For many of the 21 years Alexander Girard worked for furnishings giant Herman Miller, the absurdly prolific designer spent his days alone in his studio, crafting what were to become icons of midcentury textile designs by fastidiously inking shapes by hand in Magic Marker (invented in 1952, the same year Girard was brought on to Herman Miller). Until 1973 Girard was the company's head textile guru, producing patterns to befit the furniture designs of his buddies like Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, though his prowess extended far beyond silk screens and Jujube-like geometries. He had three architecture degrees, spoke eight languages, collected folk art, and crafted holistic and huge-scale design campaigns. Herman Miller's pop-up exhibit, an archive and lounge in Manhattan's Meatpacking District loftily entitled An Uncommon Vision, only "begins to barely scratch the surface," Herman Miller editorial director Sam Grawe admits, though even a scratch is enough to get a feel for the kind of influence "Sandro," as he was nicknamed, had on the field.
Over the course of his career Girard designed more than 300 textiles for Herman Miller, each with different "colorways," and many printed on fabrics as diverse as sheer silks and burlap. "He was trying to create the ultimate designer's toolbox," Gawe says. "He wasn't interested in telling people what was right, but [rather] offering designers a tool kit for putting together rooms."
This philosophy may be because Girard "knew all the Cranbrook cronies," as Gawe says, referring to the pack of designers that poured from Michigan's Cranbrook Academy of Art. (He became friends with the Eameses because they were both designing, for separate firms, bent plywood radios.) Girard was brought onto Herman Miller to create modern patterns to bolster the works of his furniture-designing friends. In the early '70s he created "environmental enrichment panels" for Herman Miller's Action Office series, essentially fabrics (like those at right) meant to beautify the cabinets and structures that populated office buildings.
While he remained fairly strictly the textile guru for the company, Girard was a famously holistic designer and powerful innovator—fabric swatch books? Yeah, those didn't really exist before Girard. A potent example of his comprehensive design capabilities: La Fonda del Sol, the cantina in Manhattan's TIME/LIFE building (↑). In 1960, Girard designed it studs-to-silverware; he envisioned the faucet handles in the men's restroom, the graphics on the menu, the waitress uniforms, and much of the structure itself.
Girard believed in something called a "significant group," essentially combining hundreds or thousands of elements that may say little on their own, but together form a chromatic and quintessentially Girardian experience. At La Fonda, the ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers, for example, are dipped in muted blues and bright tangerines. The napkins are printed with pink triangles and navy crosses. The seating he designed with the Eameses became "La Fonda armchairs," essentially the pair's fiberglass classics but without the hump, so as "the horizontality of the tablescape would not be disturbed," Grawe says.
Also in the '60s, Girard spearheaded a top-to-bottom makeover of Braniff Airlines (↑), making some 17,534 design changes to the brand's matchbooks, ticket counters, cutlery, playing cards, blankets, and travel documents. (The stewardess uniforms were by Pucci.) The furniture he designed for Braniff's lounges in 1965—splayed-leg tables, "colorwheel" ottomans, hexagonal side tables—ultimately became his first furniture collection sold by Herman Miller. The Girard Group debuted in 1967, was around in limited edition for about a year, and then disappeared; that is, until its 2014 resurgence. Starting in November, Herman Miller will be selling his designs, including those splayed tables and ottomans, plus low-slung sofas in coarse-weave Girard fabrics.
The exhibit itself is divided into two parts, the museum bit, with glassed-off displays from Girard's famous folk art collection—"he didn't distinguish between what Jackson Pollack was doing and what somebody in a village in Peru was doing," Grawe says—plus original designs from his campaigns for Braniff Air and La Fonda del Sol. The second half is a living room, done up in the new iterations of Girard's designs and sprinkled with books filled with art by Girard's friends According to Grawe: "You get the story and then come enjoy it."
Want to check it out? It's open from now until Wednesday, May 28, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Manhattan's 14th Street. The exhibit, which Grawe calls a "Girardian daydream," may be just "scratching the surface" of Girard's work, but there probably isn't a better place than this, surrounded by design books and fabric banners, propped up against Girard-designed pillows, and ears full of 1960s jazz, to appreciate the designer's world.