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A store that changed L.A.'s ways

August 15, 2009|Martha Groves

When Ron Frank donated five boxes of mailers, photos and magazine ads to the Getty Research Institute's architecture and design collection in May, one might have wondered what a distinguished scholarly organization would want with marketing paraphernalia from a defunct furniture store.

Once the box tops came off, the answer was clear. Showroom photos taken by the renowned Julius Shulman and Marvin Rand, a 1962 patent application for a convertible couch, examples of innovative graphic design from the 1940s to the 1970s, even original photographs by midcentury icon Charles Eames -- all reflected aspects of a landmark Long Beach store called Frank Bros.

Frank Bros. was the store that John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, enlisted to furnish the Case Study Houses, launched by the magazine toward the end of World War II. During the next two decades, Entenza called upon the likes of Eames, Richard Neutra and Pierre Koenig to create prototypical houses for the modern American family. The architects' timber-frame ranch houses and steel-and-glass pavilions would greatly influence the look and feel of single-family dwellings, in no small part because of the contemporary furniture, drapes and carpets that Frank Bros. put inside them.

The store's stylings rejected standard middle-American layouts of symmetrical sofas, chairs and tables. Its decorators mixed forms, colors and textures -- pairing Herman Miller slat benches with Van Keppel-Green armless sofas and Noguchi cocktail tables with Saarinen lounge chairs.

Completing the look were vases, china, lighting, objets d'art and plants from the store's spacious showroom on Long Beach Boulevard, with its 200 feet of display windows.

Shulman, the architectural photographer who died last month at 98, was on hand to capture the Case Study houses inside and out. The photos gave Frank Bros. a wider audience, and brothers Edward and Maurice Frank, the owners, earned plaudits for developing a midcentury modern aesthetic that managed to be edgy but not cold or austere.

The Case Study architects landed in history books, but Jennifer M. Volland, co-author of the 2004 book "Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis," said the furniture had significance too.

"In my mind, the contribution Frank Bros. made is just as important," she said. "They were the unsung heroes of that movement."

Frank Bros. appealed not just to the moneyed set but also to teachers and secretaries who used the store's layaway program. The store offered high style at low cost -- good-looking contemporary design genuinely within reach.

After Maurice Frank died in 1960, son Ron joined the business. Lucky for the design world, Ron Frank kept boxes of mailers, photos, oversize drawings and catalogs. Among the gems donated to the Getty: Shulman's photos of Ed Frank's Long Beach home, Case Study House No. 25, which featured a 17-foot door of honeycomb aluminum that was fabricated in one piece, like an airplane wing, at a Northrop plant.

Exemplifying the company's witty marketing, one ad features men and women tussling over chairs. One fellow has been decked. The copy: "There are those who dispute which contemporary design is most perfect . . . but all agree the finest selection of contemporary furniture comes from Frank Bros."

The collection complements other archives that the institute has acquired, including those of Shulman and architects Koenig, Ray Kappe and John Lautner, said Christopher Alexander, curator of architecture and design at the Getty Research Institute.

"As a result of this acquisition, the complete narrative detailing the development and promotion of midcentury modern architecture and design is now available at the GRI," Alexander said.

The store's milestones included the introduction of residential designs of Charles and Ray Eames, and at one point their bent plywood chairs were hung on walls and upside down from the ceiling. The store was also one of the first in the United States to import Danish modern furniture.

It all started in 1930, when Maurice joined his father, Louis, in a venture called Cash Furniture in Long Beach. They sold a hodgepodge of new and old furniture and appliances. After Louis retired in 1938, Ed joined Maurice and Frank Bros. was born. At Ed's urging, the store scrapped everything but contemporary furnishings.

The company became a manufacturer and importer under the name Moreddi, a combination of "Maurice" and "Ed." When Maurice died and Ron came on board, he wrote much of the advertising copy and staged special exhibitions.

In 1965, the uncle and his nephew divided the business, with Ed taking over Moreddi and Ron running the retail side.

The furnishings' durability is evident in the Long Beach home of Ron and his wife, Nancy. In a corner of the living room, two Eames children's chairs rest atop a kids table. An Eames lounge chair sits in Ron's home office. The wooden table and chairs in the dining room are Moreddi imports from Scandinavia. Fanciful vases by Bjorn Wiinblad, a Danish painter and designer whose ceramics and graphics were displayed prominently at Frank Bros., perch on a ledge over the kitchen sink.

Ron Frank, 78, sold the business in 1982 to the Danica furniture company but retained ownership of the Long Beach property. In 1992, the building was torched during the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict.

Now Frank Bros. lives on in its archives, in living rooms and in memory.

"With art, there's an emotional response," Ron Frank said. "If furniture doesn't speak to you in the same way, you move on."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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