lexander Girard may not be a household name these days, however, the impact he made on Herman Miller and the American textile industry is not something to scoff at. A friend of Ray and Charles Eames, a collaborator of Eero Saarinen and a prolific designer, Girard’s story deserves a closer look than it often gets.
Alexander Girard was born in 1907 in New York City. Having a French-Italian father, Girard grew up in Italy and was eventually sent to study at a boarding school in England. From there, he continued to study in London and Rome, where he earned an architecture degree. He moved back to New York in 1932 where he opened his first studio. In 1937, he moved his studio to Detroit- a popular decision with the mid-century designers of the time. While it may have been a mere coincidence, a move to Michigan put him closer to the headquarters of Herman Miller and the famous Cranbrook School of Design.
Although he is best known for his work in American textiles, Girard dabbled in many other fields of design and succeeded in everything he tried. He famously stated, “I have no favorite material; anything can be used to create beauty if handled well.” Girard crossed paths with Charles Eames in the 1940s and the pair quickly formed a friendship over a shared interest in plywood chairs and radio cabinets. This important connection with Eames would lead Girard to his next chapter as director of design for the textile division at Herman Miller.
“Alexander Girard became director of design for Herman Miller’s textile division in 1952, a time when fabrics, especially in the office, tended toward the utilitarian, drab and pattern-less. ‘People got fainting fits if they saw bright, pure color,’ Girard commented at the time.”
Girard put his design and architecture background to use stirring up the boring textile industry of the first half of the 20thcentury. Bold geometric prints, folk art inspired patterns and colorful graphics became his signature. Both a traveler and a collector, Girard used both to his advantage in design. He was a risk taker, but “he injected joy and spontaneity into his designs.” Herman Miller did not restrict his creativity. A move that would end up paying off for both Miller and Girard. “During his tenure, he created over 300 textile designs in multitudes of colorways, wallpapers, prints, furniture, and objects.”
Throughout his career with Herman Miller, Girard continued to create in revolutionary ways. When asked to assist with the re-brand Braniff International Airways in 1965 – the golden age of air travel - Girard seized the opportunity, “designing no less than 17,543 different items—from logo to lounge furniture.” He didn’t miss a single detail and even took the design of the airlines sugar packets into account.
From Herman Miller, to typography, restaurant design, and even John Deere’s corporate headquarters, Girard’s design talents have influenced much of the design we still appreciate today. His work will continue to inspire us for many decades to come.