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Jean Michel Frank: Genius of French Furniture


by Carol Steffan • April 27, 2018

Described categorically by Billy Baldwin as “the last genius of French furniture”, the legacy of Jean Michel Frank has endured, now more acknowledged than ever before. An apostle of minimalism, Frank was a key figure in the Art Deco movement, and a key ambition of his was to produce ‘luxury from nothing”, often taking raw forms and unglamorous materials and transforming them to refined heights. Materials used by Frank were anything but typical — limed oak, mica, silk, straw marquetry, iron, Hermès leather, parchment and vellum-sheathed walls. Frank was an early pioneer in what has become known as “minimalist chic”– refined interiors emphasizing the importance of scale in furniture, and rigor in the selecting of decorative objects and the powerful combination of the simplest forms with the most exquisite materials. One of the most influential and original designers of the 20th Century, Frank developed a passionate following for his understated yet elegant furniture and interiors among the Parisian elite. Luxury was to be found not in the quantity, but the quality of furnishings. Frank is credited with the design of a modern icon, the Parsons table, developed while teaching at the Parsons Paris School of Art and Design–which he embellished with luxurious finishes. The designer’s close association with artists and patrons was unique to the Paris scene in the 1930s: among Frank’s artistic group were Diego and Alberto Giacometti, Salvador Dali, Emilio Terry and Pablo Picasso and Christian Berard, and his pared-down rooms became the perfect backdrop to their works.

 

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Gypsum and Bronze Cabinet

Born in 1891 to a wealthy banking family in Paris, Frank was educated at the Lycee Janson de Sailly, a then all-boys school which became one of the lycées of Parisian high society. A lonely and quiet child bullied by classmates for his slight build and Jewish heritage, Jean Michel was a first cousin, once removed, to Anne Frank. No stranger to tragedy, he lost older brothers Oscar and Georges in World War I, his father committing suicide shortly thereafter. His mother later passed in a Swiss asylum. Frank prevailed, due in no small part to an inheritance, and learned to create beauty out of the void. He found his niche within the 1920s set of Parisian intellectuals, artists and politicians. From 1920 to 1925 he travelled the world, and eventually met Chilean poet Eugenia Errázuriz, who became his mentor, adopting her philosophy “Elegance is elimination”.

 

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Sketches depicting the layouts of the salon and bedroom of Madame Errázuriz

Entering into partnership in 1930 with Adolph Chanaux who had been executing Frank’s furniture designs, the two opened a boutique at 140 rue de Faubourg-Saint-Honore in Paris. Soon, Frank amassed a following consisting of influential designers such as Syrie Maugham, Francis Elkins internationally, and in France, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Gaston Bergery, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean-Pierre Guerlain, Count and Countess Pecci-Blunt and arts patrons Vicomte Charles de Noailles and his wife, Marie-Laure. Templeton Crocker of San Francisco and the Rockefellers of New York became his clients in the U.S.. Ignacio Pirovano of the National Museum of Decorative Arts championed Frank’s work in Argentina, co-founding in 1932, Comte, which provided designs for projects as well as the local retail market. By 1937 a workshop had been set up in Argentina to execute Frank’s designs, as well as offering period and contemporary designs. At the onset of World War II, Frank immigrated to Argentina and became creative director for Comte, completing private commissions, including the home of Jorge and Maria Frias Ayerza Born, and public spaces of the Llao Llao Hotel in Patagonia.

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Minimalist Sofa by Jean Michel Frank

 

 

Jean Michel Frank (1895-1941)      Screen Shot 2018-04-25 at 12.41.16 PM

 

Frank’s simple, elegant style has garnered many admirers. Contemporary designers such as Andree Putman, Garouste and Bonetti and many others have cited Frank as their spiritiual mentor and inspiration.

Jean Michel Frank ended his own life in New York in March of 1941. French writer Laurence Benaïm states “Frank will continue to haunt our memories. Through his creations, he showed us the modernity of a point of view, impossible to reduce to a fashion or style. His force is to have opposed any form of theory or message — the ultimate truth of a dateless taste.”

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