NEW YORK — Designer Paul Theodore Frankl (1886-1958) is closely associated with the Art Deco movement and his furniture from this period, particularly his Skyscraper series, is iconic. More accessible and collectible to a broader segment of the market, however, are his post-war era pieces, from his metal furnishings of the 1930s to his cork-topped furniture of the 1940s.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Frankl studied architecture in Germany before settling in the United States in the spring of 1914, mere months before World War I began.
In the 1920s, Frankl set up shop in New York City and launched Frankl Galleries in midtown on 48th Street. His Art Deco furniture was immediately popular and merged his European-born perspective with a keen passion for American design, helping shape the look of American modernism for the next several decades.
“There is a distinction with Paul Frankl,” said Richard Wright, CEO of Rago/Wright. “He is one of the earliest American Art Deco designers working in the ‘20s in New York City, so there is that material, but then in the ‘40s he breaks and goes biomorphic and has a second career with this post-war, very ‘40s style work.” The most famous pieces from this era are Frankl’s cork-topped furnishings, he added.
A survey of auction results shows a kind of split in the market for Frankl’s work, and two distinct collecting audiences. “The top auction results often are for the earlier Art Deco work, but then you just have a lot of nice-value items from the post-war period, with the biomorphic tables leading the way. It’s a tale of two cities,” he said. “There’s a broader and deeper market for the post-war biomorphic material, and I think it is a real connoisseurs’ market for the Art Deco and decorative designs that were produced in much smaller numbers.”
Frankl’s earliest furniture designs in his own studio were not mass-produced nor widely distributed, but by the 1940s, he was working with larger furniture manufacturers such as Widdicomb. His work then was made and distributed on a larger scale.
His most sought-after Art Deco-era pieces are those from his Skyscraper series, which is scarce today on the secondary market. While the French iteration of Art Deco furniture was often luxurious, the American iteration was more machine-aged and almost mechanistic in design, Wright noted. “So you have the Skyscraper series and it’s literally drawings from the New York skyline. The furniture is echoing the absolutely rapidly changing landscape of modernity that was happening in America at the time,” he said. “It’s museum-worthy furniture produced in relatively small numbers with quite a bit of variation. A lot of pieces are seemingly almost unique, and that furniture does not come up on the market very often.”
The collecting base for museum-quality Art Deco works by Frankl has become smaller, but still shows up for standout pieces such as a circa-1927 Skyscraper occasional table that Wright auctioned for $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018.
A Skyscraper table in lacquered and painted wood, also circa 1927, outperformed its high estimate by several multiples, bringing $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Toomey & Co. Auctioneers.
The evolution of Frankl’s design process can be seen in an early one-off bookcase that is clearly a precursor to his Skyscraper furniture. Despite some condition issues, the historically important piece made $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023 at Wright. The lacquered wood and patinated brass bookcase, dating to circa 1925 and featuring 10 divided compartments and two drawers, was designed and hand-built by Frankl at his upstate New York cabin in Bearsville, N.Y.
A later version can be seen in the mahogany and lacquered wood Skyscraper bookcase that realized $18,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Neal Auction Company.
“I think for his later designs, the market is very strong,” said Wright, adding, “We have sold a lot of his cork-topped coffee tables and they do very well.” Among his most sought-after and high-performing biomorphic tables are his Big Foot cork veneer and walnut table, having three legs and produced initially for the Johnson Furniture Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Also known as the Model 5028 table, an example of the Big Foot attained €52,000 ($55,772) plus the buyer’s premium at Piasa in June 2022.
Besides tables, Frankl seating has also performed well on the market. An important pair of 1930s custom lounge cork and upholstered chairs went out at $42,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2017 at Rago Arts and Auction Center.
At first glance, New York skyscrapers seem to be all about vertical lines, with an emphasis on their soaring heights. Look again, and the horizontalism becomes apparent with the building’s series of horizontal planes and lines. The same is true of Frankl’s designs, which made the best use of his architectural background and ushered in a new approach to furniture. He cemented his legacy in American modernism through his reliance on unusual materials such as Bakelite, cork and plywood, as well as his innovative approach and his emphasis on clean lines and functionality, which was pleasing to the eye. Such concepts never go out of style.