the works of Jean-Michel Frank was creating overlaps between various textures and materials to create larger decorative concepts. While Frank never formally joined any modernist movement, his contemporaries in the Union des Artistes Modernes (UAM) shared his love of materials. Some of the materials he commonly explored include mica, obsidian, terracotta, and shagreen.
For instance, Frank created obsidian table lamps in 1925 for the music room of American composer Cole Porter. Another piece was also placed in the penthouse of philanthropist Templeton Crocker. Considered an iconic piece of art over furniture, these lamps represent a well-balanced contrast between the dark, heavy stone and thin, light paper shade, further coupled with brass and leather.
Another striking piece by Jean-Michel Frank is the “Block Lamp ” which depicts Frank’s craftsmanship with mica. Mica is a naturally occurring mineral that has been treasured by craftsmen for its quality to be divided into thin, precise sheets excellent for glazing. The designer has ceased this characteristic and used it to clad a simple volume of wood with a grid of mica sheets, imparting a luxurious metallic sheen to it. Frank reserves the material for his most significant commissions, namely – a fireplace for the Noailles noble family, the penthouse of philanthropist Crocker, and Frank’s private smoking area.
Retrospective Recognition: The Lasting Legacy of Jean-Michel Frank
Sought after by the Nazis, Jean-Michel Frank abandoned Paris in his prime glory years and took respite in Argentina, where he continued his creations. He then traveled to New York in 1941. After struggling with addiction, depression, and loss, Frank ended his life at the age of 46 in the ‘Big Apple,’ putting an abrupt end to a wonderful career and leaving behind an extraordinary legacy. “Throw out and keep throwing out. Elegance means elimination,” said Jean-Michel Frank. His works are featured in several prestigious auction houses with high valuations. Leading designers today acknowledge Frank as one of the most influential inspirations of modern design. Jean-Michel’s creations are highly coveted by collectors and decorators to date.
Nurjuwita, D. (2019). Designer spotlight: Jean-Michel Frank, the designer coveted by 20th-century Parisian elite. [online] Lifestyle Asia Singapore. Available at: https://www.lifestyleasia.com/sg/culture/the-arts/designer-spotlight-jean-michel-frank-the-designer-coveted-by-20th-century-parisian-elite/.
Phillips. (2017). Jean-Michel Frank: A Fascination for Materials. [online] Available at: https://www.phillips.com/article/21432537/jean-michel-frank-a-fascination-for-materials.
Pooky Lighting. (2021). Great interior designers: Jean-Michel Frank. [online] Available at: https://www.pooky.com/blogs/inspiration/great-interior-designers-jean-michel-frank.
Simon (2021). Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) French Interior Designer. [online] Encyclopedia of Design. Available at: https://encyclopedia.design/2021/11/30/jean-michel-frank-1895-1941-french-interior-designer/.
Weaver, B. (n.d.). The London List — Jean-Michel Frank. [online] The London List. Available at: https://www.thelondonlist.com/culture/jean-michel-frank-lighting.
Wikipedia. (2021). Jean-Michel Frank. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Michel_Frank.