The Wit and Wisdom of Alexander Girard

During the heyday of midcentury architecture, when the pure, rational approaches of “hard” modernists like Mies van der Rohe and Gordon Bunshaft reigned supreme, there was a renegade sensibility afoot, causing mischief, creating delight, and offending purists. Alexander Girard (1907–1993) had a profound impact on every form of twentieth-century design: products, graphics, textiles, furniture, interiors, and even the main street of Columbus, Indiana, which he redesigned. Today, he’s largely remembered for his bold, over-the-top graphics. But images of his most iconic interiors—now long gone—look as fresh today as they did 50 years ago. And as the head of textiles at Herman Miller from 1952 onward, Girard played a key role (along with George Nelson, the Eameses, and founder D. J. De Pree) in contributing to the enduring design legacy of the company.

“Sandro was quiet, extremely serious about his work, always immaculately dressed, and looked more like an English gentleman than an American designer,” says Marilyn Neuhart, a designer who first started working with Girard on graphic projects in 1957, and who later sold her signature dolls at Herman Miller’s innovative but short-lived Textiles & Objects shop, which Girard designed in 1961. “His style was way ahead of the curve, and he was, to some extent, an acquired taste. He had his addicted followers, and my husband and I were among them.”

Girard once admitted that he liked designing the things that “more serious” architects would typically eschew—such as exhibitions, showrooms, restaurants, and textiles—all of which he adorned with a combination of bold colors, vibrant patterns, and varied textures. Laced with a sophisticated but almost subversive wit, his work embraced clutter and chaos, and old and new objects, yet there was an overarching precision and logic to it. As curator and illusionist, Girard used his talents to turn architecture into atmosphere: the sum total of everything sensorial that leaves you with a memorable feeling. “He had a unique way of looking at the visual world,” Neuhart says. “He would use pure color, which was not current at that time, and his shapes, drawings, and patterns were all unique.” During the 1960s, when the International Style of modern architecture was rapidly becoming both widespread and formulaic, Girard’s textured, tactile, and diverse interiors became a counterpoint to design dogmas and sterility. “One of his gifts was that he could go from the micro to the macro side,” says Susan Lyons, Herman Miller’s creative director of color and materials. “He loved abundance when it made sense, but it was never gratuitous. His spaces could be rather minimal, but there were humanistic interventions, such as tabletop settings and, of course, textiles.”

For Girard, textiles played an important role in architecture and interiors. They represented a set of interrelated tools. Woven fabrics could complement printed patterns; upholsteries might work with drapery designs. And since each fabric was available in a wide range of choices, the entire collection was seen as a “box of colors” that gave designers a variety of hues and textures to work with. Girard once described his philosophy to textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen: “The simple geometric patterns and brilliant primary color ranges came to be because of my own urgent need for them on current projects. As you will remember, primary colors were frowned upon in those days; so were geometric patterns. I had the notion then, and still do, that any form of representational pattern, when used on folded or draped fabric, becomes disturbingly distorted, and then, therefore, a geometric pattern is more appropriate for a draped fabric. Also, I was against the concept that certain fabrics were ‘suited’ to certain specific uses—like pink for girls or blue for boys!” Girard designed more than 300 fabrics for Herman Miller—all closely and carefully coordinated—during a run that spanned more than three decades.

“I love that he was so in love with textiles, and used them vertically, as dividers, as seating, even on mirrors,” Lyons says. “He had a sensibility for taking a found object and turning it into something beautiful, special, and rare.”

For the past five years, she and her team at Herman Miller have been looking closely at the Girard archives. “Maharam relaunched some of the patterns back in 2000,” Lyons says. “They’ve done a good job of reestablishing an awareness of Girard’s work, but it was important for us to reconnect Girard and Herman Miller.”

After scouring the archives and examining hundreds of his textiles, the team found dozens of classic textured patterns that held promise for today’s market. Lyons feels that Girard’s textiles are about quality, so the idea of working mainly in wool made sense to her: “It’s such a great, versatile material, so we focused on the types of constructions, and then landed on five patterns. We also thought we could do it all in an environmentally optimized way.” After a year of trial and error, the team completed the collection of upholstery fabrics—Linomix, Lanalux, Hopsak, Superweave, and Colorado Plaid—which will debut at NeoCon this month, as part of a traveling exhibition celebrating Girard and his relationship with Herman Miller. The fabrics will also be used on some previously out-of-production items from the archive that are being revived, such as new ver-sions of furniture by Ward Bennett, as well as Eames sofas, Aluminum Group Soft Pad pieces, and LCW and DCW chairs. It’s part of the company’s launch of the Herman Miller Collection, which will include some 200 items.

“This is the first in a series of reeditions that will allow us to share the Girard narrative and illustrate his profound influence,” Lyons says. “He believed that there were principles that legislated ‘good design,’ but he was never pre-scriptive about how his textiles should be used. Instead, he offered them as a palette for the designer to use in composing a space, hoping that they would build a composition with all of the materials at their disposal, taking into account context, scale, light, volume, color, texture, and contrast.”

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