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Alexander Girard Estate, Vitra Design Museum

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Organizing the world

How multi-hyphenate designer Alexander Girard made America modern

On September 21, 1967, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson visited Columbus, Indiana. The architects of the town’s famous modern architecture program lined up to greet her outside Gunnar Birkerts’s Lincoln Elementary School (1967), leaning on the concrete bollards designed to channel the schoolchildren up the wide concrete stairs and into the body of the school.

John Dinkeloo, Dan Kiley, Robert Venturi, I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, John Carl Warnecke, Birkerts. But over on the far right, clasping hands with Pei and almost out of frame, is Alexander Girard. That’s where he liked to be.

Designer Alexander Girard was also an architect—though most don’t know him as such—and a key player in making America look and feel modern. Today he is best known for the fabrics he designed as director of the Herman Miller Textile Division between 1952 and 1973, which included everything from colorful stripes to eye-crossing checkers, cut-out flowers to a hand-drawn alphabet.

But to peg him solely as a textile designer (though there’s nothing wrong with being a textile designer) is to severely underestimate his accomplishments. Even within the textile division, he designed furniture and wallpaper, as well as “Environmental Enrichment Panels” that were intended to free the cubicle-lined corporate office from terminal beigeness.

The sprawling career retrospective, organized by the Vitra Museum, opened at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in June and finally puts his accomplishments in stunning visual perspective using the very exhibition techniques Girard pioneered: pinning real objects, like butterflies, inside a case, and arranging them to tell the story of a man who quietly and colorfully organized the world.

View of the exhibition
Mark Niedermann/Vitra Design Museum
Alexander Girard in his studio in the early 1950s
Charles Eames/Vitra Design Museum

Girard pulled a lot of weight in turning Columbus into a modern architecture mecca, designing homes, offices, and a Main Street for its chief architectural patron J. Irwin Miller. Girard also worked alongside George Nelson and Charles Eames at Herman Miller (no relation to the Indiana Millers). In one famous ad, the three pose with trunk, map, and pith helmet under the stamped legend, “Traveling Men.” Girard, the caption notes, is “leaving for India to collect material for a new show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.”

For MoMA, Girard selected objects and designed an installation not only for the lush “Textiles and Ornamental Arts in India” (1955), but for several iterations of its Good Design program, which promoted modernism (with price tags!) to the masses. He designed two of postwar New York’s most glamorous restaurants, La Fonda del Sol (Mexican, colorful) and L’Etoile (French, black-and-white) as well as the planes, airport lounges, and branding for Braniff Airways—a total design program that’s like the fantasy flipside of Unimark’s white space and grids.

When he decided to relocate from Grosse Pointe to Santa Fe, in 1953, he relocated far from the corporations that were his bread-and-butter. He needed, as he wrote to friends, to live in “the most ultra fantastically beautiful place.” The interiors of both houses rivaled the scenery: built-in precursors to the conversation pit, quilt-like walls made of wood scraps, kitchen cabinets patterned with beans.

Grosse Pointe
Haanel Cassidy/Courtesy Vitra Design Museum, Alexander Girard Estate

Santa Fe also fueled his folk art collection, putting him in proximity to Mexico, and then longer trips through Central and South America. Storage walls, of wood and adobe, housed his objects in layered vignettes worthy of a museum. But even his storage was worthy of a museum: The Cranbrook exhibition includes albums covered in Florentine papers, and file boxes patchworked with fabric never meant for public display. In 1978, Girard donated his 106,000-strong collection to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, creating a permanent installation of 10,000 of them in the Girard Wing.

Beauty was his goal. Organization was his method. He could fly to clients, who included Braniff, Cummins, Deere & Co., and Hallmark, and collaborators including the Eameses, Eero Saarinen, and I.M. Pei. Ray Eames, no slouch in the color-picking department, respected his eye so much that she sometimes called him to consult. At a time when “architect” seemed to be synonymous with “skyscraper” Girard made it clear that the limits of that definition simply didn’t interest him, and designed his own life.

Because of his expansive imagination and his ability to design for change (as with his exhibitions and storage walls) or for theatricality (as with his shops and restaurants), much of Girard’s work exists today only as accessories and photographs. As I wrote when the interiors of the Four Seasons were auctioned off last year, that restaurant:

was part of a movement toward a new style of luxury in restaurants that said the present day could be as swank, and even more delicious, than the past.

Alexander Girard reinterpreted classic French cuisine in the monochromatic L’Etoile, complete with fashion-forward daisy-shape tables à la Courreges, while also creating the modern Mexican theme park that was La Fonda del Sol at the bottom of the Time & Life Building.

