Alexander Girard's Uncommon Vision, Courtesy of Herman Miller and Maharam

Alex Gilbert
May 23, 2014 11:52PM

This week, Herman Miller and Maharam host a temporary exhibition in New York City to honor Alexander Girard, the legendary mid-century designer, folk-art collector, and unsung hero of Herman Miller. It may surprise many to hear that the majority of Girard’s prolific career—which is marked by projects including the corporate rebranding (of 17,500 objects) for Braniff International and creative direction for innovative restaurants like the Time Life Building’s La Fonda del Sol—took place at a remote family-friendly home studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Girard’s magnificent textiles draw inspiration from Mexico and other nearby regions of Latin America, where he first developed a taste for folk art. In the end, the globetrotting Girard acquired more than 106,000 objects, a gift which makes up a substantial holding at the International Folk Art Museum.

Coinciding with the exhibition, Herman Miller is reissuing Girard furniture and textile designs. Originals, new productions, and archival materials are on view in an impeccable display at the pop-up, along with a jaw-dropping living room, lushly decorated with pillows-a-plenty and personal affects of the designer.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Sam Grawe, editorial director at Herman Miller, and Kori Girard, an artist who has dedicated the better half of the last decade to building awareness about his grandfather’s legacy.

Alex Gilbert: Can you tell me why your grandfather moved to Santa Fe and what factors make it particularly conducive to creative output?

Kori Girard: There was an interview that we found where he describes wanting to get out of the urban and the suburban of America, and it very much pertains to this old-world sort of feeling. I think that for him it was a way to be in America, but then to also be in a changing time, a developing environment. The folk art and handicraft world was thriving when he moved there; there were incredible amounts of Native American work still being traded, bought, and sold. I feel that it also had something to do with his love for Mexico and Latin America, and the proximity. I should mention that when he moved there, they moved to a place where there was really nothing else around. It was an old artist school commune with trees on all sides that they bought to rehabilitate. I think the move had to do with being able to find that type of space, as well.

AG: I’m fascinated that you’re a five-generation family of creators that crosses over between art, design, architecture, and collecting. You and your sister are both artists. In what ways were art and design instilled in you from a young age?

KG: Oh, I think in every way. My father was a general contractor; he built adobe homes. So that, to me, translated into thinking that he could make anything with his own hands. I think that it’s empowering from a really young age to know that if you plan something, and you set up the right steps, and then you just start chipping away, eventually it will develop. I think that that appreciation for process and evolution of art or design was really important. Just living five minutes from my grandparents’ home—it really was like a museum—was unreal. I didn’t know that at the time, other than it was like a visual adventure playground. I didn’t really understand what I was seeing, but the memories now and how it influenced me are definitely really powerful.

AG: What are the most important tenets of living that your grandfather passed down to you? Or what are the most important qualities for an Alexander Girard way of life?

KG: From a more conceptual point of view, I think he was definitely trying to pass on the idea of acceptance of humanity, and the understanding that even though we might create different ideas, that in many ways there’s a common thread through everything. I also think that work ethic was just so paramount: it came through with my father, and it inevitably is there to a certain degree with me. The fact is, you can make anything if you want to make it.

AG: Girard was prolific in fonts, fabric, interiors, furniture, and exhibition design. Did he prefer one medium over another, or was the variety itself what he found so pleasurable?

KG: I think the draftsmanship was at the foundation level of every single project, as he had been trained as an architect. If you can draw something, then you can build it. Even though he obviously loved every medium, every project started with drawings.

AG: Your grandfather has been called a ‘designer’s designer.’ Why is this?

KG: He was really well respected and known in certain circles of artists and designers, and was appreciated. A lot of people looked to him for a critique on their own work. He didn’t move to Malibu or Los Angeles; he moved to New Mexico. So in some ways, he was more concerned with the tight-knit circle of people that were doing things that he respected, and moved within that circle, rather than concentrating on being a designer for the masses.

AG: Can you tell me a little bit more about his relationship with Charles Eames?

KG: He and Charles Eames [as well as his wife and design partner, Ray Eames] were incredibly good friends. They spent Christmases together. It was like a living dialogue; it wasn’t just two competing designers working. There are stories of the Eameses coming to him for final critique on many works. And Charles was always there to shoot the end of every one of his projects.

Sam Grawe: There is a nice letter from Ray to Charles while Charles is traveling in Europe, and she says “Sandro [referring to Alexander Girard] and I have figured out this detail for the lounge chair.” I think she was referring to the attachment of the back shell to the underside of the arm piece rather than to the seat. Those relationships were triangulated and that all comes from the kind of design community that was at Cranbrook [Academy of Art] in Michigan.

KG: Yeah. It’s interesting because Charles and Ray were doing a lot of work together, and though my grandmother Susan wasn’t highlighted in the way that Ray was, she was such an integral part to everything that happened. These two powerhouse couples very much enjoyed each other’s company. Ray was just as good a friend of Susan, my grandmother.

AG: What project(s) do you consider to be Girard’s greatest legacy?

KG: Oh, there are so many. It’s hard to describe what’s important about his legacy, because to me, it is a larger sensibility that ran through every project; so when I think of individual projects, they always fall short of how powerful all the work is together. Of course there have been many textile designers before and after, but I don’t think that anyone has ever done textiles like him.

SG: Girard moved the eye in terms of textiles; he gave the world things it had never seen before. The designers were given great liberty at Herman Miller, but only because the management had such amazing trust in their vision and their ability to deliver on that vision. The designers felt such a sense of dedication to Herman Miller. There’s a letter from [George] Nelson to Eames that talks about this, and I imagine it was shared by Girard. Herman Miller was a small company in that time, and even though Eames was doing bigger work for IBM, and Nelson was working for the U.S. government, they always had this connection to [Herman Miller founder] D.J. DePree and to Hugh DePree. On the question of legacy, as a total work, the closest that you can come to experience is at the Girard wing of The International Museum of Folk Art. There you get a picture of the vision, of what Kori was referring to earlier in terms of this common bond that all human beings share, and you see Girard’s talents come forth.

All images courtesy of Herman Miller

Alexander Girard: An Uncommon Vision is open to the public at 446 West 14th Street through May 28, 2014.

Alex Gilbert