Socialist Architect Josef Frank’s Modernism Was All About Freedom

The Austrian socialist architect Josef Frank resisted modernists who wanted to make homes look like workplaces — an idea with new resonance in an age when so many of us are working from home and feel like we can't escape from our work.

Josef Frank design, 1932. (Photograph by Martin Gerlach / courtesy of Wien Museum)

In 2020, millions of people have unexpectedly been forced to turn their homes into their workplaces. Not only have the boundaries between work and home life collapsed, but new demands of “professionalism” have been placed on what was once a private sanctuary for many.

From a public health perspective, of course, a work-from-home policy is better than forcing workers back into enclosed spaces during an airborne pandemic. Some workers prefer to work from home, often citing greater privacy and flexibility as key benefits. But many have struggled with isolation, managing family care, and, in the age of the ubiquitous video call, finding a suitably “professional” place in the home to work.

But given that a number of large companies are already talking about making work-from-home permanent, there has been surprisingly little discussion about this new reality as either a labor or a housing issue.

To think about what a future with millions more people working from home might mean for our homes, we can draw from the Austrian socialist architect Josef Frank. In his 1927 essay “Three Assertions and Their Consequences,” Frank wrote,

In the office and in the factory a number of industrially standardized objects, such as typewriters and lamps, have demonstrated their usefulness. Should we not also use these in our homes?

No, we should not. Offices and factories are places where we are forced to go, where we do not spend our time gladly and that we leave as quickly as possible. The objects in them have this same [industrial] character. The home should have the opposite feel. The person who works with machines and wants to continue this activity at home belongs in the realm of fables. In reality, when he is at home he wants in no way to be reminded of the workplace.

In this article, translated by Christopher Long, Frank was reacting to the machine-like aesthetics that dominated architecture at the time. But he was also reacting to the consolidation of industrial capitalism, which drove more and more workers into cramped and squalid conditions both at home and on the job.

Today, while there is still plenty of heavy industry in the United States, the number of people who can potentially work from home will continue to grow as the economy continues to reorient toward services.

To the greatest extent we can, we should reinforce the aspects of working from home that give workers more flexibility and freedom, and eliminate or reduce those that create stress or give their bosses greater control over their lives and their homes.

Even if a complete separation from the workplace and the home is no longer possible or desirable for everyone, the fundamental principle that drove all of Frank’s thinking still applies. As he wrote in “Three Assertions,”

Eight hours a day you have to work by the sweat of your brow but sixteen hours are dedicated to quiet and entertainment. A human being is neither a machine nor an investment that has to pay off; rather, he works only as long as he has to, so that he can be a person for the rest of his time.

“Modernism Is Only That Which Gives Us Complete Freedom”

Josef Frank was part of an important but often overlooked countercurrent in architectural modernism, one that emphasized comfort and coziness rather than the streamlined, factory-influenced forms and monumental scale often associated with the term.

Wassily Chairs by Marcel Breuer, 1925/26. (Wikimedia Commons)

For most of Frank’s life, Western architects and designers focused on minimalist aesthetics, with heavy emphasis on smooth, sleek surfaces and open space, and often used materials previously associated primarily with industry. These trends coalesced most famously in the International Style movement and Bauhaus. When you hear the phrase “modernist design,” something from one of these movements is probably the first thing that comes to mind.

At their best, designers and architects like Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Marianne Brandt, many of whom were on the Left, aimed to create objects that could be mass- or serially produced. In practice, however, many modernist designs for household goods and furniture were not suited to mass-production in the first place, and therefore later became luxury status symbols of the intellectual bourgeoisie.

Marianne Brandt design, 1924. (Wikimedia Commons)

This style became hegemonic in western modernist design for decades, but it isn’t the whole story when it comes to modernism. Another current of modernism, which included organizations like the American Union of Decorative Arts and Craftsmen, pursued design apart from the International Style, which they critiqued for focusing too much on the building as an architectural achievement and did not give enough thought to the way people actually wanted to use space.

Josef Frank came from this school of thought, one that focused on accommodating people as they actually wanted to live. In fact, Frank rejected the idea that “modernism” meant specific aesthetic characteristics at all. Instead, he argued, “Modernism is not a style. Modernism is only that which gives us complete freedom.”

