Alexander Girard in his studio in the early 1950s.
Photographed by Charles Eames.
The first major retrospective of Alexander Girard's work explores the designer's influence.
By Ashley M. Biggers
"1. This is the most ultra fantastically beautiful place.
2. Cristal clear, crisp air at night and early morning — you want the sun when it comes out hot.
3. Sunsets better than any postcard."
In a letter to friends, Alexander Girard enumerated the reasons for his 1953 move from Michigan to Santa Fe. One of the most influential interior and textile designers of the 20th century, Girard (1907–1993) also ventured to the Land of Enchantment to be closer to the Mexican and Pueblo cultures that inspired him to reintroduce color into modern design. He's representative of the many seminal artists of the 20th century — Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and DH Lawrence among them — who found their muses in New Mexico's vast high deserts.
Organized by Germany's Vitra Design Museum, who owns Girard's archive, Alexander Girard: A Designer's Universe is the first major retrospective of the designer's work. It's on display through Oct. 27, 2019, at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. The exhibition features his textile and furniture designs, sketches, drawings, and collages — many never previously shown. It also explores his relationships with his contemporaries, including Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Andy Warhol, and Rudi Gernreich.
The exhibition has traveled to Michigan, home of Girard's long-time employer Herman Miller, and Seoul, South Korea; however, its most fascinating juxtaposition may be in Santa Fe, where visitors can explore not only the retrospective but also Girard's expansive folk art collection on long-term display at the Museum of International Folk Art. He and his wife, Susan, donated their collection to MOIFA in December 1978, and Multiple Visions: A Common Bond opened to the public in 1982, featuring more than 100,000 objects.
Both A Designer's Universe and Multiple Visions attest to Girard's playful sense of design, his passion for color, his inspiration from folk art, and his desire to create immersive environments. Even as a child, he created worlds, like his imaginary Republic of Fife (for which he designed flags, stamps, and maps), which is shown in A Designer's Universe. He brought that outlook to his designs for La Fonda del Sol Restaurant in New York and Braniff International Airways. At La Fonda del Sol, he created everything from the interior textiles to the teacups and matchbooks. For the airline, he designed a splash of color in the skies, detailing the plane's interior and exterior and even the flight attendants' uniforms.
Girard was also hands-on with the installation of Multiple Visions, overseeing the hanging of Mexican textiles on the walls and often placing some of the folk art scenes himself. "He looked at design in a broader way. There was no detail he didn't tend to," says Laura Addison, curator of North American and European Folk Art at MOIFA.
The Museum of International Folk Art's Girard holdings also allow it to create an adjunct exhibition, Girard's Modern Folk, exploring some of his favorite motifs, such as the Tree of Life, the snake, and black and white geometries, that crop up in his collection and designs. Modern Folk will be on display through January 2020. www.internationalfolkart.org
Girard's Santa Fe Influence
Two additional places to see Girard's work year round:
The Compound Restaurant
Check out the tiles and a painted snake on the ceilings and the logo of this landmark restaurant for a lasting piece of Girard's design.
St. John's College
Visit the Peterson Student Center of this liberal arts college to view an (incomplete) mural Girard painted with symbology from Greek, Egyptian, and other sources.