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SPECIAL ISSUE / SUMMER SPLASH: BACK STORY

Modern, inside-out

Paul T. Frankl's sleek simplicity gave rise to a California look.

August 16, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

LOUNGING poolside in the 1930s usually meant lounging on rattan. It was the outdoor furniture of choice among Hollywood's elite but not considered elegant enough for use indoors. Paul T. Frankl changed all that.

Frankl revolutionized rattan and in the process blurred the distinction between what indoor and outdoor décor ought to be, says Christopher Long, author of the new book from Yale University Press "Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design." Though few may recognize the designer's name today, Long says, in the 1930s and '40s Frankl was a household brand, the man who was helping to put modern furniture on America's map.

An émigré from Austria, Frankl settled in New York in 1914 and quickly saw a country awash in reproductions of uncomfortable European styles. From the start, Frankl took a different approach, designing sleek, unadorned pieces that reflected advances in American technology and changes in culture. From his galleries in New York, he developed his "skyscraper" style of furniture, but it was Frankl's move to Los Angeles and the interiors he designed here that led to the glamorous look for which he is known. Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston and Alfred Hitchcock became clients. Americans discovered Frankl's style on celluloid and brought it into their homes.

Long, who teaches architectural and design history at the University of Texas in Austin, described Frankl's lasting legacy during a visit to Los Angeles this month.

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Question: Why should we care about Frankl today?

Answer: Because he was so important in shaping modern American design. It was Frankl, probably more than any person, who ushered in the discussion of modernism and how it should be adapted in this country.

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Q: What were his biggest accomplishments?

A: In the 1920s, from New York, he became America's principal design source for modern furniture and interiors. He applied modern design to the spirit of America; he didn't cadge from the Europeans. In 1925, he changed everything with what came to be called his skyscraper style. It was furniture large and heavy at the bottom, tapering to a narrow top. People said it looked like the new skyscrapers springing up across the country. It became wildly popular. He also wrote books and lectured, trying to bring modernism to the masses.

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Q: How did moving to L.A. influence him?

A: He loved L.A., its climate and lifestyle. He called it "heaven." It was the exact opposite of what he called "the mad rush, high tension and fierce pressure" of New York. His designs reflected that. He focused on furniture for outdoor use at a time when little attention was paid to that category.

He transformed rattan -- which had only been used outdoors -- into wildly popular indoor furniture, by bending it to new shapes and giving it a clear beeswax finish. His seating conformed more to the needs of the body, which wasn't true of furniture popular then. He designed biomorphic shapes, also new at the time. His work in L.A. became lighter, simpler, more sleek and mobile -- much more focused on leisure and comfort.

He also was one of the first to use pony hide, denim and nubby fabrics in upholstery. And bleached cork for the first time. He had the first prominent furniture shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, which was at that time a kind of rural village. People around the country knew who he was.

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Q: How big was his influence on Hollywood films?

A: Huge. The look of Hollywood glamour interiors is very much in his debt. The film studios picked up on his style even while he was in New York. Think of Busby Berkeley's work that used all those repeated geometric forms. Much of that goes back to Frankl's New York skyscraper pieces.

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Q: And today?

A: It's ironic. The architects in Southern California with whom Frankl worked -- Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, Gregory Ain, J.R. Davidson -- are still well-known. But Frankl's star has faded from view.

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Q: You say Frankl's legacy lives on today, but what about his designs?

A: His furniture is enormously collectible. Originals are in museums across the country, and when pieces of his come up for sale, they're generally snapped up.

Of course, rattan furniture has not continued to be popular. But I visited the shops on Melrose the other day and saw many echoes of the '30s, '40s and of Frankl's designs. The biomorphic forms, which we generally associate with the '50s but which started with Frankl and some others much earlier, are coming back. Unless you're a design nut like I am, you'll have no idea where all these forms originated.

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