Alexander Girard: Colorist, Modernist, Traditionalist
To summarise Alexander Girard in one word, I would say color. I would then say that he was also a follower of Mid-Century Modern ideals but at the same time a traditionalist. Alexander Girard, whilst perhaps lesser known amongst his contemporaries such as Charles and Ray Eames or Barbara Knoll, is just as influential in the field of Mid-Century Modern design. Girard was able to use folk art to soften the edges of Modernism and yet produce design that was unique amongst other Modernists and so timeless that his work is still sold today.
Known above all his other talents as a graphic designer and textile artist, Girard was born in New York in 1907, but spent his formative years in Italy, and then the UK where he studied at the Royal School of Architecture in Rome. In 1932 he opened a design studio in New York, before moving to Detroit in 1937 where he was a color consultant for General Motors. He never really thrived as an architect, being averse to all the straight lines, but what he picked up in Europe were the principles of the Modernist design movement, which would form one of the main strands of his design theory.
Alexander Girard Patterns
Alexander Girard, as well as being categorised mostly as a textile designer, is also best known for his work under Herman Miller where in the course of his career he created over 300 graphic design patterns for fabrics from his base in Santa Fe, New Mexico, including those for Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson. in 2018 Maharam issued five previously unseen designs, some of which were based on the napkins from his La Fonda del Sol restaurant, which you can see in the lower pin pictured below.
His love of strong colors and abstract designs were absolutely aligned to the Mid-Century Modernist ideals. Alexander Girard patterns are typically reductive abstract floral and geometric designs using stripes, circles and triangles in a spectrum of different colors. He combined Pop Art with his love of Folk Art to create a fun, richly human approach to design aesthetic. The result was softer, timeless designs, a step away perhaps from pure Modernism (if we can indeed call it that) that we are still available to purchase today. His greeting cards, available at Virta.com are awesome, not to mention, of course, his celebrated wooden dolls.
Alexander Girard and Interior Design
Girard was adept at interior design, enhancing his principles of Modernism, with his influences from traditional folks art and crafts. This can be explored first in his restaurant designs. In 1960 he completely designed La Fonda del Sol Restaurant in New York. Here, Girard designed the entire dining experience, from the waiters' uniforms, down to the menus and matchboxes, filling the space with color and a sense of Latin American fun. He brought in motifs referencing the crafts and culture of Mexico and combined them with his core Modernist principles. In 1966 he designed the Compound Restaurant in Santa Fe which can still be seen today. Here again he softens the severity of Modernist design with his color, cultural refences and sense of fun. Whilst his earlier restaurant, La Fonda del Sol was a celebration of color, the Compound was more subtle. Its adobe white walls provided a background to his dramatic splashes of color, such as the vivid ceiling tiles he borrowed from his parallel work at Braniff Airlines, which I will discuss below. He favorite use of folk art objects and his repeated use of motifs such as the golden sun and hearts are depicted throughout. The result is a relaxing experience, where diners can enjoy the contrasting white walls and starched tablecloths married to colorful, decorative vignettes that are dotted around the walls and ceilings.
Alexander Girard and the end of the Plain Plane
In 1965 Girard worked for Braniff Airlines, completely redesigning the interior and exterior of the planes (responsible for around 17,000 different elements of design), including its departure lounge at Dallas Love Field, Texas, boarding passes, down to the matchboxes.
Using the same approach to color as he had done with La Fonda del Sol, he used bold tones such as pinks and lime greens. He worked alongside Pucci who designed the colorful, if rather questionable crew outfits.
This was just at the right time for the airline industry. Braniff, a relatively small airline had realised the potential for the democratisation of air travel and how they could stand apart from the crowd by providing an exciting, modern travelling experience. Prior to that, the experience was one of a bland waiting room, devoid of color and personality. To bring this to life was a huge opportunity for Girard and he grabbed it.
The result of both Girard's and Pucci's designs was spectacular and ridiculously kitsch, but always rooted in playful modernist reductive techniques that we see with his contemporaries of the time.
Alexander Girard and Modernist Home decor
One of my favorite installations by Girard is the sunken seating design he styled for the home of J Irwin Miller and his wife Xenia for their home in Columbus, Indiana in 1952. The house itself was designed by the Finnish-American Modernist architect Eero Saarinen, who devised the sunken Conversation Pit as the centerpiece of the living room. Lined with stone, Girard filled it with colorful patterned pillows and cushions with Japanese, Mexican and many other cultural references (including of course his own), objets and rich, red tones. The Conversation Pit was an intimate space, designed to not disrupt the flow of the large living room space, as well as finding a new perspective in which to observe, unhindered, the interior space of the room and views of the meadows beyond. The house as a whole was a masterpiece, filled with Girard's selection of folk art, textiles and rugs.
