Frank Bros.: The Store that Modernized Modern

January 28–April 9, 2017

Celebrating a little-known chapter in the history of California modernism, Frank Bros.: The Store that Modernized Modern relates the story of Southern California’s largest and most prominent mid-century retailer of modern furniture and design. Based in Long Beach from 1938–1982, Frank Bros. embodied the optimistic post-war ethos of the American consumer, bringing fresh and exciting designs to the public not only through well-sourced inventory but with an innovative program of advertising, mailers, exhibitions and off-site custom interiors. As an exemplar of California modernism, Frank Bros. fueled and shaped the market for good design.

Frank Bros.: The Store that Modernized Modern investigates the legacy of a store that blurred the boundaries between art and commerce and functioned as a laboratory for new ideas in interior design, marketing and public relations. Guest-curated by Cara Mullio and Jennifer M. Volland, the exhibition draws largely from the Frank Brothers archives at the Getty Research Institute and the Frank family personal collection. Highlights include original artwork and graphic material, newly uncovered Julius Shulman color photographs, and furniture designs by Neal Small, Stacy Dukes, and Charles and Ray Eames. 

Taking her cues from the Frank Bros. aesthetic, Los Angeles-based designer Marci Boudreau infuses the exhibition space with a bright palette, bold typography, and dynamic juxtapositions. The exhibition opens with an extensive timeline designed with the graphic panache long-associated with the Frank Bros. name, and situates the company against the milieu of post-war America.

In 1938, brothers Maurice and Edward Frank made the brave decision to rededicate their father’s furniture outlet to exclusively modern design, positioning the store to become the primary retailer for some of mid-century’s most recognizable names, including Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, Van Keppel-Green, Bruno Mathsson, Paul McCobb and Knoll. Selling “good design at every price,” the brothers proved to be masters at presentation, seizing every opportunity to educate their customer and promote the new casual, yet sophisticated California lifestyle. They displayed the latest modern furniture designs in imaginative vignettes, and offered interior design services, Sunday hours, and one-stop shopping — including gifts and accessories, upholstery, floor and window coverings, and custom-designed furniture. Regular mailings and advertisements featuring clever text and colorful, bold graphics became a Frank Bros. signature. Beyond the store itself, Frank Bros. designed interiors for model homes, county fairs and more than half the Case Study houses featured in Arts & Architecture magazine. Moving in 1947 from downtown Long Beach to an airy showroom at a freeway-convenient site, the store made itself accessible to a wider clientele from Los Angeles and Orange counties. An elegant 1963 Edward Killingsworth showroom redesign increased floor space to 22,000 square feet, and featured a new entrance with floor-to-ceiling glass and an expansive atrium-like interior, furthering the store’s “must see” appeal.

As Julius Shulman noted, “In the 1950s, everybody that had a modern house went as a mecca to Frank Bros. in Long Beach.”

Maurice’s son Ron Frank took over the business in 1965, adding a number of innovations, including engaging in-store exhibitions, a preferred-client program, and eye-catching hot pink and orange packaging. Ron also updated the accessories department, augmenting both the high- and low-end offerings, extending the Frank Bros. mandate that good design be available for every budget.

In keeping with Frank Bros. precedents for powerful merchandising, Ron Frank initiated a program of exhibitions in 1967. These themed shows were enhanced with special lighting and theatrics designed to elicit an emotional response in the buying public. Exhibitions were coordinated as a complete design package that included newspaper and magazine advertisements, marketing tie-ins, invitation graphics, even the serving of refreshments. Combining photographic documentation with select furnishings, this section of the exhibition at CSULB portrays Neal Small (1969), known as the “Prince of Plastic” for his pioneering pieces in Lucite and Plexiglas; Charles Eames (1968), with molded plastic chairs dangling from the ceiling; and New Forms (1969) highlighting the sculptural qualities of plastic furniture designs. See-Thru (1967) demonstrates how transparent objects can impart openness and flow to smaller residential spaces, featuring Phillip Orenstein’s inflatable lounge chair and playful pillows.

Frank Bros. at Home

Curated in conjunction with Beth Rayburn, CSULB graduate student in the Department of Art History, Frank Bros. at Home shows how the ideology of Frank Bros. translated to the personal living environment of Ron and Nancy Frank. Featuring furniture, objects, and accessories, highlights include a hand-printed tapestry by Stig Lindberg, ceramic pieces by Bjørn Wiinblad, and an Emilio Pucci-designed Rosenthal ‘Piemonte’ tea set on a Hagafors children’s table. Ron and Nancy, like many of their customers, represented the very demographic that was attracted to Frank Bros.: young families interested in new ways of living.

Frank Bros.: The Store that Modernized Modern is accompanied by a fully illustrated color publication by Cara Mullio and Jennifer M. Volland. Published by Black Dog Publishing (London, UK), the book will be released January 2017.