Exploring the colourful universe of Alexander Girard through a retrospective

STIR speaks to Jochen Eisenbrand, the Chief Curator of the Vitra Design Museum, on curating the exhibition Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe, his inspiration, and more.

by Pragnya Rao Published on : Dec 31, 2019

With its vivid and a rich tapestry of bold patterns, textiles, graphics and the use of folk art, Alexander Girard’s iconic work makes our maximalist hearts sing. And the exhibition, Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe doesn’t disappoint. Currently on display at the Palm Springs Art Museum in California, the travelling exhibition - a first, major retrospective on Girard’s work - opens the doors to his creative universe and shows his close relationships with contemporaries such as Charles & Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Andy Warhol, Rudi Gernreich, and many others.

Girard was also a pivotal figure in the history of the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA), where he donated more than 100,000 objects from his and his wife Susan’s folk art collection. In 1981, he created the museum’s long-term, beloved exhibition Multiple Visions. Girard’s playful designs attest to a passion for colours, ornamentation, and inspirations from folk art. The exhibition was also on display at MOIFA from May 5, 2019–October 27, 2019.

“Girard is a local hero of sorts,” said Khristaan Villela, Director of MOIFA. “His designs had an impact on local facilities such as the Compound Restaurant and St. John’s College.

Alexander Girard, in his studio in the early 1950s | Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe | Alexander Girard | STIRworld
Alexander Girard, in his studio in the early 1950s Image Credit: Courtesy of Museum of International Folk Art

With the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, being the first destination for the exhibition (March 11, 2016–January 22, 2017), STIR speaks to the Chief Curator, Jochen Eisenbrand, who put together the narrative for the exhibition, to share with us an exclusive insight into the making of Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe.

The exhibition poster for The Nativity, organised by Girard in 1962. The show featured 170 nativity scenes from 20 different countries | Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe | Alexander Girard | STIRworld
The exhibition poster for The Nativity, organised by Girard in 1962. The show featured 170 nativity scenes from 20 different countries Image Credit: Courtesy of Museum of International Folk Art

Pragnya Rao (PR): How did the exhibition on Girard come about?

Jochen Eisenbrand (JE): In the 1990s, the Girard family entrusted the Vitra Design Museum with the personal archive of Alexander Girard. It took us a while to realise what a treasure we held, but after Todd Oldham had published his giant book on Girard and once we started accessioning the very comprehensive collection of photos, drawings, and objects, it was clear that we had to do a large retrospective to honour Girard’s stunning and multi-faceted work across a number of disciplines.

Design for matchboxes of the restaurant La Fonda del Sol | Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe | Alexander Girard | STIRworld
Design for matchboxes of the restaurant La Fonda del Sol Image Credit: Courtesy of Museum of International Folk Art

PR: How did you go about curating this exhibition? Tell us a little about how did you zero in on the selections, your thoughts, ideas…

JE: Girard grew up in Florence, studied architecture in London, started his career in New York, became known as a designer in Michigan, and created the majority of his works living in Santa Fe. He was a true cosmopolitan with roots, and we wanted the exhibition to reflect this journey. Having visited the Girard wing at the Museum of International Folk Art during my exhibition preparations, I realised that another focus should be Girard’s interest in folk art and how it inspired his own work. Lastly, we wanted to give an impression of the enormous wealth of works he created across different fields such as textile design, graphic design, sculpture, furniture design, corporate identities and exhibition design. It is probably the exhibition with the largest number of exhibits that we organised at the Vitra Design Museum so far.

An armchair designed by Girard | Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe | Alexander Girard | STIRworld
An armchair designed by Girard Image Credit: Courtesy of Museum of International Folk Art

PR: What was your vision for this?

JE: We thought that the exhibition design should allude to Girard’s colourful and seemingly playful design without trying to compete with it. With Raw Edges from London, we were lucky to find excellent exhibition designers who took their cues from Girard’s own exhibition and display ideas and struck the perfect balance.

Storage boxes arranged and labelled by Girard | Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe | Alexander Girard | STIRworld
Storage boxes arranged and labelled by Girard Image Credit: Courtesy of Museum of International Folk Art

PR: Do you have a favourite piece in here?

JE: Maybe the maquettes that Girard created of the storefronts of Washington Street in Columbus, Indiana, to convince local businessmen of painting all facades according to his intricate colour scheme. Here, Girard took his design approach to an urban scale, and thus helped revive the downtown area of Columbus.

American artist Georgia O’Keeffe and Alexander Girard | Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe | Alexander Girard | STIRworld
American artist Georgia O’Keeffe and Alexander Girard Image Credit: Courtesy of Museum of International Folk Art

PR: Any memory of curating this exhibition that you would like to share?

JE: Preparing an exhibition means a lot of administration work and with the Girard exhibition it was always a special treat to leave the computer and go down to the collection to continue reviewing the unbelievably large number of stunning drawings and collages Girard created and to dive into these colours and patterns. Another great treat and privilege was getting to know the Girard family in the process.

The exhibition Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe was showcased at the following places - Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany (March 11, 2016–January 22, 2017); Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, USA (June 17, 2017–October 08, 2017); Hangaram Design Museum, Seoul, South Korea (December 2017–March 2018); Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA (May 5, 2019–October 27, 2019), and Palm Springs Art Museum Palm Springs, California, USA (November 23, 2019–March 01, 2020).

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About Author

Pragnya Rao

Pragnya Rao

Trained as an interior designer, Pragnya has spent 15 years in the design field. She was the Features Editor at ELLE DECOR India and Architectural Digest India, and more recently, the Editor at beautifulhomes.com. As a designer, she has styled shoots for leading brands and also been a part of India Design Symposium for five years.

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