The designer Alexander Girard in his studio in the early 1950s (photo by Charles Eames, courtesy of Vitra Design Museum, Alexander Girard Estate) (click to enlarge)

WEIL AM RHEIN, GERMANY — Sometimes an exhibition can be so packed with information and ideas that it can send viewers racing home to try their hands at their own creations. That’s the kind of pay-off that can feel as rewarding as examining a deeply illuminating show itself.

Such is the impact of Alexander Girard: A Designers Universe, a rich testament to one of modernism’s most prodigious and prolific talents. The exhibition is on view through January 29, 2017 at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, a town immediately to the north of Basel, Switzerland. The Vitra, one of the world’s best-known museums of its kind, is situated on the campus of a Swiss company of the same name, which manufactures furnishings for private homes, offices and public and commercial spaces. The museum’s main building was designed by Frank Gehry; its collection of furniture, lighting and objects spans many eras ⎯ it’s especially well known for its chairs ⎯ and includes material from the estates of Alexander Girard, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Anton Lorenz and Verner Panton.

Cover of exhibition catalog, “Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe” (click to enlarge)

Girard’s artistic legacy and distinctive aesthetic vision have long been known to diehard design aficionados but are perhaps less familiar to general audiences. His top-to-bottom design schemes for such long-gone but influential Manhattan restaurants as La Fonda del Sol (opened 1960) and L’Étoile (opened 1966) are the stuff of legend, as were his abiding interest in folk art from around the world and his keen eye for detail. Indefatigably inquisitive, Girard was nothing if not well informed before he ever began sketching out ideas for any new project.

Girard was born in 1907 in New York; his father was of French and Italian background, and his mother came from Boston. Both his father and his maternal grandfather were antique dealers who showed their wares at international expositions ⎯ in Paris, Turin, St. Louis ⎯ in the early 1900s. When Alexander was an infant, the Girards moved to Florence, where he grew up speaking English and Italian, and the family eventually settled into a beautiful old villa. Young Alexander soaked up the artistic atmosphere and cultural influences surrounding him, but his immersion in the roots territory of the Renaissance ended when he was packed off to a boarding school in England.

Left to right: Main building of the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany, designed by Frank Gehry; Alexander Girard’s textile designs on display in the exhibition; reproductions of Girard-designed wooden dolls for sale in the museum’s gift shop (photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Keen on drawing (and, in effect, on everything related to what is known today as “communication design,” or graphic design in a myriad of applications), Girard filled notebooks with colored-pencil visions of his imaginary “Republic of Fife.” For this made-up island country, Girard, who enjoyed studying history and geography, created designs for flags, postage stamps, coats of arms, coins and paper currency, and games. Clever and sophisticated, this youthful project, components of which are on view in the Vitra show, display some of the hallmarks of Girard’s artistic-intellectual outlook, including his passion for detail and interest in other cultures. Notably, he also seemed to grasp at an early age the power of design as a richly expressive mode of communication.

Girard went on to earn a degree from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in 1929. During his five years of study there, his various design projects included a street fountain for Mexico City and plans for an archaeological institute. He also created a studio apartment for himself on the top floor of his parents’ house in Italy. (His interest in cohesively shaping every aspect of an interior began with such early undertakings.) At the International Exposition in Barcelona, in 1929, Girard presented an interior featuring his own designs as well as works crafted by Florentine artisans. That was the same exposition for which the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed Germany’s austere, elegant pavilion of glass, stone and steel, known as the Barcelona Pavilion, with its now-iconic, steel-framed Barcelona chairs.

Scenes from the exhibition, left to right: Seating and textile designs by Alexander Girard; the designer’s plywood chair from 1944; albums and boxes in which he stored his sketches and fabric swatches (photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

In 1932, Girard moved to New York, where he earned another architecture degree at New York University so that he could practice as a registered architect in the United States. During a five-year stay in the city of his birth, he married Susan Needham and designed and furnished an Upper East Side apartment that served as his residence and office. Girard’s projects during this period included furniture designs for wealthy customers and residential and restaurant interiors.