Tutto il mondo e paese
One of the huge inspirations for Alexander Girard was his passion for folk art. Girard and his wife Susan began collecting on their honeymoon to Mexico in 1959. Over their lifetimes they collected over 100,000 pieces, many of which are displayed in the Girard wing of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Italian proverb Tutto il mondo e paese, meaning The whole world is hometown, is a saying Girard quoted throughout his life and, as well as explaining his passion for collecting folk art, allows us to understand what he was attempting to achieve through the art of his collecting when applied to his design skills. We saw the cultural smorgasbord that he achieved in the Conversation Pit. What is fascinating about Girard's designs is his ability to mix up the essentials of international cultures in order to create the magic of fun, themes and discussion provocation. His folk art depicted pure human experiences to which anybody could relate. His restaurants were exactly that, rich in color, culture, vibrancy and intimacy.
“I believe we should preserve this evidence of the past, not as a pattern for sentimental imitation, but as nourishment for the creative spirit of the present.” - Alexander Girard.
This is interesting as, whilst Girard was a Modernist, he was not averse to embracing the vernacular and the past when it came to his art. Just like Alvin Lustig the ability to take Modernism to a personal, richer level by injecting other cultural references into it was a stroke of genius that allowed both these artists to avoid the rigid, austere alignment to Modernism just for the sake of it. This was quite radical within the movement as Modernism was really aligned to modern technologies rather than handmade crafts, breaking with the past and earning it the reputation, perhaps, to be rather cold and lacking in personality. Through his collection of folk art, Girard was able to glean inspiration for his creativity that informed his work when it came to graphic and textile design, taking it to this entirely new and unique level of experience, that verged sometimes upon Maximalist design we see emerging today.
Alexander Girard Dolls
Perhaps the quintessential artifact that makes Alexander Girard continuously accessible are his wooden dolls. Heavily influenced by his love of folk art, Alexander Girard dolls are whimsical, brightly colored, fun human and animal objects that add to the creative inspiration of a room. Originally made for himself, in 1952, for his home in Santa Fe, these half decorative and half toy objects depict funny, cultural, sometimes scary figures, inspired by native American art. Like the dining experience at the Compound, his motifs and designs produced on fabrics, cushions and greeting cards, these wooden dolls can still be purchased today, such is the contemporary appeal of Alexander Girard.
Of course it is his use of color where he excels. The juxtaposition of beautiful tones amidst bold, tradition-inspired geometric patterns allowed him to humanize the functionalism of the Herman Miller furniture he worked with in the earlier years of his career and he took it with him thereafter. This colorful book by Girard is somewhat a celebration of his love of color and his exquisite graphic design capabilities. It is available to purchase on Amazon. The retro style front cover is awesome!
I find Alexander Girard so appealing because he is so contemporary. He died in 1993 but his unique interpretation of Modernism lives on in a variety of products and experiences, be they textiles, wooden dolls, retro home decor designs, fine dining or his enormous collection of folk art in Santa Fe. Unfortunately his colorful designs for Braniff did not survive its collapse in 1982, but they did at the time show that function could be fun as well as functional. His mixing of traditional folk art and handmade crafts into the technological innovations of Mid-Century Modern design was unique and allows him to stand out from the other designers of Mid Century Modern. Girard's popularity continues to grow, with emerging books and exhibitions about him coming out all the time. The 2019-2020 Alexander Girard Palm Springs exhibition was one recent celebration of his work.
My favorite design? Apart from the obvious choice of Alexander Girard dolls, it has got to be the Alexander Girard Love Heart. It is a simple design, fun, bright and usable across all manner of products, from cushions to greeting cards to coffee mugs. The font is incredible and its use is very clever with the continuous connection between the words forming a geometric pattern. To me it is like a figure holding a pitch fork, his left arm in the air, forming the L letter and his right elbow the V. This is a possibly displayed on one of the lesser elaborate Alexander Girard pillows that are available and is perhaps better on the coffee, but still, it is personable and cute!
Do you enjoy the work of Alexander Girard? Where do you think he stands in the pantheon of Mid-Century Modern design movement? Which aspect of Girard's design do you enjoy the most? His textiles, experiences, collections or simply his influence in the history of design? Let me know in the comments below!
alexander girard graphic design mid century modern