Bread and Roses — and Quiet Too

Born to a Jewish family outside Vienna in 1885, Frank joined the Socialist Party of Austria (SPÖ) while still in secondary school. Editors Tano Bojankin, Christopher Long, and Iris Meder explain Frank’s political outlook on architecture in their preface to his collected writings,

[H]e saw all design problems through a socialist lens. Nearly all of his writings from the late 1910s to the late 1920s dealt with the issue of housing, especially the problem of housing Vienna’s large and disadvantaged underclass. In some respects, his solutions paralleled those of the other young modernists of the day: the trust in the importance of collective and state action, the conviction that providing basic housing was initially more important than quality, and the faith in finding “functional” solutions.

Between 1923 and 1933, during the Red Vienna period, Frank designed five large, socially owned apartment complexes (“Gemeindebauten”) as part of the SPÖ’s drive to build dignified housing for workers in the city. Ultimately, however, Frank championed an alternate housing policy in Vienna known as the settlement movement, illustrated in the Austrian Werkbundsiedlung Wien exhibition in 1932.

Werkbundsiedlung, 1932. (Photograph by Martin Gerlach / courtesy of Wien Museum)

Influenced by the British garden city movement, the settlement movement favored low or medium density residences with direct access to individual yards and gardens. These buildings were much closer to the kind of housing available to the city’s middle and upper classes. As Bojankin, Long, and Meder put it,

Where Frank departed from many of his contemporaries was his fervent hope that eventually it would be possible not just to provide adequate working-class housing, but also to raise the living standard of Vienna’s poor and disadvantaged to that of the bourgeoisie. He saw no reason why those who had been born or forced into privation could not be endowed with all of the advantages and trappings of middle-class existence. He also recognized that such a goal involved not only making better housing available but also offering increased access to education, healthcare, and more sophisticated leisure-time pursuits.

While the Viennese government commissioned far fewer settlements than Gemeindebauten, the settlement movement with its emphasis on quiet leisure would shape Frank’s thinking about design for the rest of his life.

Communal housing designed by Josef Frank, circa 1926. (Photograph by Martin Gerlach / courtesy of Wien Museum)

In 1933, the right-wing chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss dissolved Austria’s parliament and assumed the right to rule by decree, sparking a short-lived civil war between socialist and fascist militias. Sensing the rising danger for a Jewish lifelong socialist, Frank emigrated to Sweden in 1934.

There, Frank worked with Estrid Ericson, the founder of the interior design firm Svenskt Tenn, and he developed some of the most iconic designs of his career, including playful, colorful prints and inviting, comfortable furnishings for the modern home, many of which are still in production today.

Frank’s approach to a comfortable and enjoyable home sought to empower the inhabitant in support of individual, personal taste. He consistently tied his emphasis on comfort to the difficult life workers led. In “Modern Furnishings in the Home,” from 1928, he wrote,

Modern man, whose work is becoming increasingly strenuous and stressful, needs a home that is a great deal more cozy and comfortable than those of former times, so that he can find focused peace as quickly as possible. The home thus, is the absolute opposite of the workplace. […] The eye wants to relax, too, which is why it is best to avoid all those things one would find at the factory, office, etc….

The home is not a work of art; it does not have to be stirring, which would be the opposite of its true purpose. Uniformity and plainness foster restlessness, ornament and variety promote a sense of calm…. (translation by Kimi Lum)

This focus on restfulness reinforced Frank’s opposition to both the elaborate interiors of the Wiener Werkstätte and the sleek and empty machine-like aesthetic of the International style. This emphasis on quiet and comfort also explains his desire to build garden suburbs for worker housing rather than enormous, factory-like apartment buildings.

Josef Frank and Estrid Ericson design collaboration at (Svenskt Tenn website)

The New Work From Home Reality

With the failure of governments around the world to adequately address COVID-19, we’re increasingly living in a world where most people have two options: either you go to work, go home, and go almost nowhere else; or you work from home and you go almost nowhere else.

This simultaneous health and economic crisis comes on top of a grinding housing crisis that grows more acute each year. For the first time since the 1940s, a majority of American adults under thirty-four now live with their parents, while a third of adults of all ages live with roommates. That isn’t surprising, given that rents rose 70 percent between 2002 and 2019, while real wages rose only 6 percent.