Already his work was marked by a knowing, precise line that reduced his subjects to their most basic, recognizable forms. His understanding of Italian-Renaissance art and Art Deco was evident in his sketches and skillful finished designs. As the Vitra exhibition’s curator, Jochen Eisenbrand, writes in its accompanying catalog:

He usually needed nothing more than paper ⎯ in all possible variations ⎯ as well as pencils, brushes and paint. But he also worked with glass, ceramics, plywood, scrap wood, wrought iron, tuff, pebbles, corrugated paper, cardboard, stamps, nails, spices and, of course, textiles. […] Yet the range and quality of his work were achieved without an office or permanent staff ⎯ the bulk of all this labor was carried out by Girard himself.

In 1937, the Girards relocated to Detroit, where Alexander had landed a job in a local interior design studio. However, he had bigger plans, and during his stay in Michigan of more than a decade, he founded his own architectural-design studio, with a retail showroom and gallery. (At one point, his shop was housed in a renovated, former hamburger stand).

On view in the exhibition, selections from Alexander Girard’s folk art collection. Left to right: Mexican Day of the Dead figures (foreground, photos one and two); Japanese kokeshi wooden dolls (foreground, photo three); and Girard’s versions of a pair of eyes based on an anonymous folk artist’s image of eyes (photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

During their Detroit years, Girard and his wife met and became lifelong friends of Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife design duo. Girard collaborated on a project with the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen and organized the 1949 exhibition For Modern Living for the Detroit Institute of Art. That landmark show served as a noteworthy precursor to the later Good Design exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which showcased accessible, high-quality, modern-style objects for everyday use ⎯ tools, lamps, teapots, chairs ⎯ and championed the aesthetic outlook that had informed them.

Perhaps one of the most significant developments in Girard’s career during this period was his appointment as director of the new textiles division of Herman Miller, the Michigan-based manufacturer of high-end, modern furniture. Eisenbrand notes in the exhibition’s catalog that Girard had begun designing his own textiles for furniture, draperies and other uses as early as the late 1930s, since he had “found available textiles unsatisfactory.” Girard himself once observed, “Textiles are a building material, as much a part of a room as are the conventional building materials of brick, glass, wood and plaster.”

Alexander Girard’s poster for “The Nativity,” a folk art exhibition at the Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, which the designer curated in 1962 (photos courtesy of Vitra Design Museum, Alexander Girard Estate)

Even after the Girards made their last big move, in 1953, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they renovated an old adobe house and reveled in the big skies, colors, textures and native cultures of their new surroundings, Alexander maintained close ties with his corporate clients and contacts back east. He had room to display his beloved collection of folk art from around the world, which served him throughout his career as a powerful source of inspiration. In Mexican Day of the Dead papier mâché statuettes, Japanese kokeshi (painted wooden dolls), Hopi beadwork figures, puppet theaters, and many other varieties of folk art, Girard found the same synthesis of color and expressive form that he brought to his own modernist work. (Later he donated his collection of more than 100,000 objects to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, where it remains on permanent display).

Environmental Enrichment Panels designed by Alexander Girard for Herman Miller. Left to right: “New Sun,” EEP 3004, 1971, cotton, 46.85 x 46.85 inches; “Black and White,” EEP 3035, cotton, 1971, 57.87 x 46.85 inches; “Love Heart,” EEP 3017, cotton, 1971, 46.97 x 46.97 inches (photos courtesy of Vitra Design Museum, Alexander Girard Estate) (click to enlarge)

The Vitra exhibition examines several of Girard’s large, multi-component projects, every aspect of which he personally oversaw and elaborated. It also presents hundreds of sketches, models and produced designs for fabrics, housewares, posters, and other objects, as well as a large selection from Girard’s folk art collection.

The Girards first visited Mexico, from their home in Detroit, in 1939, returning with a car filled with folk art objects and handicrafts. They shared an abiding interest in Mexico and Latin America, which Girard translated into the ground-breaking décor, space planning and graphic-design scheme of La Fonda del Sol, a Latin-American-themed restaurant that opened in the Time & Life Building in midtown Manhattan in 1960.

