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  • 03.16.16

Inside The Groovy Universe Of Midcentury Legend Alexander Girard

“My greatest enjoyment and satisfaction in the solution of any project is uncovering the latent fantasy and magic in it,” Girard once said.

Ever sat in a conversation pit? Then you have one man to thank: Alexander Girard (1907–1993), the midcentury luminary who masterminded textiles, interiors, and even corporate identities brimming with an unmistakable vibrancy. While modernism gets a bad rap for austerity, Girard’s brand of design was anything but—it was steeped in folklore and history, festooned with prismatic patterns, forward-thinking, and above all, functional.

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“For Girard, design was not to be ruled by asceticism, but by joy, a lust for life, and the celebration of the everyday,” writes Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Design Museum, in the forward to Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe, the catalog accompanying an exhibition of the same name, on-view until January 29, 2017.

Girard’s outlook represents a more humanist approach than the more cerebral, stripped-down, sober philosophy of high modernists like Adolf Loos, who once said: “I will not subscribe to the argument that ornament increases the pleasure of the life of a cultivated person.” (No brainer on who’d be more fun to grab a beer with.) As the exhibition description states:

Girard’s often underestimated significance lies in the fact that he restored what classical modernism had rejected in design—color, decoration, opulent interiors. With an ingenious ease, he combined ostensible antagonists: craftsmanship and industry, pop culture and high culture, playful décor with masterful reduction.

Corporate Design für Braniff International Airways, 1965.Photo: Alexander Girard Estate, Vitra Design Museum

For a glimpse of how Girard’s approach differed from many of his more ascetic contemporaries, look no further than La Fonda Del Sol, a Latin-American restaurant in the Time and Life Building. Girard designed nearly every element inside the swanky, Mad Men-esque restaurant, down to the paper wrappers around sugar cubes. Diners first walk through massive carved wood doors adorned with a beaded sun right above it. Inside, they’re greeted with columns clad in stainless-steel tiles and vermillion canopies embroidered with plants and flowers. Porcelain dinnerware painted in red, blue, pink, and yellow rest atop the round tables, which are surrounded by Eames chairs upholstered in ruby fabric. Costumed waiters prepare dishes tableside atop rolling carts. Since this was the 1960s, dinner would usually involve a cigarette or two–so the restaurant provided matchbooks printed with sun motifs in every color imaginable. The space was lively and theatrical and it remained a destination for the decade it was open.

Though it’s challenging to distill his work into a few “greatest hits,” Girard is often best remembered for becoming the textile director of Herman Miller in 1951 working under creative director George Nelson and alongside celebrated contemporaries like Charles and Ray Eames; creating over 300 different textile designs over the course of his career; designing the legendary interiors of the J. Irwin Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, one of the most famous modern residences ever built; developing the identity and brand experience of Braniff Airlines in 1965; directing the “Magic of A People” pavilion at the 1968 World’s Fair in San Antonio; and a building a collection of over 100,000 folk art pieces.

Girard himself summed up his own work best: “My greatest enjoyment and satisfaction in the solution of any project is uncovering the latent fantasy and magic in it and convincing my client to join in this process,” he wrote. See for yourself in the slide show above.

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All Photos: courtesy Vitra Design Museum

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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