Cranbrook exhibit: Modern Master Alexander Girard

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

He collaborated with Eero Saarinen, hung out with Charles and Ray Eames and curated a show which predated a groundbreaking one at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But mention Alexander Girard’s name outside design circles — and sometimes, even in them — and the reaction you’re most likely to get is puzzlement.

Cranbrook Art Museum Director Andrew Blauvelt attributes that to a design hierarchy. While Girard worked in a variety of mediums throughout his long and illustrious career, his best-known work was in textiles, which Blauvelt said have traditionally fallen lower on the design ladder. “There’s a pecking order,” he says.

“Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe,” the first major retrospective of the designer’s work that opened recently at Cranbrook as part of a worldwide tour, aims to change that. Blauvelt attributes the long-overdue spotlight on the designer’s work — he was known as “Sandro” to his friends and colleagues — to a fascination with anything mid-century modern and a search for fresh faces who worked in the genre. “He’s definitely ripe for rediscovery,” Blauvelt says.

Like the other mid-century designers he associated with, Girard has a Michigan connection. Born in New York, and raised in Florence, Italy, Girard spent his formative years —1937-53 — in the Motor City. “The post-Depression era was a very optimistic time in Detroit,” Blauvelt explained on a recent exhibition preview. “At the time, Detroit was one of the most important cities in the world.” So it’s fitting that Cranbrook, a museum that hosted some of the artist’s early sculpture in the 1940s, host the U.S. debut of an exhibition celebrating — and perhaps, explaining — his work.

Best known today for his textiles, Girard was, nonetheless, a modern Renaissance man who worked in nearly every field of design, including textiles, furniture, graphics and architecture, says Blauvelt. “He did so many things, and all of them quite well,” he says. An introduction to the exhibition explains the design philosophy that runs through the show. “Reaching beyond mere functionality, Girard conceived of design as a means of injecting beauty and pleasure into daily life.”

The 8,000-square-foot, chronologically arranged exhibition takes you through Girard’s long lifetime of enthusiasm for design in its many forms. “He had a very fertile imagination,” explains Blauvelt. “His philosophy was that the interior world is a stage” — and obviously, one to be manipulated and enjoyed.

That’s immediately apparent in one of the earliest displays, “The Republic of Fife,” an imaginary world Girard created when he was 10. “It’s telling because he designed every element, and it’s so comprehensive,” says Blauvelt, “That’s exactly what he went on to become known for later in life.”

His Detroit years were spent mainly in Grosse Pointe, where he worked in a variety of design positions, starting with assistant to a local interior designer. In the 1940s, he began experimenting with plywood and fine art sculpture, some of which was included in early exhibitions at Cranbrook and the DIA. In 1945 he opened a design shop and, in 1949, moved his family into a house he designed on Lothrop in Grosse Pointe Farms, a project which soon brought him other architectural commissions (unfortunately, only one of his Grosse Pointe commissions still stands).

Girard’s big break came in 1949, when the Detroit Institute of Arts chose him as curator and artistic director of an exhibition and showplace called “For Modern Living.” Made up of well-designed everyday objects showcasing the works of then-contemporary designers, the show attracted a record 150,000 visitors and foreshadowed a similar exhibition later staged at the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1952, Girard was hired as the director of the new textiles department at Zeeland-based Herman Miller, a position he held for 21 years. Over the next two decades, he was responsible for more than 300 curtain and upholstery fabrics, many of which hang on cardboard rollers in the exhibition, adding a playful and cheerful sense of pattern and color to the space. His fascination with folk art, which provided inspiration and became a lifelong collection, is also seen in the exhibition.

“Perhaps his most lasting contribution was to awaken us to the power of the handmade, the unexpected, and the colorful — and to show us that life is better lived with a little fantasy and magic in it,” says Herman Miller Executive Creative Director Ben Watson in the catalog forward.

Girard moved his family to Santa Fe in 1953. Later sections explore his Western home, his work for La Fonda del Sol, a New York restaurant, and a futuristic and funky campaign for Braniff Airlines, with flight attendant costumes by Emilio Pucci, complete with see-through helmets and a campaign tag line that reads “the end of the plain plane.” “Girard was definitely ahead of his time,” says Blauvelt. “He designed complete corporate identities that were some of the earliest examples of the type, if not the earliest.”

Don’t miss the “Environmental Enrichment Panels,” designed in the late 1960s as décor for some of the first office cubes; a 160-foot mural for the Saarinin-designed John Deere headquarters, and the sunken conversation pit from a Columbus, Indiana living room (yes, you can climb in!).

Blauvelt, who collects ceramics, admits he even learned things about the artist that he didn’t know before working on the exhibition. He covets a small blue and white bowl that dates to 1934. “It’s very unusual,” he explains. “I didn’t think he did ceramics, so this definitely came as a surprise.”

It’s just one of many in the exhibition, which was organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, which acquired the bulk of Girard’s estate after his passing in 1993. Other than a small exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt in 2001, his work has been generally passed over in favor of the better known practitioners of mid-century design.

Blauvelt said his time has definitely come. “Girard was trying to create something new and different,” Blauvelt explains. “He embraced the handcrafted, the whimsical, the decorative, the colorful, nearly everything that an earlier European modernism tried to banish. He knew about European modernism but took a different approach.”

The exhibition opened at the Vitra Design Museum. After it closes in Michigan, it heads to Korea and then to Berkeley, California. Blauvelt thinks global attention will go a long way toward restoring Girard to his rightful place in local and international design history. The focus on his life and work is long overdue.

“His work still resonates,” Blauvelt says. “His years in Michigan were vibrant and formative. My hope is that after this exhibition, people will finally know who he was.”

Alexander Girard:

A Designer’s Universe

Exhibit at the Cranbrook Art Museum runs through Oct. 8. Hours, admission fees, related events and more information at