Design Masterworks 19 May 2016

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Josef Frank

Important Flora cabinet

Svenskt Tenn
Austria / Sweden, c. 1954
mahogany, printed paper, brass
52 w x 17 d x 29¾ h in (132 x 43 x 76 cm)

estimate: $30,000–50,000

Cabinet features three drawers.

provenance: Ambassador Carl-Robert Borgenstierna, Caracas | Private Collection
exhibited: Swedish Design, 1954, Torre Polar, Caracas

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A Subliminal Union

Josef Frank's Flora Cabinet

To encounter Josef Frank’s Flora chest is to experience a living, breathing specimen. Through this work, the viewer comes, almost intuitively, to know and appreciate Frank’s powers of transformation: the chest’s meticulously-applied floral imprint elevates it from a statement of simple, elegant modernism to a splendid triumph of European design. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to present this work to the market; its unique provenance renders it an interesting and rare treasure with a multi-layered story to tell.

The delicate gravitas of the Flora chest seems to portend the significance of its own illustrious provenance. The chest was acquired directly after its creation by the Swedish diplomat Carl-Robert Borgenstierna during his time in Caracas, Venezuela. At this time, Borgenstierna organized an exhibition in Caracas showcasing the finest of Swedish design, held in the Torre Pola Caracas building, at which this chest was exhibited. Add to this the fact that Flora’s production was initially reserved for the King of Sweden in the first edition, followed by Queen Elizabeth II, and its value is unquestionably affirmed by the eminence of the company in which it abided.

The chest is the product of a creative collaboration between Josef Frank and Estrid Ericson, director of Swedish design company Svensk Tenn. The pair had first worked together some years earlier in 1934, when they collaborated on a suite of rooms for the Liljevalchs Konsthall, (including a floral cretonne-covered sofa to which the development of the present Flora aesthetic can be linked). Prior to the conception of the Flora series, Ericson had visited Carl Linneaus’ Hammarby estate, where she was struck by the bedroom walls, which had been wallpapered with floral print. Meanwhile in Vienna, Frank had previously undertaken the decoration of a linen cupboard with chintz (glazed calico textiles) and cretonne (heavy printed cotton). The Flora series represents the moment at which these nascent ideas collided. The hand-colored botanical paper prints applied to the mahogany chest-front were taken from Carl Lindman’s book Bilder ur Nordens Flora, and the effect created is one which speaks to a distinct breed of modernism: an aesthetic which indulges a modern treatment of form, whilst rendering an aesthetically resplendence which negates the harsh linearity of modernism. Aspects of Frank’s aesthetic inspiration in this sense can quite clearly be linked to the British arts and crafts tradition; the floral design seems to whisper in its rich gorgeousness to the designs of William Morris, the difference of course being in Frank’s ability to pare this back to a fresh, clean, Nordic aesthetic.

There is something of a clever playfulness to be found in this aspect of Frank’s work, and it is important to acknowledge the extent to which his interest in the natural world played a role in this design dialog. The delicate application of floral designs to wood instills the work with a distinctly organic sense, one which exists in constant tension with the manmade artificiality of a domesticated natural wooden form. Frank’s relationship with the natural world was intimate, and he considered the garden to be “an extension of the interior living space”[1] The Flora chest, therefore, goes to the very heart of Frank’s own design ethos, in offering the opportunity to encounter something of a subliminal union between the natural and manmade; the organic and carefully crafted.

To this end, Frank’s genius in the production of Flora can best be described as forging a new language of modernism: what is being dealt with is no purist aesthetic or high-minded philosophical engagement with the modernist potential of line and form (as can be encountered in the work of many of his contemporaries), but rather a sensual and joyous engagement with the natural world and that which it has to offer.

[1] Long, Christopher and Josef Frank, Josef Frank: Life and Work, Haus & Garter, p. 102