A glimpse into the Surrealist world of designer Jean Michel Frank.
The French Surrealist fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s work is gaining loyal new fans thanks to the resurrection of Maison Schiaparelli at Paris Fashion Week. It’s high time the world became more familiar with one of her most imaginative design contemporaries, French interiors impresario Jean Michel Frank.
Frank led a life as colourful as his soft furnishings Chez Schiaparelli. Born into a well-connected Paris banking family, and a cousin of the diarist Anne Frank, Jean-Michel had a talent for befriending the great and the good of the European art and design worlds. He was inspired by the curatorial efforts of Sergei Diaghilev in commissioning painters and such as Matisse and Picasso to design for the Ballet Russes, and wanted to apply this method to ‘see artists collaborating in arranging houses’. He often collaborated with the architect Emilio Terry, and Alberto Giacometti, to produce collage-like rooms, with straw-lined walls, white leather furniture, marble and modernist paintings.
His 1926-27 designs for Marie-Laure and Charles de Noaille’s family home were immortalized in a series of photographs by Man Ray, their salon full of disturbing paintings by Salvador Dali and Balthus, which caused friction with Frank, whose design emphasized clean lines and blocky forms in white, bronze and quartz. One critic wryly observed that Frank really wanted to produce “rooms no one lived in”. In fact, what endures of Frank’s designs is their theatricality, these were rooms to see-and-be-seen in, such as the San Francisco millionaire Templeton Crocker’s man-pad, complete with mock relics from King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and lion skin rugs.
The fact that Frank’s stark asceticism appears eerily familiar, especially considering how long ago he was active (1928-41), is a testament to the designer’s enduring legacy. He possessed a clear aim, to produce rooms which amounted to more than ‘six thousand shades of beige’. Some of the more outlandish of his pieces include white rubber cushions he produced for Schiaparelli’s salon, which melted, in true Dali style, on the bottoms of her well-heeled guests.
In 2011, Hermes released a number of items from the Frank archive, including a sheepskin club chair (above), which immediately sold out. Frank is still a designer worth taking note of.
For a subtle take on Jean-Michel Frank’s look, try a straw or rattan footstool, ‘Schiaparelli pink’ velvet, or a sheepskin stylishly strewn across a sofa.