In 1964 NBC visited the Girard residence in Santa Fe for a segment of a television special. Ever since textile, furniture, and interior designer Alexander Girard and his family had moved to New Mexico in 1953, their adobe house and its lavish decor had repeatedly been covered by architecture journals and popular magazines such as Vogue and Look. Every renovation or addition prompted new articles. For Girard, his own house was not only a showcase of his work but also a laboratory in which to test his design ideas prior to realizing them in commissioned projects. “We are guinea pigs in a guinea pig house,” he explained to journalist Aline Saarinen, widow of the late architect Eero Saarinen, who interviewed him for the TV show, titled The Art of Collecting. Given the theme, Girard, was a natural choice. By that point he had amassed a folk art collection of roughly sixty thousand objects. A small part of the collection was on display in the house (see Fig. 9); the rest was kept in a storage building that Girard had erected across the street. Asked how he made his choices when buying folk art objects, he explained: “If in doubt, I buy them all.”
Folk art was a passion Girard shared with his friends and fellow designers Charles and Ray Eames and other contemporaries such as the weaver Jack Lenor Larsen. Working in a highly industrialized country, these designers saw folk art as one of the last resorts for the craft of making things—making them simply and making them as part of a community and a living culture. And Girard took a love of folk art further than others: it would influence almost every aspect of his career in design.
Born in New York in 1907 to an American mother and French-Italian father, Girard grew up in Florence until the early 1920s. With a degree in architecture from the Architecture Association School of Architecture in London, he moved to New York in 1932, where he established himself as an interior designer, working for private clients and furnishing restaurants and cafés. Five years later he and his wife, Susan, moved to Grosse Point, Michigan. In this wealthy Detroit suburb he ran his own design store and added a number of modern buildings and exhibitions to his creative portfolio.
If one compares photographs of the different apartments and houses Girard lived in between the 1930s and 1960s, one gets a sense of how his folk art collection slowly took possession of the living spaces. The collection included figurines and building models from Mexico, toys from Latin America and Europe, textiles from India, kachina dolls, birdcages, masks, juvenile theaters, nativities, cut-paper designs from Poland, and needlework samplers inherited from his grandfather.
As the collection grew, Girard’s passion for folk art took on more and more of a key role in his work— never directly, but in spirit. In 1951 Girard was hired by furniture manufacturer Herman Miller as director of its new textile division. Over the next twenty years he created more than three hundred different textile designs for the company—many collections based on simple geometric patterns such as stripes, circles, or checkers, others on organic motifs borrowed from nature like leaves or flowers, and still others that played with typographical elements. For his repeats and motifs Girard often took his cues from folk art textiles, as in his striped Mexicotton fabrics, which he had manufactured by artisans in Mexico. His Environmental Enrichment Panels showing universal human symbols, such as a heart (Fig. 3) or a clover leaf, are a nod to pop art. By focusing on the archetypal qualities of these motifs and by way of abstraction, Girard managed to give his designs a modern yet timeless quality. His daring color combinations were also inspired by folk art. And this mastery of color served as one of his main design tools, most prominently exemplified in his designs for Braniff International Airways in 1965.
Girard regarded a domestic interior as a stage with moving props: never finished and always a work in progress. A case in point is the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, a project on which he worked in collaboration with Eero Saarinen from 1954 to 1957. Girard created the house’s soon-to-be-famous seating pit (Fig. 4), an elaborate storage and display wall, and many custom textile treatments. For the clients Xenia and Irwin Miller, he also became a kind of long-term consultant, advising them on every detail of the house’s furnishings, including many pieces that he loaned or sold to them from his folk art collection.
Girard also created La Fonda del Sol, a restaurant that opened its doors in the Time & Life Building in New York in 1960, offering Latin American cuisine in a joyful atmosphere that resembled a Mexican village during a fiesta (Fig. 5). La Fonda was a Girard Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. He designed everything from the floor plan, to the placemats and tableware, to the uniforms of the waiters—in collaboration with Rudi Gernreich (Fig. 7) — to the matchboxes (Fig. 6) and the wrapping paper for the sugar cubes. He designed forty variations of the restaurant’s bright sun logo. While the Eameses made films on toys and folk art—most famously Day of the Dead (1957), documenting the annual celebrations of the dia de los muertos in Mexico—Girard used his folk art collection as working material for decoration and exhibitions. In his later career, exhibitions of his folk art became more and more important to Girard, who oversaw every detail. He had been fascinated by Italian nativity scenes as a child, and the Nativity exhibition he devised for Santa Fe and Kansas City, in 1961 and 1962, respectively, presented 170 nativity scenes from all over the world (see Fig. 10). For his Magic of a People exhibition at the Hemisfair in San Antonio (1968), he selected more than ten thousand works of folk art from Central and South America to create forty-one elaborate dioramas, showing biblical themes as well as scenes from daily life.
During these years, the height of the Cold War, Girard advocated the engagement with folk art of other countries and cultures—even political adversaries—as a path to international understanding. He regarded folk art as “a nourishment for the creative spirit of the present.” What this meant was best expressed by Girard’s own work.
Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe is on view at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany until January 22. It will be seen at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Michigan from June 16 to October 8, 2017, and then at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in California from June 20 to September 9, 2018.
JOCHEN EISENBRAND is the chief curator at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, and the curator of Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe. His numerous exhibitions include major retrospectives on George Nelson, Louis Kahn, and Alvar Aalto.