Tips from a designer’s universe


Dear Artist,

When Alexander Girard and his wife, Susan, moved to Santa Fe in 1953, they finally had room to properly display their massive collection of folk art. Mexican Day of the Dead papier mâché dolls, Japanese wooden kokeshi dolls, Hopi beadwork dolls, Eskimo miniature dolls dressed in sealskin parkas and every other kind of doll from every corner of the planet had served as inspiration to Girard’s career. As a textile designer for Herman Miller, furniture and industrial designer and what is now known as a “total concept brand identity designer” for restaurants, an airline, private homes, corporate offices and museum installations, Girard worked from the magic of colour, graphics and expressive, anthropomorphic forms to spark joy in his signature worlds.

Dolls Solid pine wood, hand-painted with mixed media, including feathers, twine, etc. Designed by Alexander Girard (1907-1993) and manufactured by Vitra

solid pine wood, hand-painted with mixed media, including feathers, twine, etc.
designed by Alexander Girard (1907-1993) and manufactured by Vitra

Today, Alexander and Susan’s collection of more than 100,000 objects is on permanent display at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, next to a travelling exhibit of Girard’s design work. Here are a few ideas:

“I am a reasonable and sane functionalist tempered by irrational frivolity,” said Girard, injecting mid-century, Bauhausian austerity with decorative flourish and playfulness. While his designs were graphically sound and borrowed from the simplicity of children’s and folk art, he understood the sophistication and power of theme, multiples, variety, space and unexpected colour.

Waiter's poncho for Fonda del Sol, 1960 by Alexander Girard

Waiter’s poncho for La Fonda del Sol, 1960
by Alexander Girard

Girard embodied the German aesthetic of gesamtkunstwerk — building an artwork as a universal, all-embracing body, often making use of multiple art forms. Richard Wagner did it with literature, opera, dance and orchestra. In 1960, Girard injected a vibe into every aspect of his design for the Latin American-themed Manhattan restaurant La Fonda Del Sol, from the interior architecture and space planning to the typeface and matchboxes. He even designed a waiter’s poncho. The result at the time was groundbreaking: a cohesive, respectful and researched take on a cultural source.

As a kid, Girard had designed on paper detailed, imaginary worlds, leading to his discovery of how function and form could be demonstrably expressive and bring unapologetic, decorative pleasure to its user. In 1953, he collaborated with architect Eero Saarinen to design the interior of a midcentury house in Columbus, Indiana for industrialist J. Irwin Miller and his wife, Xenia. A feast of textiles and colour, this Girard-world featured, among other delights, a sunken, upholstered conversation pit abundantly colour-blocked with Girard-designed throw pillows.

Miller House, Columbus, Indiana, 1953-1957 designed by architect Eero Saarinen, with interior design by Alexander Girard Balthazar Korab photo, courtesy of the Alexander Girard Estate)

Miller House, Columbus, Indiana, 1953-1957
designed by architect Eero Saarinen, with interior design by Alexander Girard
(Balthazar Korab photo, courtesy of the Alexander Girard Estate)

“Every new project presents some version of basic order. In it, the ingredients for the exercise of fantasy and magic may usually be found,” said Girard. “My greatest enjoyment and satisfaction in the solution of any project is uncovering the latent fantasy and magic in it and convincing my client to join in this process.”



PS: “Art is only art if it is synonymous with living.” (Alexander Girard)

Esoterica: “The hope of good design lies in those designers who believe in what they do and will only do what they believe,” said Girard. Born in New York, raised in Florence and sent to boarding school in England, he collected folk art, toys, textiles, pottery figurines and artifacts, all of which informed an aesthetic of a highly livable fantasy. “Contrary to hearsay,” said Girard, “it is possible to make a living that way.”

The exhibition Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe continues at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe until October 27th, 2019, when it will move to the Palm Springs Art Museum and open November 23rd, 2019.

 The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Infinite are man’s expressions of beauty and love; open your eyes your ears and your heart to them and you will unite the peoples of the world.” (Alexander Girard)



  1. John Francis on

    Some lovely work shown here. I always appreciate being exposed to the work of Artists previously unknown to me.
    I do have one question, though: What the (expletive) does “total concept brand identity” actually mean? Seriously.
    We appear to have arrived at a time where the Language of Marketing, as I call it, has become too clever for clarity.
    Amazon ads talk about customers having a “delivery experience”. Airlines no longer have passengers, they have “guests”.
    Politicians in this country constantly talk about “Canadians” as if they weren’t citizens of this country themselves.
    Everything in media is either “iconic” or “epic”, when they often neither. Every Musician is now a “singer-songwriter”.
    I know what Designers do – I spent years designing Scenery for Theatre. But “total concept brand identity” baffles me.

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