Paul T. Frankl
- Paul T. Frankl
- "Skyscraper" Bookcase from the Library of Lucile Layton Zinman and M. Boyd Zinman, 1200 Fifth Avenue, New York
- partially lacquered maple
- 69 1/8 x 41 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. (175.6 x 105.4 x 34.3 cm)
Thence by descent to the present owners
Paul T. Frankl, Form and Reform: A Practical Handbook of Modern Interiors, New York, 1972, p. 88, pl. 49
Alastair Duncan, The Encyclopedia of Art Deco, New York, 1988, p. 61
J. Stewart Johnson, American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age, New York, 2000, p. 53
Charlotte and Peter Fiell, 20s Decorative Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 395
Christopher Long, Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design, New Haven, 2007, pp. 66-71, 74 and front cover (for variant models)
By Christopher Long
From the early 1920s through the mid 1950s, Paul T. Frankl played a leading role in spreading the idea of modern design in the United States, and his executed works set the trend for the new design. Because virtually all of Frankl’s designs before the late 1930s were custom pieces, examples of his works are rare. This unusually rich group of Frankl designs features signature specimens of his creative output of the 1920s and 1930s.
Frankl worked in New York from 1914 to 1917 and again from 1921 to 1934. Born in Vienna and educated in Berlin, he first arrived in the city on his way to San Francisco to view the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. He was in Japan, on his return trip to Austria, when World War I broke out. He went back to New York and opened a design practice and shop on Park Avenue. He had some success creating modern interiors (he also designed sets for the Washington Square Players and dancer Isadora Duncan), but in 1917, when the U.S. declared war, he was forced to go back to Austria. He returned to New York after the war and established a new shop on East 48th Street, just around the corner from Fifth Avenue.
Over the next decade Frankl built his shop into the leading address for modern design in the United States. At first he mostly sold imported decorative articles from Europe, but by the fall of 1925, in the wake of the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, he introduced modern furniture of his own design. His breakthrough came with his design for the “Skyscraper” bookcases, which soon became a watchword for a new American modernist aesthetic. The pieces drew on the setback forms of the city’s tall buildings, but they also borrowed from Japanese sendai chests and the ideas of the Viennese modernists, notably Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. He would go on to make many variations of the “Skyscraper” form, using the concept to fashion desks, side tables, chairs, and even a set of display stands for the Saks Fifth Avenue shoe store in Atlantic City. He was also active as an interior designer, working for many of the New York elite. Among his clients were Marjorie Merriweather Post, Cathleen Vanderbilt, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
By the late 1920s Frankl was experimenting with streamlined forms. Some employed the rounded-over edges of more conventional streamlining. Frankl also used other methods to indicate speed and movement, including horizontal “speed” lines, and beveled forms, cut back to suggest motion and flow. The latter gave rise to one of his best-known designs, his “Speed” chairs of the early 1930s.
Frankl eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1934, lured by the benign climate and the better economic environment. He continued to practice until 1956. During his later New York years, he sometimes also made recourse to classical forms and ideas. Throughout his career, like many of the early modernists, he used classical proportions and ordering systems, and at times he quoted directly from the historical canon. Some of his best examples, like the small mirror in this grouping, represented highly reduced or abstracted versions of older designs. Frankl often visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and some of his pieces are directly drawn from, or inspired by, works in the museum’s collection.
Frankl designed the first “Skyscraper” bookcase for his own use in the summer of 1925, and he began offering the first models in his shop in the fall of that year. This is a fine example, from the peak period of his production, with an exceptionally high and thin central “tower.” Zinman, who was one of the original Ziegfeld Follies Girls, danced under the name Lucile Layton. In 1929 she married M. Boyd Zinman, a member of the New York Stock exchange and the inventor of the Theremin, the first fully electronic musical instrument. She and Frankl became close friends in the later 1920s (they may have met through Frankl’s third wife, Mary Ballard Irwin, who had also been a Ziegfeld dancer), and she commissioned him to design the entire library of her Fifth Avenue apartment, which consisted of a suite of black lacquer furniture including a sofa, a round settee, two end tables, and a steel and leather chair.
Christopher Long is professor for architectural and design history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design and co-editor, with Aurora McClain, of Paul T. Frankl: Autobiography, published this year.