Third son of banker Leon Frank and of Nanette Loewi daughter of a rabbi from Philadelphia, Jean-Michel Frank was born in Paris February 28th 1895. When at Lycée Janson de Sailly where he was a dedicated pupil, he made several important encounters: Léon Pierre Quint future head of Sagittaire publishing company and René Crevel who will become an important figure of Surrealism. It is with them that Jean-Michel Frank makes his first esthetic experiences and encounters the works of Marcel Proust and André Gide. World War1 immerse his family into tragedy. Being of German nationality, his parents are under house arrest while his two elder brothers, as himself born French, leave for the battlefront on the French side.
In 1915 mourning hits the family: the two brothers are killed while fighting and his father commit suicide. Alone with his mother Jean-Michel Frank works for a moment for a businessman but he is mainly interested by the intellectual and artistic world. As far back as 1918 he become close friend to Pierre Drieu la Rochelle and Louis Aragon. For them, he improvises himself decorator.
In 1921, he does up Drieu La Rochelle bachelor's flat by painting the walls white, getting everything out leaving only a few furniture and a glass cubic vase discovered in an electrician workshop. Charles Peignot the printer and founder of UAM and the English publisher Nancy Cunard are seduced by his ascetic esthetic and patronize him to create for their home minimal decoration with almost no furniture. Very quickly, he creates with the help of cabinetmaker Adolphe Chanaux, a range of furniture and lights which shapes are minimal not to say schematic. Unconcerned by the practice and tradition of cabinet making, Frank introduces materials to that day unused in furniture making: plaster stone, terra cotta, mica, graphite, shagreen, straw, parchment, and/or treated in a very original way as sanded or scraped oak. Seduced by his art, Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard commissioned lights with Chinese or African primitive look.
In 1926, after creating for the Noailles a smoking room with walls covered with parchment and a boudoir in straw marquetry, he becomes a figure of the “tout-Paris” and a most sort after decorator. The Pecci-Blunt, the Gunzburg, Cole Porter, Gaston Bergery became his regular clients. Even François Mauriac is fascinated by his esthetic and calls it “an esthetic of renouncement”.
In 1930, Jean-Michel who is now an established professional decorator becomes the head of the Chanaux Company as artistic manager. From then on, he brings together talented artists from whom he had already commissioned a few creations. For 10 years they will be associated to his work, they are Alberto Giacometti, Paul Rodocanachi, Jean Hugo, Emilio Terry and Christian Bérard. Later his style becomes less radical. He uses mediterranean blue colors inspired by Bérard. He creates furniture playing with neoclassical, baroque or Napoleon III style reminiscence. He utilizes more classical materials such as ivory, ebony or mahogany. It's an immediate success. Fashion designers Lucien Lelong, Robert Piguet, Marcel Rochas and Elsa Schiaparelli have their showrooms decorated by Jean-Michel. Play righter Edouard Bourdet choose him to make the settings of his plays first at the theater de la Michodière then at la Comédie Française. Decorators from all over the world buy his furniture in quantity. His international success is completed with commissions from multi-millionaires argentine Jorge Born and american Nelson Rockefeller. But once again it is war that bowls over Jean-Michel Frank destiny. In September 1939, Frank & Chanaux Company closes down for good.
In July 1940, Jean-Michel flees from France to Argentina. There he renew with his trade and has numerous contracts. After a few months, he moves to New York where completely desperate, on march 8 1941, he kills himself ending abruptly a brilliant career.