Alexander Girard, who established Herman Miller’s textile division in 1952 and ran it for nearly two decades, is an important part of that company’s legacy, even if names like Eames and Nelson tend to resonate more with casual design fans.
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A pop-up exhibition in Manhattan, scheduled to coincide with New York Design Week and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, represents a splashy, colorful attempt to change that. "Alexander Girard, An Uncommon Vision," heralds Herman Miller’s first-ever archival reissues of Girard’s furniture and textile designs while simultaneously celebrating and burnishing his legacy as a cross-disciplinary designer who was equally adept at creating textiles, furniture, graphics, and brand identities for international corporations.
"The idea here is to tell some of Girard’s story," says Sam Grawe, a former editor in chief of Dwell who now serves as Herman Miller’s editorial director. "The last thing that we would want people to think is that Girard was just a product designer or just a textile designer. There’s a much more rich story to his own world and the world that he brought to Herman Miller. The goal of the gallery space is to bring some of that to life."
The exhibition, which is free and runs through May 28 at 446 West 14th Street, is divided into two parts. The front section tells Girard’s story through an archival collection of his textile designs, furniture creations, and other ephemera. These include several of Girard’s screen-printed environmental enrichment panels (a dozen of which are among the items being reintroduced); a menu, ashtray, and other objects from the La Fonda del Sol restaurant in the Time & Life Building; and a few of the more than 17,000 items that Girard designed in 1965 as part of a top-to-bottom rebranding effort for Braniff International Airways. One display case is devoted to the short-lived Textiles & Objects store, which Girard opened in New York City in 1961 to sell his own textiles alongside folk-art objects that he collected in his travels around the world.
In the back, a sitting room serves as a showcase for the Girard furniture and textile designs that Herman Miller will make available for sale in the fall. These include the polished-aluminum Hexagonal Table; the Splayed Leg Table, topped with either white or black marble; and the Color Wheel Ottoman, which Girard initially designed for Braniff’s passenger lounges. All were part of the "Girard Group" line of furniture that Herman Miller issued in 1967. Herman Miller also is reissuing a throw blanket that Girard created for Braniff.
Girard’s grandson Kori Girard said the reissue project was the natural outcome of several years of discussions with Herman Miller. "As we decided to take the direction back into the family and go for a much more archival sort of mission, it was really clear what needed to happen," says Girard, the creative director of the Girard Studio LLC. "We’d been talking to Herman Miller for years and years, but my thought was that we needed to stop talking and get to work. That was about five years ago, and since then Herman Miller bought Maharam. Maharam was our best and longest license that we’ve had, and it set the tone in many ways for the type of quality that we were interested in producing. So it’s been a really natural evolution, and finally we’re here and we’re excited to be here."
Sharing Girard’s story is important, Grawe says, because he tended to work in areas where anonymity is the norm rather than the exception. "The projects that he did—airline lounge, restaurant, textiles—are things that don’t have a name attached to them necessarily and don’t have longevity either," Grawe says. "And so in a lot of ways, even if people had experienced it and been moved by it, they didn’t associate Girard’s name with it. And a lot of it had just gone away, while things like the Eames Shell Chair stuck around.
"What this is about, this showcase," Grawe adds, "is to say Alexander Girard is so critical to who Herman Miller is as a brand, and we’re really thrilled to have him as part of our story again."