Images from La Fonda del Sol, Alexander Girard’s 1960 New York restaurant project. Left to right: Girard’s matchbox designs; section of the dining room; waiter’s poncho, designed by Rudi Gernreich (photos: Vitra Design Museum, Alexander Girard Estate; Louis Reens; Charles Eames; all photos courtesy of Vitra Design Museum, Alexander Girard Estate) (click to enlarge)

The cultural historian Barbara Hauss points out in the exhibition’s catalog that theme restaurants offering dining experiences as entertainment dated back to the 1920s and 1930s in the U.S. ⎯ think southern-California “Polynesian” eateries, with their Hawaiian music and cocktails named “Missionary’s Downfall” or “Vicious Virgin.” However, Girard’s La Fonda del Sol was different. It replaced kitsch with a respectful, cosmopolitan take on its source theme. Among its innovations: a well-researched, region-specific, authentically prepared menu (which prompted a New York Times critic to have to explain guacamole to his readers); a building-within-a-building adobe-style hut that housed a tile-decorated bar; a visible food-preparation area; and a consistent graphic-design program, featuring the sun as its main motif.

Girard designed every item of the project, right down to dozens of variations of matchboxes. He also used typeface-covered walls both as decoration and to convey information about the restaurant and its offerings. In effect, he brought the visual cohesion of corporate-identity programs, such as they were at the time, to a relatively high-end restaurant, while shaking up their ordinarily sterile character with color and warmth.

Cocktail lounge in L’Étoile restaurant, New York, 1966, designed by Alexander Girard (photo by Charles Eames, courtesy of Vitra Design Museum, Alexander Girard Estate) (click to enlarge)

Girard brought the same Gesamtkunstwerk approach to his plans for L’Étoile, which opened in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel on Fifth Avenue, near Central Park, in 1966. From its street-front awning and illuminated sign to its fabric-covered walls, futuristic light fixtures, and Pop-flavored ⎯ and French-flag-colored ⎯ lounge-area tables and chairs, L’Étoile radically upturned common notions of how a restaurant specializing in French haute cuisine should look and feel. Girard threw out the usual dark-wood trim, red-leather banquettes and heavy-frame mirrors and, typically, created an atmosphere of modern elegance and flair.

As the Vitra exhibition points out, Girard really never stopped working, and compelling ideas never ceased to flow from his sketchbooks and material experiments. Among his wide array of other projects: a color-driven corporate-identity scheme for the now-defunct Braniff International Airways; the interiors of The Compound, a restaurant in Santa Fe; the complete, color-based redesign of the main street of Columbus, Indiana; a collaboration with Saarinen on a house in Columbus for J. Irwin and Xenia Miller, which became known for such details as its sunken, sofa-lined “conversation pit”; and his involvement in numerous design-themed museum exhibitions.

Miller House, Columbus, Indiana, 1953-1957; designed by architect Eero Saarinen, with interior design by Alexander Girard; living room area with Girard-designed, sofa-lined “conversation pit” (photo by Balthazar Korab, courtesy of Library of Congress via Vitra Design Museum, Alexander Girard Estate) (click to enlarge)

Sometime during his long association with Herman Miller, Girard composed a statement about his work. In it, he wrote, “Every new project presents some version of basic order. In it, the ingredients for the exercise of fantasy and magic may usually be found. […] My greatest enjoyment and satisfaction in the solution of any project is uncovering the latent fantasy and magic in it and convincing my client to join in this process.”

Such an approach certainly challenged the austere dictates of mid-20th-century Bauhaus aesthetics, with their emphasis on stripped-down form following function, infusing them with the idea that functional form could ⎯ and should ⎯ also express emotion, and that it could be both pleasurable and attractive (or even “decorative,” that most dreaded label among the high priests of modernism). The Vitra show serves as a reminder that to examine Girard’s patterns, drawings, wooden dolls, and other designs is to discover anew the power of creative thinking and problem-solving ⎯ as well as their prolific creator’s unsinkable sense of unabashed, irresistible joy.

Alexander Girard: A Designers Universe continues at the Vitra Design Museum (Charles-Eames-Str. 2, Weil am Rhein, Germany) through January 29, 2017.

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise, Yes: Yoko...