First came glass and steel. Then came Alexander Girard. A stark contrast to architecture of the time that was—well—stark, Girard brought warmth and whimsy to midcentury design, touching everything from dolls to downtowns. Since the breadth of his oeuvre will leave you quite breathless, here, we hone in on a pivotal year in his career: 1961, when the Textiles & Objects (T&O) shop opened in Midtown Manhattan.
Capping a 10-year relationship with Herman Miller, Girard designed a store where visitors could buy his fabric by the yard alongside a global selection of folk crafts. The items in T&O existed for one purpose only: to delight. Girard’s pieces were accompanied by the work of George Nelson and Ray and Charles Eames, who became the design trifecta of the era. Girard, affectionately referred to as Sandro among his peers, was the ringmaster of the wholesale/retail experiment for Herman Miller that would go on to capture the zeitgeist of a playful, yet poignant moment in midcentury modern design.
"When Herman Miller gave the go-ahead to launch a shop only devoted to textiles and objects, it was something never done in the past—no other American manufacturer had done this," says author, professor, and Milwaukee Art Museum curator Monica Obniski. "It was a totally new endeavor. Giving a curatorial license to a designer? Highly unusual."
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Throughout a design career spanning architecture to typography, T&O was perhaps the most authentic representation of Girard’s interests. That’s because the items were not just curated, but rather handpicked from travels abroad to Turkey and Poland and Portugal and Sicily, all with his wife, Susan.
Shop Alexander Girard
The collection comprised these folk art figures, but also Eames chairs, graphic print pillows, ottomans shaped by the big top—not to mention daring hues. At the time, Girard said, "People got fainting fits if they saw bright, pure color." Never before had there been such a saturation of candy-colored items that really did make it feel like a day at the circus.
Naturally, however, Girard’s textiles stole the show. At Herman Miller, not only did Girard launch the textile division, but he also went on to become its director of design. In his two decades leading the division, Girard created some 300 designs, inspired by his beloved folk art and always infused with play. And to experience it full-spectrum was otherworldly.
At T&O, bold, geometric, patterned fabrics fell from ceiling to floor. "He designed the store to be immersive," says Obniski. "Panels of textiles lay in specific places—he’s an architect. He thinks spatially. As you walk past, you appreciate panes and panels, and looking around in hyper-structured shelving units, there are the small Kachina dolls and folk art objects, all meant to bounce off one another. It’s about cacophony—more is more in his aesthetic." It was loud and bright and busy, but that was the shop—it was about creating an environment. And you can experience it, too.
"More is more in his aesthetic."
—Monica Obniski, curator
The first major retrospective of Girard’s work is on display through October 27 at the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Alexander Girard: A Designer's Universe was organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany and features not only his textiles, but also furniture, sculptures, and sketches, drawings, and collages that have never been shown. But what makes this exhibit unique is that it sits alongside a permanent exhibition by Girard. "We’re the only place in the world that can actually do this because the permanent collection helps people understand what compelled him as a folk art collector and the interplay of his design work," says Laura Addison, the curator of North American and European folk art at MOIFA.
There, you’ll find the donation of some 106,000 pieces of Girard’s personal folk art collection. (That’s right: 106,000. His was a prolific obsession.) "Most people that call that a hoarder," says Obniski. "But because of this architectural training, he was able to understand structures and how things related—able to transcend this compulsion to have things around, yet be able to order them in a way that is delightful that really speaks to that period in America. He had an ability to wade through the noise."
The influence of this avid interest is undeniable: folk art, after all, is of community and culture. And in Girard’s travels, he brought together people worldwide into design derived from anthropology. Good form was just a bonus.
While T&O did not last—the addition of a new Herman Miller showroom on Madison Avenue was too much for the manufacturer to juggle—the experience of a comprehensive Girard-designed place can still be enjoyed today. Not only did he curate the selection at MOIFA, but he also designed the interior of its Girard Wing. "T&O shop had a lot of different layers: hanging textiles in vertical panels that you can see through," says Addison. Similarly, you can see through sets at MOIFA. "There’s this depth that we have in the design of the wing—there are no walls that prevent you from seeing around the corner. He was aware of the visitor experience, scale, and detail."
The commander of color, folk art aficionado, wizard of whimsy, Girard won the AIGA medal this year posthumously—and for good cause. He was a humanitarian who pushed boundaries. He captured joy, and he infused life into his design of not just some things, but all things.