From October 14, 2006, to February 25, 2007, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present the exhibition Alexander Girard: Vibrant Modern. Organized by Ruth Keffer, SFMOMA curatorial associate for architecture and design, this exhibition will include more than 60 pieces by Girard, highlighting his textile works for Herman Miller as well as a selection of his designs for La Fonda del Sol Restaurant in New York.
As director of the Textile Division of Herman Miller from 1952 to 1973, Girard (1907–1993) brought a passion for ethnic motifs and extravagantly bright colors to the clean, streamlined aesthetic that dominated mid-century modern design. Girard was recruited to the company by longtime friend Charles Eames, and the two designers, along with Herman Miller colleague George Nelson, formed a team that transformed the legacy of American modernism.
Girard is recognized for infusing modern design with humanism and exuberance, through bold, uninhibited use of color and geometric patterns. Even in his design environments, Girard was less interested in the intellectual design than in creating a “feeling” within a space, an ambiance.
Girard was born in 1907 in New York to an Italian father and American mother but was raised in Florence, Italy. He pursued an education in architecture, studying in Rome at the Royal School of Architecture and at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. In 1936 he moved back to New York, and the following year relocated to Detroit, where he broadened the scope of his practice designing offices, stores, and homes. He garnered a reputation for designing every feature of a project, from the carpeting and drapery to the furniture and even the stationery. He was hired by Herman Miller in 1952 and, shortly thereafter, moved to Santa Fe, where he remained for the rest of his life. Girard’s exposure to folk art’s bold colors and patterns—stripes, checks, florals—in Santa Fe and on his travels around the world had a profound influence on his designs, which moved from forms to total environments.
The works in Vibrant Modern fall into four categories: graphic design pieces, geometric and floral print fabrics for Herman Miller, tableware for La Fonda del Sol, and furniture. The exhibition includes four Eames chairs, one Girard sofa, more than a dozen design objects, and more than two dozen styles of fabric in 14 different patterns.
While at Herman Miller, Girard created more than 300 textile designs, including wallpaper, drapery, and upholstery fabrics. His most significant influences were motifs from Mexico and Central and South America, but he borrowed liberally from the traditions of more than 100 countries visited during a lifetime of collecting folk art. Girard grew his personal collection of objects to more than 100,000 works, and the collection eventually was given to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. In 1968 Girard designed a line of furniture for Herman Miller based on his earlier (1965) designs for Braniff Airlines; the exhibition includes one sofa from this series. In 1971 he created a series of patterned wall hangings dubbed “enrichment panels,” which were intended to serve as interior decoration in office environments as part of Herman Miller’s Action Office Project, spearheaded by designer Robert Propst.
Girard’s designs for La Fonda del Sol Restaurant in New York’s Time-Life Building were among his most memorable work. He created the complete environment for the restaurant—from the Southwestern-style fabrics and intricate tile work to the decorative china, evocative menus, and iconic brass sun that informed the entire design. The exhibition will include more than 25 pieces from the restaurant, including three chairs and a dining table, lunch and dinner menus, salt and pepper shakers, ice cream dishes, matchbooks, ashtrays, placemats, and tablecloths. Throughout La Fonda del Sol, color and light were used to create the mood, showcasing Girard’s prime concern of how people feel in a space.
Girard’s willingness to adopt non-modern ethnic motifs was revolutionary—even iconoclastic—in his day, but this practice is now a common strategy in contemporary design. His lively patterns and bold colors remain fresh and original, continuing to inspire contemporary design and highlighting his undiminished relevance to design today.