Above: A selection of design pieces by Alexander Girard. Photo: Vitra
“Art is only art when it is synonymous with living.”
Copy via Design Within Reach
There are two certitudes commonly assigned to mid century designer Alexander Girard: He was the least well-known of the great designers at Herman Miller in the 1950s and 1960s, and he was the greatest colorist and textile designer of modern time. Although seemingly contradictory, both statements are accurate and are a reflection of Girard and the time period in which he worked. During his career, Girard energized the furniture designs of his Herman Miller colleagues with a new, vibrant color palette and an oeuvre of folk-inspired textiles. He was the first modern designer to define textiles as being more than just functional and to further emphasize form through the application of color and pattern.
Born in 1907 in New York City to an American mother and an Italian father, Girard moved back to Italy with his family shortly after his birth. Raised in Florence, Girard was educated as an architect at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. In 1932, Girard returned to the United States and opened his first design office in New York City. Five years later, he moved again, to Detroit, where he opened a second studio. His career breakthrough came in 1949, when he was chosen to design the Detroit Institute of Arts For Modern Living exhibition, which focused on the design of common items and included the first public display of Charles and Ray Eames’ molded plywood chairs. In 1952, Charles Eames recruited Girard to become Herman Miller’s director of design for the company’s textile division. Girard’s tenure at Herman Miller continued into the 1970s and resulted in more than 300 vibrantly hued fabric and wallpaper designs.
One of Girard’s most impressive body of work can be found in the Miller House located in Columbus, Indiana and designed by Eero Saarinen in 1953. Saarinen called on Girard to create a bold palette with result being a middle eastern-influenced casual style with playful forms and colors. From the carpeting, curtains, throw pillows and upholstery Girard’s signature style can be found through the home.
In 1965, Girard was chosen to redesign Braniff Airlines’ visual persona, a project that, when finished, consisted of 17,543 modifications, including changes to plane interiors, logos, stationery, condiment packages, dishes, blankets and playing cards, among numerous other aspects. The result was an airline the likes of which no one had previously seen.
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In 1967, Herman Miller introduced a line of seating by Girard, based on his work for Braniff. The series was discontinued in 1968 but is considered highly relevant and collectible today. Girard’s final design for Herman Miller was a series called Environmental Enrichment Panels, comprising decorative fabric panels that helped ward off the office doldrums.
In 1962, Girard and his wife established the Girard Foundation in Santa Fe to manage their art collection that numbered over 100,000 pieces, including toys, dolls, icons, and other ethnic expressions. Girard’s design work was heavily influenced by his passion for folk art. In 1978, Girard contributed his immense collection to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States. The museum opened to the public in 1953 and has gained national and international recognition as home to the world’s largest collection of folk art.
The Girard Wing houses the popular permanent exhibition, Multiple Visions: A Common Bond, which showcases folk art, popular art, toys and textiles from more than 100 nations. Opening in 1982, this unorthodox and delightful exhibition was designed and installed by Girard, and remains popular with the public.
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