Ron Frank, whose knowledge and savvy marketing of modern design helped keep his family's iconic Long Beach furnishings store in the vanguard of a powerful movement for 50 years, has died. He was 84.
Until Frank Bros. came along in the late 1930s, Long Beach wasn't known as a hotbed of modernism. But from their store on Long Beach Boulevard, the Franks — starting with Ron's father Maurice and uncle Ed — educated a broad public about the progressive aesthetic behind midcentury modern style.
Ron Frank took over the business in the mid-1960s and kept it on the leading edge for the next three decades with sophisticated promotion and marketing. He was particularly known for mounting playful in-store exhibitions that showcased the latest trends, including plastic, vinyl and inflatable furniture as well as the work of his friends Charles and Ray Eames.
"He had a thoughtful way of getting people interested in contemporary design," said Cara Mullio, who wrote "Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis" with Jennifer Volland and is co-curating an exhibition on Frank Bros. at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum that will open in 2017.
"His approach wasn't just here's some furniture … in a stagnant display. It was 'Let's have Eames chairs flying from the ceiling. Let's engage people in a very three-dimensional way,'" Mullio said. "Ron Frank definitely had a business sensibility, but coupled with that he was very creative."
Frank was the third generation of his family in the furniture business. His grandfather, Louis Frank, sold new and used furniture and appliances with his son Maurice at Frank & Son, founded in 1930 in a converted bus barn.
Frank Bros. was born in 1938 when the elder Frank retired and his other son, Ed, joined Maurice and persuaded him to focus on contemporary furnishings.
Their store — one of the first in the country to showcase Scandinavian furniture — became an engine for spreading the modernist ethic. Through Ed Frank's friendship with John Entenza, the publisher and editor of the influential magazine Arts & Architecture, Frank Bros. provided the furnishings for the Case Study houses, the influential experiments in residential design directed by Entenza and executed by such leading architects as Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano and Pierre Koenig.
Ron Frank joined the business after completing his military service in 1954. In 1965 he took over the retail operation when his uncle Ed left to run Moreddi, the manufacturing and importing division.
By then, Frank was well-grounded in every aspect of the business. "He had chores there as a kid," said his daughter, Marni Good, who confirmed her father's death Wednesday at his Long Beach home from Parkinson's disease.
Born in Long Beach on Jan. 31, 1931, Frank attended Polytechnic High School before earning a business degree from USC in 1952. He spent two years in the Army, stationed at Ft. Ord and later in Germany, where he worked as a typist and cartoonist for a military newspaper.
At Frank Bros., he found an artistic outlet in producing witty copy for ads that ran in Arts & Architecture. In the late 1960s he began organizing shows that attracted a diverse clientele from around the Southland.
One of his shows, "The Emotional Eye" in 1970, featured a 6-foot-wide beanbag chair in a room painted black. The exhibits were a way to show people that furniture was about more than function.
"He had the ability to really give the user an enjoyment of life," said Peter Loughrey, the founder and owner of Los Angeles Modern Auctions, which specializes in modern art and design. "If you knew Ron, he always had a smile, a twinkle in his eye. That wasn't lost on Frank Bros. clients. It wasn't just an Eames chair you were buying, but you were buying a kind of optimism. If you were shopping at Frank Bros., you were shopping for optimism."
Frank's exhibitions and other innovations drew customers who were well-heeled as well as many who sought sophisticated decor on smaller budgets. For the latter group he introduced a layaway program and sold good copies of designer furnishings next to the originals.
"We were probably the only store in the United States where you could have a genuine Eames chair and a copy" side by side, he said in a video interview for the Getty Research Institute in 2013.
Many customers chose the original if they could afford it, but Frank was happy if someone on a schoolteacher's salary, for instance, chose the less expensive knock-off.
"He would give choices so that people who were very interested in contemporary design but couldn't afford it could still have it," Nancy Frank, his wife of 53 years, said in an interview Thursday. "It was very progressive at the time."
Besides his wife and daughter, Frank is survived by a son, Brian Maurice Frank; and four grandchildren.
In 1982 Frank sold the business to the Danica furniture company. He retained ownership of the building, but it was destroyed in a fire during the 1992 riots that followed the Rodney King verdict.
Frank preserved hundreds of Frank Bros. catalogs, ads, photographs, correspondence and other ephemera spanning the 52-year history of the family business. In 2009 he donated the archive to the Getty Research Institute, which regards the material as an important addition to its project documenting the tastemakers of midcentury design.
"We didn't have a tremendous amount of material about the interior design and vision," said Marcia Reed, chief curator at the Getty institute. "This really gives the back story on the vision that Ed, Maurice and Ron Frank put forward."