La Fonda del Sol Restaurant, New York City
Louis Reens/Courtesy Vitra Design Museum

Columbus is one of few places outside Santa Fe to see the real thing. Columbus, as you may know, is no ordinary American Midwestern town. J. Irwin Miller, a businessman and a banker, invested in the architecture of the town in a variety of ways: as chairman of the Cummins Engine Company, as head of the Irwin Union bank, as a member of the congregation of the First Christian and North Christian churches and, most notably, by establishing the Cummins Foundation in 1954. This foundation, which offered to pay the architects’ fees for new public buildings, was responsible for the very schools, library, and fire stations that brought Lady Bird to town.

Miller had met Eero Saarinen when he was working with his father, Eliel Saarinen, on Columbus’s First Christian Church in the early 1940s. In 1950, he hired the younger Saarinen and Girard to design a “cottage” for his growing family in Ontario’s Muskoka lake district. The pair used fieldstone and wood siding typical of local architecture for the rambling house, but it abounds with signature Girard touches: a suspended copper-roofed fireplace, built-in seating indoors and out, even a custom cat-and-mouse carpet for the dining room. The Millers liked it so much that they decided to hire the duo to build a new house in Columbus in 1953, writing just after they bought the 13.5-acre site on the edge of town: “I think we will have a good deal of fun working this out.”

The dining room at the Miller’s Muskoka cottage
Balthazar Korab/Library of Congress

And fun it still is, starting with one of the house’s defining features: a conversation pit. Girard’s own homes, from the late-1940s on, had often included angular built-in banquettes in brilliant colors. And Saarinen’s contemporaneous Emma Hart Noyes House, a dormitory at Vassar College, features round, sunken upholstered seating. But the Miller House centers on a vast square one, with slipcovers and throw pillows that were changed seasonally, as the symbolic center of the home.

Grids abound. The 80 by 100-foot house, principally designed by Saarinen’s right hand, Kevin Roche, is built on a five-foot module, divided into nine rectangles, with a steel-truss roof supported by 16 X-shaped columns. The corner rectangles, which are solid, hold the bedrooms and the kitchen. The remaining crisscross space has glass walls looking out on landscape architect Dan Kiley’s geometric gardens.

Converstation pit at the Miller’s home
Balthazar Korab/Library of Congress

One side of the conversation pit looks out across the grounds, the other looks at the interior landscape arranged by Girard: the storage wall. When the Miller House was featured on the cover of House & Garden’s February 1959 issue, it was the storage that got the close-up. The wall runs 50 feet from entrance hall to den, and held books, sculpture, folk art, and engravings. Hidden behind rosewood doors were a television, bar, stereo system, and storage for camera equipment. Behind the glass shelves Girard pasted materials including burlap and gold tea paper, black paper flecked with gold and silver, and book endpapers, collaging before he loaded in objects from up to 44 different countries. In the Miller House archives, now held by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, each object Girard bought for the house gets its own index card, meticulously arranged in chronological order.

At Christmas, Xenia Miller used the wall to make exhibitions of her own, filling the shelves with crèches from around the world. Girard would do the same for the public via traveling shows of his own Nativities, sponsored by Hallmark. Of course he designed the posters, now highly collectible, too. In 1962, Hallmark hired him to design a corporate apartment for their guests in Kansas City, Missouri, including a 20-foot-long by three-foot-high three-dimensional installation chronicling the history of greeting cards. Gold cherubs, painted Easter eggs, candlesticks, vintage Valentines, and heart after heart were held away from the gold-papered wall on thin rods.

Hallmark penthouse, with three-dimensional installation
Courtesy of the Hallmark Archives, Hallmark Cards, Inc., Kansas City, Missouri

Hearts and flowers and lace made their way into Girard’s Herman Miller fabrics, while the idea of telling history through objects became another of Girard’s design obsessions, culminating in the three-dimensional history wall he designed for another Midwestern magnate, William A. Hewitt of Deere & Co. For Deere’s Saarinen-designed headquarters in Moline, Illinois, Girard spent the summer of 1963 traveling the countryside with his wife Susan, collecting the artifacts of fast-disappearing farms. Vintage photographs and cherry pitters, patents and beehives, baskets and broadsides were collected in a warehouse in Santa Fe.

In real life—and you can visit both the mural and the mock-up in Moline—the mural begins on the far left in 1837, the year Deere invented the steel plow, and runs through 1918, the year Deere moved to mass tractor production. “Everyone seems to be able to identify with something in the mural, and then is fired up to study the whole thing,” Girard told Fortune at the time. “There is nothing phony in the mural, and we are proud of this. The only synthetics are the plastic apples in the apple baskets.”

Girard proposed a spiraling mural of Cummins history to Miller, but in this rare case, his best client didn’t bite. Instead, Miller hired Girard to redo his offices. While Cummins Engine’s industrial peers were moving their companies to the periphery, J. Irwin Miller preferred to stay in town, on Washington Street, Columbus’s main drag. He told a writer from Esquire, “I like the base of contact on Main Street. That’s why I don’t have my office out at the plant. I keep it down here. A sense of being part of Main Street, I suppose . . .”

