Frey sketched St. Mark’s Square in Venice while touring Italy in 1925 Collection of Palm Springs Art Museum, Albert Frey Collection

Albert Frey Illustrations Show Brilliance Beyond Architecture

Everybody knows Albert Frey’s architecture. A passion for colorful abstractions on paper prompts the reevaluation of his broader artistry.

Ronald Ahrens Arts & Entertainment

Frey sketched St. Mark’s Square in Venice while touring Italy in 1925 Collection of Palm Springs Art Museum, Albert Frey Collection

Interpretations of island life while visiting Hawaii.

It helps to show up in a new town with a good line. Albert Frey showed up in Palm Springs in 1934 with mad ideas about buildings and a line for figure drawing that went back to Michelangelo. At 31, he had already contributed to architectural modernism in New York and shifted his focus toward a search for what he termed “a living architecture.” Writing to Le Corbusier, the towering figure of modernism who served as his mentor, Frey described the opportunity to practice the profession in “a magnificent, natural environment” where rustic style and Spanish colonial revival predominated: “Moreover, the sun, the pure air, and the simple forms of the desert create perfect conditions for architecture.”

Frey came from a cultured family in Zurich. His father, Albert Sr., wanted to be an architect but settled for running the family’s printing business and painting en plein air in his spare time. (One of his landscapes now hangs in Frey House II in Palm Springs.) Ida, Frey’s mother, was musically inclined.

After completing architectural training in 1924 at the Institute of Technology in Winterthur, Frey traveled to Italy to absorb the varied design styles and landmark buildings, which he documented in a sketchbook. Preserving the essence of structure and space, his sparse interpretations of St. Mark’s Square in Venice would have scandalized Canaletto; but a mission of modernism was to free the mind of the Renaissance.

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“Hawaiian Moon,” sketched on a 1959 trip to the Big Island.

“Frey brings everything down to an essentialist characteristic when he sketches existing space,” says Joseph Rosa, author of Albert Frey, Architect. “That informs his way of thinking but also reflects his way of thinking.”

The following year, Frey moved to Brussels, where he found work in the office of Eggericx & Verwilghen and perfected his rendering style. His spare time was for figure-drawing and learning English. He went to Paris in 1928 to present his portfolio at 34 Rue de Sèvres. Le Corbusier’s office manager had a look and affirmed, “We could use you.” For almost two years, Frey imbibed the wisdom of the master, who obsessed over scale and proportion and would develop the Modulor, a system for codifying such mathematical matters.

“I mean, that goes back to Michelangelo using the torso,” Rosa says. “What people seem to think is that those who were minimalist in their works could never do anything more detailed. However, if you master the figurative, like the woman standing, you then can do abstraction of that torso because you’ve mastered the figurative character of the body.”

Frey sailed for New York in 1930 as the Great Depression gripped world commerce. Finding his way to the side of architect and editor A. Lawrence Kocher, he achieved notoriety for experiments with prefabricated and low-cost houses, such as 1931’s Aluminaire, constructed mostly of aluminum and glass. (The historic East Coast structure was dismantled and donated to Palm Springs Art Museum; it will soon be reassembled and restored in Palm Springs.)

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Frey sketched St. Mark’s Square in Venice while touring Italy in 1925.


Colored pencil drawings circa 1959 include a view of Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs.

When Frey eventually arrived in the Coachella Valley on a commission from Kocher’s brother, he decided to stay.

As the Swiss architect’s career flourished, he continued drawing — even for pleasure. Part of the challenge in the early days of modernism was integrating geometric and organic shapes. Sketches lend insight to his thought process as a designer. At the bottom of a 1959 pencil sketch of abstracted leaves, Frey notes that the forms might be suitable for reproduction in sheet metal to use as structural decoration. A spherical abstraction of plumeria — 12 small yellow circles floating inside a green orb — nods to the architect’s penchant for a palette inspired by nature: the sage green exterior paint and yellow deck of Frey’s 1955 Cree House in Cathedral City, for example, hues he used again in his own Palm Springs home, Frey House II, completed in 1964.

In other works, Frey returned to figure drawing and landscapes.

“I don’t think he ever exhibited his artwork,” says Brad Dunning, guest curator of an upcoming Frey retrospective at Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center. “It might be unusual to see his artwork because he kept it rather private.”

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“Hawaiian Melting Pot” illustrated by Albert Frey.


Three colored-pencil indulgences from a 1959 visit to Hawaii are of particular interest. “Hawaiian Melting Pot” depicts a row of female figures seated together on the beach, facing away from the viewer toward the midday sky. In a mix of vibrant hues and earth tones, always depending on rhythmic use of line, the artist fancifully yet admiringly reveals a sisterhood in a moment of solidarity and repose. It recalls the late critic David Gebhard’s citation of Frey’s “machine images [which] express a sense of enjoyment, delight, and play more akin to the popular science fiction of the comic strip than to the world of high-art modernism.”

“What people seem to think is that those who were minimalist in their works could never do anything more detailed.”

In “Hawaiian Moon,” the quarter-moon is a bright mango with a dark side of red. It dangles and ripens between the trunks of two curving palms, conveying the sensuality of island life.

The third piece, “Tropical Foliage,” transforms dense flora into sensible shapes. Intricate op-art forms — leaf-like lines with full and half circles in three unequal panes — and adventurous handling of color recall Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s Orphic Cubism of Frey’s adolescence, still entrancing today.

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Albert Frey’s impression of plumeria, a flower native to Mexico and Central America, whose green and yellow tones appear frequently in the architect’s designs.

Adding a new filter over Frey’s achievement in desert modernism, the drawings make a case for a broader reassessment of his artistry. See them in Albert Frey: Inventive Modernist, Jan. 13 to June 3, 2024, at the Architecture and Design Center in Palm Springs.