Trend: Alexander Girard: The Legacy of a Mid-Century Modern Maestro in New Mexico

Trend: Alexander Girard: The Legacy of a Mid-Century Modern Maestro in New Mexico

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Renowned mid-century modernist designer Alexander "Sandro" Hayden Girard (1907-1993) moved with his wife Susan and their children to Santa Fe in 1953. In the years that followed, Girard left an indelible mark on the New Mexican and American art and architectural landscape, leaving a legacy that inspires and excites modern design enthusiasts and visitors alike.

Girard was born in New York and raised in Florence, Italy. His Italian father was likely a large source of his early inspiration, being a master woodworker and an arts & antiquities dealer. Girard pursued his formal education at the Royal School of Architecture in Rome and at New York University. While working in New York in the 1930’s, the soft-spoken and serious Girard met and married his wife Susan Needham March. They were adoring partners in life, traveling the world and collecting folk art together, amassing a collection of folk art that would become the largest in the world, and befriending some of the greatest artists and architects of the time, including Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and fellow New Mexican transplant Georgia O’Keeffe.

In his early career, Girard had offices in Florence, New York City, and Detroit and Grosse Point, Michigan. He designed several residences, radio bodies and a factory for Detrola, facilities for Ford and Lincoln car companies; and furniture for Knoll. In 1947, in a precursor to several later teamings of the two masters, Girard joined Eero Saarinen’s team for their winning design submission for the Saint Louis Gateway competition – The Saint Louis Arch. Girard was brought on as color consultant for General Motors in 1951.

In 1952, Girard’s life would change forever when his friend of nearly 15 years, Charles Eames, offered him the position as Director of the Fabric Division at Herman Miller. It was at this same time - fueled by a passion for folk culture, a desire to be in a suburban environment, and a need to be accessible for his bi-coastal clientele - that Girard moved the family into a nearly 200 year old hacienda in Santa Fe.

From his office across the dirt road from their home, Girard designed the interiors of the Denver Hilton; a tableware line for Georg Jensen; a new home and offices for Irwin Miller with Saarinen, an apartment for director Billy Wilder; the Herman Miller Textiles and Objects showroom; the folksy La Fonda Del Sol restaurant in New York; the legendary black, mirrored and crystal L'Etoile restaurant in New York; and the interiors of the Student Center at St. Johns College in Santa Fe.

Working for Herman Miller from his Santa Fe office, Girard created fabrics and wallpapers for the spaces created by mid-century modernist master architects, including George Nelson, Saarinen, and Eames. Girard worked for Herman Miller until 1975, designing furnishings lines as well as the Herman Miller showrooms in Grand Rapids and San Francisco.

Ten years after moving to Santa Fe, Restauranteur Bill Hooten approached Girard to renovate the McComb residence on Canyon Road, which had grown over a hundred years from a single room into a sprawling compound, inspiring the apt naming of The Compound restaurant. Leaving the blended Spanish Pueblo Revival and Territorial architecture of the exterior and the walled courtyards and gardens alone, Girard added only a simple front entrance portale. On the interior, Girard dismantled the maze of tiny interior rooms, opening up the space to create an axial arrangement of dining rooms along one side of an open hallway and a bar and exterior patio along the other. He replaced a load bearing wall with a tree trunk, angled the bancos to create personal dining niches, and sunk the bar - a reference to conversation pit he invented and installed in his own home nearly 10 years before. Girard was playful in the way he treated the whitewashed rooms, piercing the room corners to allow framed views of the design. For decoration, Girard used a patchwork of Mexican and Navaho weavings to decorate flat ceilings, added a ten foot long painted snake for dramatic effect to an undulating ceiling, included 3-dimensional murals and inlaid wood doors, designed a personalized alphabet for the menus and signage, and decorated niches and stands with pieces from his own folk art collection. He designed the table settings too… placing white china on ecru tablecloths, finishing the bancos in faux leather, and designing a curvilinear white oak chair for additional seating. Architectural Forum deemed it “The Town’s Newest and Best Restaurant.” The Compound is the last of Girard’s restaurants in operation, and maintains a reputation for exceptional fine dining nearly 50 years later.

