Midcentury Architect Albert Frey Also Designed Furniture

He may be best known for his simplistic, modernist structures, but custom furnishings played an integral role in his designs.

Leilani Marie Labong Home & Design

Posing behind a suspended dining table at Frey House I, 1956.

In 1931, when architect Albert Frey designed the Aluminaire House — a socialism-inspired prototype of a prefab domicile — the Swiss transplant didn’t stop at its lofty modular spaces, steel posts, ribbon windows, and aluminum cladding. Frey also designed a little-known collection of furniture to align with the Aluminaire’s progressive virtues. 

Frey’s never-manufactured trappings for Aluminaire exist only in archival sketches. A dining table with a retractable linoleum or rubber top would have, as Frey scholar Joseph Rosa describes, “rolled up like a window shade” into the base of a glass cabinet. The cabinet reminds Jon Michael Schwarting, co-founder of the Aluminaire Foundation, of “the pie display at a diner.” A vanity bench with a stripped-down, French empire-style base was specified with a saddle of “endless towel,” or what looks like a terry-cloth fan belt, to keep things tidy. The “bedroom stool” of Frey’s imagination was engineered with a spiral base. 

For many architects, limiting their design and drafting skills to buildings may not only be akin to damming a roaring torrent of creativity, but also an issue of pride. After all, bequeathing an entire aesthetic and ideology to mortal clients can be a chilling prospect. The New York Times cited the plight of Frey forebears Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier: “They defined a new architectural style by experimenting with innovative materials and construction techniques to create light, open-plan buildings,” the article explains. “Yet most furniture was still made by hand in the dark, ornate 19th-century aesthetic. Unable to find furniture that suited their architecture, the early modernists designed their own.”

Schwarting and Rosa agree that Frey’s collection for Aluminaire was more erudite and experimental than playful or quirky, attributing his interest in furniture to an early-career stint as a draftsman in Le Corbusier’s Paris office from 1927 to 1930. “While Albert was there, he would have seen the furniture prototypes by Le Corbusier and [Parisian designer] Charlotte Perriand,” Schwarting says. While a 1931 sketch specifies that the inflatable seat and lounge in Frey’s Aluminaire collection were “based on rubber toys and pads,” the forms are clearly inspired by Perriand and Le Corbusier’s iconic chaise and Grand Confort cube chair from 1928.

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The architect sits at his built-in drafting/kitchen table at Frey House II. 


Albert Frey sketch of a spiral bedroom stool for Aluminaire.


“Albert designed mostly convertible spaces for Aluminaire,” says Rosa, author of the 1990 monograph  Albert Frey,  Architect. “The furniture wasn’t integral to the space; it was floating.” 

A round dining table designed for his first desert residence, the lamentably demolished Frey House I, eschewed a traditional base for the technology of bridges. “Instead of having bulky legs to support it, I actually used clothesline-type, plastic-covered metal cable,” Frey once explained of the suspended piece. “Then I figured out the triangulation, so the table wouldn’t move.” The home’s peculiarly periscopic second story was accessed by a staircase also hoisted up by tensile forces.

“Albert was invested in spaces that optimized efficiency and engineering,” says Jennifer Golub, author of  Albert Frey Houses 1 + 2 (1999). “It all feeds into his desire to achieve weightlessness and transparency in his work, even to the point of making things disappear.” Frey’s fellow pioneer of desert modernism, Rudolph Schindler, once suggested that seamlessness was the holy grail of modernists, or at least one of their commandments: “[It should be] impossible to tell where the house ends and the furniture begins.”

Arguably, built-ins are the most efficient way to forge an alignment of architecture and interior design. From Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House to Frey’s mountainside residence, Frey House II, many archetypes of desert modernism feature these permanent fixtures, the organizers of life’s messes, the hospitable interfaces between people and their spaces.

“Virtually everything in Frey II is built-in,” says Sidney Williams, the former curator of architecture and design at Palm Springs Art Museum, the home’s steward since 1998, when Frey died at the age of 95. “In that way, Frey II is really like a ship. It’s very well thought out, very compact. There’s no clutter. There’s no major piece of freestanding furniture that gets moved around. I think Albert really enjoyed designing that way.” An early influence might have been the glorious built-in, gray-tile chaise — also Perriand-inspired — installed next to a sunken bath of glacial-blue mosaic in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a project near Paris that Frey worked on.

Frey II’s interior built-ins, crafted from Philippine mahogany, include a long worktable that juts out from the home’s signature accessory, a jagged San Jacinto boulder, and a central unit that incorporates side-by-side sofas, a display shelf, a headboard, and even a built-in record player and stereo console. 

Outside, the architect reprised the poolside concrete chairs from Frey I, which appear as if  seat forms were pushed through wet cement from a subterranean vault. Such continuity of material creates a kind of camouflage — a spin on Frey’s pursuit of transparency. 

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Furnishings sketched for the Aluminaire include a bathroom stool with an “endless towel” seat and a blocky rubber chair.

Built-ins and nonmanufactured ideas aside, Frey’s furniture occasionally comes up for auction or materializes in high-end design showrooms. These examples of plywood Bauhausian blockiness — which are not unlike the pieces later designed by Marfa, Texas–based artist Donald Judd, notes Rosa, drawing a parallel between modernists of two different deserts and generations — seem to have been mostly extracted, like teeth, from their firmly rooted pockets at either Frey I or the Palm Springs residence of the architect’s longtime companion, Elise Wolfe. 

Rosa ironically describes these utilitarian originals, from a boxy bedroom cabinet with peekaboo cubbies to a slender sofa module complete with side tables, as “couture,” which may speak to their rarity in the world, but not necessarily to Frey’s perspective about furniture or even houses. “He would say, ‘Well, I could always make another one,’ ” Rosa says. “It’s not that Albert wasn’t precious about his work, it’s just that he was very Zen about everything.”

enter the frey

Albert Frey: Inventive Modernist
Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center hosts a retrospective on Albert Frey and his profound influence on Coachella Valley architecture Jan. 13–June 3. See rare and many previously unexhibited architectural models, drawings, films, photographs, and furniture. 

Frey House II Tour
Tour Frey’s longtime mountainside residence during Modernism Week, Feb. 15–25, then use your ticket for free admission to both the Palm Springs Art Museum and the Architecture and Design Center. Limited twilight tours are also available and include a glass of bubbly. 

Albert Frey: A Symposium
In partnership with Palm Springs Architectural Alliance, Palm Springs Art Museum presents a symposium celebrating Frey’s work during Modernism Week on Feb. 24 at the Annenberg Theater. Speakers include Paul Goldberger, Brad Dunning, Barbara Lamprecht, and Joseph Rosa.

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Frey House II.