Estimates vary, but one Stanford study found 42 percent of Americans in the labor force worked from home over the summer, while the Dallas Federal Reserve found at least 35 percent were working from home either full-time or part-time. And many companies are either considering or already deciding to make working from home an indefinite, even permanent policy. In any case, tens of millions of people are affected in the United States alone.

It is no longer just the aesthetics of wage labor invading the home, but for millions more people, work itself.

Of course, the home has long been the site of unpaid labor, done mostly by women. The disproportionate burden of family and household labor shouldered by many women, on top of maintaining a career, has led us to a twenty-first-century home that is very much a contested rather than contented space.

The fact that this double burden of paid and unpaid labor is now collapsing into one location for many women is all the more reason to consider how to give everyone a quiet, comfortable home, one with at least some space devoid of work.

In 1927, Josef Frank critiqued the aesthetic of the workplace invading our homes; today, that aesthetic has been joined by the anxious self-discipline about how to present oneself professionally.

The rise of videoconferencing in particular means that if you work from home, your boss probably gets to see inside your house on a regular basis. As an October New York Times article put it, “Many of us are now living with grown-up versions of the ‘I came to school naked’ nightmare: Texts to your girlfriend showing in your work chats. The nude self-portrait you painted popping up in a video chat on the wall behind you. Your collection of cannabis cookbooks appearing in the background of a video call with your boss.”

To some extent this is common sense: don’t let your boss see what you don’t want them to see. But just like so much of the professional world, it’s much easier for some people to follow the rules than others. Presenting yourself the way you want your boss to see you is much harder if you live in a small shared space with roommates or children are roaming around, where perhaps the only real private place is your bed. Some people have been driven to book hotel rooms, vacant apartments, or empty offices for video conferencing or just periods of uninterrupted focus.

As Josef Frank might have argued, we don’t have to live like this. It’s time to rethink how work and home life can coexist humanely in the twenty-first century — and how it can give people more freedom.

Designing for Freedom

That might mean something like the settlement movement Frank championed: housing with space to relax but not so much space that it breeds social isolation. In other words, we need housing with enough density to make public transit and a sense of community feasible, but with enough space and quiet to create a physical and mental separation between work and leisure.

Most new housing in the United States gets only one half or the other of this formula. In “hot” urban neighborhoods with dramatically increasing property values, developers push dense, expensive construction — often targeted at transient young people — to maximize the profit they can wring from each scarce square foot.

While increasing density sometimes makes sense from an urban planning perspective, in practice many such developments strain neighborhood infrastructure and contribute to overcrowding. They can also disrupt or destroy communities, as traditional gathering places and longtime residents face evictions and rising costs that make life much more difficult.

On the other hand, “McMansion” urban sprawl results in car-dependent neighborhoods on formerly undeveloped land. There, residents have quiet and plenty of space, but they pay for it with physical and often social isolation. Such developments also damage the environment by destroying wild land and necessitating more cars and roads.

Neither of these models is economically or environmentally sustainable. And the work-from-home era has shown us something else about these two types of housing much more sharply: they are simply unpleasant for a lot of people who have to spend a lot of time in them.

Garden city settlements of the type Frank favored could provide a happy medium: enough space for home workers to keep work away from home life; enough density to enable a sense of community; and the efficient provision of education, leisure, and family care, helping to ease the double burden of paid and unpaid labor that has intensified recently for many people. All of that adds up to more freedom.

Of course it isn’t just people working from home who could benefit from such developments. This new reality of working life simply makes long-standing problems with for-profit design and development more urgent.

Even if a precise replica of the settlement movement isn’t the entire solution, architects and interior designers thinking about what it means that millions more people might be working from home forever can take inspiration from Frank’s perspective. Without some way to separate work space from living space, a place for the eye to rest, the risk is that stressed-out workers let their whole home become work, forever.

As a socialist, Frank would also have argued that design can’t fix the housing crisis, the pandemic, or the stress that working from home presents to many people. The Red Vienna government showed that design for the common good is only as powerful as the political power behind it.

As long as development and design are driven primarily by profit, and only secondarily by social and environmental needs, even the best design solutions will be limited. We’ll only have an approach to housing and design that benefits people over profits — that focuses on freedom — when we change who wields power.

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Michelle Jackson-Beckett is senior lecturer in design history and theory at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, and the archivist of the Victor Papanek Foundation. She is a doctoral candidate in design history at Bard Graduate Center in New York.

Ben Beckett is an American writer in Vienna.

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