Harvey Hoshouer, an MIT graduate who worked with legendary architects including Mies van der Rohe, Harry Weese, and I.M. Pei - and who was a former employee of Girard’s - designed the sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque in 1964. The highlight of the space is a forty foot long and eight foot tall textural wooden block mosaic/mural designed by Girard in 1965, commissioned as the modern equivalent of an altarpiece for Hoshouer’s starkly modern building. The mural’s 5,000 wood tiles were harvested from abandoned barns purchased from ranchers in the Jemez mountains and spotted by Sandro’s son Marshall at horseback riding camp. Father and son hand-disassembled each barn, starting with the roof, stacking each board with cardboard between, and loading as many trailers as it took to get the barn down to Santa Fe. The wood was cut into three inch squares by a church member and installed into an arrangement of colors, shades, and symbols by Girard’s team. The colors in the symbols are original to their reclaimed condition, and include tar-scarred roof sheathing, stained, and painted details. The 22 symbols on the mural represent the wisdom of the world's religions.

The First Unitarian mural was not Girard’s first or last mural. He also designed the 180 foot long and three-dimensional “Reflections of an Era” mural for Saarinen’s John Deere headquarters. The Deere mural is constructed of more than 3,000 3-dimensional pieces of company memorabilia dating back to 1860. The objects were collected by Girard and 5 other team members, who traveled in teams of two scouring antique shops throughout the US. The Deere mural’s background, though mostly obscured, is also reclaimed wood.

In 1966, Girard was brought on to rebrand Braniff Airlines, and designed more than 17,000 items for the transformation, including coordinating airplane and ground equipment color schemes, the buttons on the captain’s uniforms, matchbooks, signage, furniture, and even the typeface for printed materials.

The Multiple Visions: A Common Bond exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe showcases nearly 10,000 of Sandro and Susan’s donated collection of over 100,000 folk art pieces. Visitors are captivated by the exhibit, which features folk art in unique arrangements that engage not only the art itself, but the observer’s response to it, forcing us to confront our inner intellectual and emotional landscapes by illuminating ideas of sameness, difference, and perspective. In placing the multitude of things in the collection into unexpected arrangements, or locating pieces in places we may not have predicted, and not explaining any of it… Girard seems to suggest that color, pattern, and language… and therefore ideas… are perhaps more fluid than we may have believed. As if illustrating this, the entrance to the exhibit quotes an old Italian proverb often quoted by Girard: “Tutto il mondo è paese” or, “The whole world is hometown.” The exhibit, located in an addition to the museum’s original John Gaw Meem structure designed by First Unitarian architect Harvey Hoshouer, has delighted more than a million visitors since opening in 1982.

After his death in 1993, Susan Girard unsuccessfully attempted to find a writer to prepare a retrospective on Sandro’s work. When she passed on several years later, the adult Girard children committed to have their father’s work catalogued and his story told. In their search, they found Todd Oldham, a renowned designer in his own right, whose family homestead in Abiquiu gave him an understanding of the New Mexican culture Girard had “left civilization” to immerse himself in. Oldham had previously produced design compendiums of Charley Harper and Joan Jett; had collaborated with legends Michael Graves, Camille Paglia, Amy Sedaris, and John Waters; and produced design studies on mid-century modern aesthetics, embroidery, fabric printing, collage, and fabric dyes. The Girard family recognized the excellent fit, and in 2011, Oldham and writer Keira Coffee produced - with help from Girard’s children and grandchildren – an exceptional Girard monograph. In it, they stated, “In his lifetime. Girard created not just a new style but a style of looking at things. He raised questions about how we make things, how we notice them, whether things speak to us or we speak to them. From the beginning of his career, Girard had an interest in the concord between lines, objects, colors. He disregarded trends and went to work showing others his discoveries.” 

Throughout his career, Girard created thousands of simple, elegant, and colorful décor designs for the humanistic mid-century modern aesthetic. He was more concerned with eliciting a feeling for the space in his viewers than in intellectualizing the design. One newspaper of the time noted, “If Girard did it, it’s not just another anything.” Perhaps because of this, unlike much of the design of the period, Girard’s work is still venerated: Girard’s fonts and typographies have been reinvigorated by House Industries in the forms of blocks, games, puzzles, and nativity sets; Elektra introduced a bicycle with Girard details; and MaXimo Designs, Urban Outfitters, and Anna Sui have Girard details in their collections.

Even in death, Girard continues sharing his discoveries with the people of New Mexico, leaving us architecture and an art collection that transcends time and place and yet… is still very much connected. His three intact remaining New Mexico projects, with the first and last dated nearly 20 years apart, illustrate this: The Museum of International Folk Art’s Girard Wing, the mural of First Unitarian Church ABQ, and the patio doors of The Compound restaurant in Santa Fe all share the same detail… reclaimed barn wood from the Jemez mountains, arranged in squares, and applied to create an effect that thrills not only the rational mind, but the spirit.



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