Design Archives: Alexander Girard [1907-1993]

Alexander Girard

A photograph by Charles Eames of Alexander Girard in his studio in the early 1950s.

Furniture, textiles, interiors – this creative genius designed them all, and much more besides

With an american mother, a French-Italian father and an education in England, Florence and New York, Alexander Girard – architect, fabric designer and all-round creative genius – was a true citizen of the world. But it could be argued that it was a connection to Scotland that saw him take his first steps on the path he was eventually to follow so successfully. As a boy at boarding school in England, he came up with a project that he called ‘The Republic of Fife’. It was a complete concept, designed from top to bottom, drawing, building and creating everything from maps of his ‘region’ to its flag, its currency, its stamps – even its own language. This was his universe, a place where, even at such a young age, Girard felt compelled to create something independent and that stood separately as a bold design concept, but which was inclusive, multi-faceted and all-encompassing. It might have been the pastime of a small boy, but it was also the roots from which all of Girard’s later work would stem – work that is being celebrated throughout 2016.
Vitra’s Design Museum in Germany is currently hosting A Designer’s Universe, the largest retrospective to date of Girard’s work. Curated by Jochen Eisenbrand, the show is a vast homage to a man who saw the opportunity to communicate – through design – in pretty much everything. It makes his oeuvre difficult to define: he qualified as an architect both in the UK and the US. He is known as a furniture designer, a creator of fonts, a textiles designer, an interior designer, a collector, a sculptor. What is common in all of Girard’s work, regardless of the medium, is a desire to reach people, capture beauty and create something – whether a house, a chair or a drawing – with integrity. He had an incredible ability to unite opposing ideals, retaining as much naïve vigour and aplomb in every work he embarked upon as he had done as the creator of ‘The Republic of Fife’.

Some of Girard’s fabric designs

Some of Girard’s fabric designs

Although Girard was born in New York City (his mother was originally from Boston, his father was French-Italian), he spent his early childhood in Florence. He was sent to a boarding school in England, before studying architecture at London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture. By the early 1930s, he was back in the city of his birth, where he qualified – again – as an architect, this time from New York University. He set up his own studio, met and married his wife, Susan, and worked predominantly on interior design projects during this period. Work took him and his family to Detroit in 1937, where he established his own studio, showroom and gallery. It was in Michigan that he met American design power couple Charles and Ray Eames, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship, as well as a significant design partnership.

Armchair No. 66310, made by the Herman Miller Furniture Co., 1967

Armchair No. 66310, made by the Herman Miller Furniture Co., 1967

Hand-labelled storage boxes

Hand-labelled storage boxes

This is just a taster, you can browse the full article with more stunning photography on pages 164-168, issue 108.

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Words Catherine Coyle