In 1962, Girard inserted an up-to-the-moment modern suite behind the Victorian facade of “Irwin’s Bank” at 301 Washington with a tobacco-leaf color palette of brown-on-brown. “It is the enclosures of the spaces—floors, ceilings, wall panels, doors, and draperies—that are patterned and textured, and the furniture that is plain and austerely disciplined,” wrote Progressive Architecture in their article on the office. Striped carpet and curtains, a staircase screen made from teak and zigzagging white-painted steel, and long teak panels hiding books and a modestly-sized TV. The whole thing remains perfectly preserved. At 432 Washington Street, Girard used acres of his own Herman Miller fabrics to perk up conference rooms and offices for Cummins in a second 19th-century building, adding custom gridded chandeliers made of white, square-profile aluminum tubing overhead.

Girard’s largest Columbus design project was at street level. Washington Street needed a facelift in order to compete with the big boxes lining up along the highways, and Girard saw this as an opportunity to organize the chaotic commercial landscape. Miller hired him to add glamour to his two office storefronts. At 432, in 1964, Girard lined the lobby’s ceiling with square-based white-metal cones, unified by a coat of white plaster. At the end of each cone, a lightbulb, dripping like an illuminated stalactite.

Suite at 301 Washington Street
Courtesy of Columbus Area Visitors Center

The rest of the architecture rose up from the floor: an upholstered pod-like receptionist desk, and swiveling Girard-designed chairs in a brown-and-black checker. In 1974, he made a front porch for number 301 with a brass cubicle, Hollywood-style lighting, and white glass tile with a subtle sparkle.

But the Downtown Development Agency, an organization of fellow business leaders, also wanted to get in on Girard’s act. They met with him on May 5, 1961, and one subsequently wrote:

Mr. Girard pointed out that in our effort to be “different” we, as merchants, are growing toward a rather horrible degree of “uniformity”. This is true even though the signs are of different shape, sizes, color, light intensity, etc. We have pretty much arrived at a “jungle” wherein one sees everything at the same time he is seeing a blur of nothing.

His solution: a design scheme for the whole town, block by commercial block. Neither postmodernist like Venturi and Scott Brown, who embraced signs, nor modernist like Victor Gruen, whose malls had their own design guidelines, Girard instead worked with the fabric at hand. He hired locals to take scale photographs of all of the storefronts in the central business district, then he and his staff painted each building a combination of 26 colors he selected for the project.

Alexander Girard designing his Environmental Enrichment Panels, 1971
Charles Eames/Alexander Girard Estate, Vitra Design Museum
Storage boxes arranged and labeled by Girard
Andreas Sutterlin/Alexander Girard Estate, Vitra Design Museum

These paintings were mounted on Masonite boards and shipped from his studio in Santa Fe to Columbus, where they were exhibited on Washington Street in order to convince the shop owners to buy in. No two storefronts of the same color faced each other, and the dominant hues were orange, green, white, buff and a beautiful sky blue. Signs were reorganized to emphasize the product being sold, rather than the owner’s name or brand, and set flush with the building wall. A common awning stretched down each block like a jaunty unifying ribbon.

It was urban renewal without displacement, malling without stripping away the soul. When Architectural Forum came to town to report on its architecture in December 1965, what did they put on the cover? Not Saarinen or Weese or Pei, but Girard: a Balthazar Korab photo of an orange bay window on Washington Street.

Though only a few traces of Girard’s “face-lifting” remain today—including the orange window and the lobbies—the scheme was influential in its day. A 1975 Washington Post editorial mentions his Columbus storefronts as a model for the redevelopment of G Street. When the Chamber of Commerce advertised the town as “The Athens of the Prairie,” it was Girard who took pride of place. “What do Braniff Airlines and Columbus, Indiana, have in common?” the copy asked, over an illustration of a plane in front of a set of small-town facades? “Alexander Girard did our exteriors.”

Plain plane, Victorian town, it was all the same to Alexander Girard, a midcentury man whose career reflects a modesty, flexibility, and seriousness of purpose—from the tall to the small—that more contemporary architects would do well to imitate. Sure, the TWA Terminal is great, but what about making over an airline? Yes, you built a museum in Washington, but how about making over a town—without tearing anything down? Girard practiced distributed design, touching many people’s lives in unexpected ways, and never letting his ego come first.

Alexandra Lange will be speaking as part of a one-day symposium at Cranbrook Art Museum in Michigan on Saturday, July 22. The symposium is organized in conjunction with a career retrospective for Alexander Girard, organized by Vitra Design Museum and on view at Cranbrook through October 8, 2017.

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