BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — “Every new project presents some version of basic order,” wrote Alexander Girard. “In it, the ingredients for the exercise of fantasy and magic may usually be found.” The quote, taken from one of Girard’s artist statements, was heavily referenced in a symposium devoted to his fantastic and fantastical retrospective at the Cranbrook Art Museum, Uncovering the Fantasy and Magic of Alexander Girard. He wrote it when he was designing the interior of the home of his major patrons, J. Irwin and Xenia Miller, in Columbus, Indiana. Today, the Miller House is thought to be one of Girard’s greatest extant works, and is emblematic of his allusions to fantasy and magic.
Girard’s work was prescient, mitigating the stark sterility of American Modernism with the introduction of bold color, materials that are at turns earthy and futuristic, and the quotidian aesthetics inherent to folk art. Items from Girard and his wife’s prodigious international collection of folk art are on display, enabling visitors to make some straight-line connections between Girard’s points of inspiration and his output as an architectural, interior, and textile designer.
Born in New York, he spent most of his upbringing in Florence, Italy, and trained as an architect in London. However, it was during the years he spent living and working in Detroit, from 1937 to 1953, that he became acquainted with a creative cohort that would define his future. While working as a designer for a radio company called Detrola, he came to know Charles Eames, and through him met architects Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki, all with whom he would go on to collaborate. Eventually, Girard was hired as a textile designer for Herman Miller, where he worked for 24 years, and relocated to the American Southwest — but not before curating the extremely influential 1949 exhibition, For Modern Living, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, pushing Detroit to the forefront of modern design.
For Modern Living spent quite some time in the conceptual stages, including Girard’s development of a manifesto of sorts, detailing the constituent ideas for what he termed “A New Concept of Beauty.” This encompassed notions of freedom, honesty, simplicity, lightness, naturalness, free use of color, and new forms due to new technology — examples of which can be seen dozens of times over in Girard’s work on display. But For Modern Living also presented a dichotomy between American Modernism and the pre-World War II lineage of domestic design, literally presenting a bifurcated entryway to the exhibition that posed the question: “A Deadend of Repetition – OR – A New Road?” The illusion of a forked pathway encouraged visitors to reject the dead-end path flanked by fussy Chippendale-style furniture.
As Curbed’s national architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, outlined in her presentation at the symposium, Girard had a passion for organization. On display are some of his binders and cardboard boxes meticulously lined with marbled paper, as well as satisfying arrays of chromatic swatches. One of his single most influential contributions to the modern design movement was the concept of modular storage walls, which not only presented opportunities to stow away the necessary but unaesthetic stuff of life, but also offered endless and mutable display spaces. Girard loved nothing more than to fill these spaces with folk art, creating different and personalized miniature museums of cultural anthropology throughout his professional career, as well as within his own living space.
These modernist notions of space, design, and presentation have become so inextricable from our contemporary ideas of good taste that they feel inevitable, but in Girard’s time, they flew in the face of conventional interior design. Like Lange, I am a descendant of families that wholeheartedly embraced these ideas when they were new — not on the level of commissioned houses, though there are a few Herman Miller chairs floating around my gene pool — but unlike Lange, I’ve always found modernist aesthetics somewhat unsettling.
Cranbrook’s promotional materials frame Girard’s singular aesthetic as an “antidote” to modern design. This word choice suggests a malady of some kind, as though modern design were in need of a cure, and in wandering through the exhibition, particularly meditating on the joyful and colorful folk art sealed into hermetic white-and-glass display cases, the exact nature of the malady became more apparent.
At the symposium, speakers pointed out that Modernism was the first and original design movement to emerge in the US — all previous design had been imported or, significantly, inherited. I would argue that, as such, it leveraged its power on a kind of cultural pasteurization. Much of the tradition and aesthetics from some 200 years of immigrant communities that formed the backbone of contemporary American society, from the Mayflower forward, were eliminated in favor of clean, white, futuristic spaces. Perhaps as an inadvertent side effect of this aesthetic house-cleaning, it served as a kind of erasure, wiping away history, and offering its adopters a new slate after the war for an idealized vision.
The problem, of course, is that pasteurization kills culture, depriving the body of helpful probiotics and living nutritional elements; modern design cleared the decks, but left them unfortunately a bit clinical and chilly for all but the most unflagging devotees. The “antidote,” as practiced by Girard, was the pulling together of cultural roots from other places and societies, essentially inoculating the sterilized Modernist field with new cultures. These came from folk communities encountered on Girard’s world travels t0 India, Africa, and Northern Asia, developing long relationships with rural villages and cities over the course of his visits repeated over decades. While he performed the crucial task of translation, inspired by and obviously admiring of these artists, he inevitably divorced their creations from their archaic contexts.
What can be seen and touted as the humanization of Modernism might also be seen as an effort to trap historic and folk culture in a modern matrix. Aesthetically, there is much wonder to behold, and Girard’s exquisite taste in his practice is unquestionable, but viewed through a post-postmodern framework, there is also something to be said regarding cultural appropriation and colonialism. There is no shortage of fantasy and magic in Girard’s work, and Cranbrook has spared no effort in making a beautiful presentation of it, but I nonetheless found myself reminded to remain ever-vigilant about the invisible — and sometimes quite breathtaking — acts of erasure facilitated by really great design.
Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe continues at the Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 Woodward Ave, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.) through October 8.