Book Review: Alexander Girard

Mar 19, 2012
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

Alexander Girard
Authors: Todd Oldham and Kiera Coffee
Publisher: AMMO Books
Distributor: Manic Books

Alexander Girard is, arguably, the quintessential voice of mid-20th century, mid- American flair in design. His are the striped fabrics and geometric wallpapers of Herman Miller, the fabulous ‘flying carrot’ of a bygone Braniff International Airways, the incredible winged chairs and lounges (also for Miller), the sunken lounges, folk art graphics and spectacular restaurants of New York in its most inspired 60s phase. Indeed, Girard nurtured an inclusive principle of design that boldly matched functionality with personality. The work never shied from excess or colour, based on the belief that a good eye, which he most assuredly possessed, could allow the inclusion of almost everything. “Modern decoration, if it is sincere, doesn’t call for the sweeping away of familiar things or condemn to death everything associated with the past. Instead, it endeavours to reconcile the old with the new,” he once said.

As we step into an era coloured by a profusion of influences, the timing of Todd Oldham and Kiera Coffee’s book could not be better. Effectively, there has been a shift in the past 10 years from stark cookie cutter design to something approaching a stylised nest that allows art and objects to play a role beyond that of a decorative device or status symbol. Endorsing this are the great interior designers of our age, such as Christian Liaigre, who are guided by a similar principle of incorporating the old with the new to effect a balance that is both personal and sympathetic to the environment, while firmly embracing a contemporaneous position. This is something Girard believed in and delivered, projecting his creative tendency in projects as diverse as private homes and a classic mid-century radio factory. Interestingly, he commenced at the Detrola radio factory in Detroit as a radio designer, stripping much of the ornamentation from the designs of the time. If Dieter Rams has any notable predecessors, Girard is undoubtedly one of them, fitting the pared back criteria like few others.

Girard’s Detrola office, however, was not conducive to his needs and he modified it accordingly. His colleagues found his office far more functional than their own and he was soon asked to redesign the remaining offices and factory. It was here that he first met Charles Eames, who in 1952 appointed him director of Fabric Division for Herman Miller, where he designed three fabric ranges, a wide array of wallpapers and, in 1967, the Braniff International Airways chairs and lounges many of us still admire today.

The incorporation of known with new was also his guiding principle for wildly adventurous projects such as the New York restaurant, La Fonda del Sol (1960), characterised by a rabbit warren-like layout. Girard set to work on designing the restaurant as a series of spaces, each evoking a new take on the overall brightly folkloric aesthetic. His colour use was hot, with pink and orange or pink and red as regular pairings. For La Fonda, he saw no limit to the palette. Rather, it was a profusion set against white that worked to promote a single vibrant whole. Assisting this greatly was Girard’s attention to detail. He designed everything from plates and glasses to logos, menus, signage, light fittings, doorknobs and waiters’ costumes (pink and blue embroidered affairs much like ponchos).

Described by his great friend and collaborator, Charles Eames, as “part magpie – and a Florentine one at that”, Girard amassed a huge collection of folk art, which became part of his signature style, appearing in many of his designs as motif, but also as table legs and/or objects in their own right: “You can never pigeonhole folk art as you can established forms of fine art, which have already been so pigeonholed that you spend all of your time tracing the influences on it rather than considering the work,” he claimed. This great amassing of folk art is now known as the Girard Foundation Collection and is housed in the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, which Girard designed in 1981.

Despite his lovely, but somewhat flippant line, “An interior design is really a slow motion movie of junk changing places,” Girard was obsessed with details, and essentially created the first rebranding approach to design. As the book’s authors put it, “…hiring Alexander Girard to design an interior was more like being hired by Alexander Girard to let him reinvent you.” His work for Braniff (1965) exemplifies this level of design immersion, where every element is reconsidered, from the redesign of the in-flight sick bag to the painting of the aeroplanes in a single colour: “The idea was to make a plane like a great racing car – with the fuselage painted a solid colour clearly expressing its shape. Incidentally, it couldn’t be a simpler or cheaper method of achieving identity.”

Along the way, trucks, ladders and tarmac utilities were painted in the same seven colours, while 56 striped and geometric upholsteries were designed for use in the same shades for interiors. Adding a touch of glamour, Emilio Pucci was commissioned to design the air hostess uniforms, which Girard instructed them to change four times on each flight. Completing the rebranding was a plethora of ticketing, signage, posters and much of the furniture for the lounge, which was paired with Eames chairs.

Thankfully, Oldham and Coffee have allowed a sizable portion of the book to be dedicated to Girard’s follies: drawings, miniatures, mock-ups and squiggles. It is an interesting choice, as not all of Girard’s designs are included, but this inclusion adds flavour and acts as an adjective to the selected works that no amount of extra projects would have. That said, the projects chosen clearly reflect a range of styles, shifts in fashion and shifts within Girard’s oeuvre. The section on his own homes is particularly engaging and moves from groovy mid-century Michigan to the über-hip Santa Fe of the 70s.

The essential beauty of this book lies in the excitement of the work, but also in Oldham and Coffee’s telling of Girard’s life, which is not tempered with austere observations or cynicism. Rather than chide the great designer for sunken lounges, they point out that he was the harbinger of such designs. Moreover, it is an excellent exploration of an obsessive design mind that transformed the role of the interior designer into one of immense significance that could establish brand identity with tremendous results.

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