It would be impossible to dedicate an entire website and wiki to the designs of Charles and Ray Eames without mentioning Alexander Girard and the significant role that he played, not only in the work of Charles and Ray, but in their personal lives as well.
Alexander Girard had such a huge impact on the look and feel of Eames furniture during the mid 20th century that it was only right for us to bring awareness of and pay homage to him and his extraordinary work. Not only was he known as an incredible architect and visionary fabric and textile designer but also an interior designer and a great deal more.
Girard’s skills in design were so versatile, indeed much like many of his peers of the time including Charles. Part of the reason why was very much the way of the times, with the post war period leading to designers having the opportunity to express themselves and lend their hand to multiple disciplines. From his roots in architecture to textile and fabric design, to interiors, furniture, folk art, dolls and even radios, it seemed there was nothing that Girard could not turn his hand to, and do it well, with a distinctive style all his own.
A famous portrait of Alexander Girard looking relaxed in his design studio
One of Girard's famous designs from 1961, the International Love Heart
Early Life & Career
Alexander Girard was born on May 24th, 1907 in New York City. His father, Carlo Mateo was French-Italian and his mother, Lezlie Cutler, was from Boston in the US. He spent his childhood years growing up in Florence, Italy. His family were wealthy and became familiar with many different countries and their cultures, something that would stay with Girard his entire life. By the age of 22 Girard was studying at an architectural school in Rome before moving onto the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. By 1932 he had relocated back to New York and opened his first design studio before moving on once again to Detroit in 1937.
Girard was already making a name for himself with his impressive work when he designed and directed the groundbreaking show ‘For Modern Living’ at the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts in 1949 (where the Eames showcased their plywood products) and later became a judge for the famous ‘Good Design' Shows, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York which really kick-started the whole mid-century design period.
It was during these years in the late 1940's and early 1950's that Girard and Charles and Ray Eames became at first acquainted, and subsequently great friends and even colleagues.
From Strength to Strength
It was Charles Eames himself that put a great deal of effort into helping recruit Alexander Girard, his great friend and respected peer, into joining the Herman Miller Company and spearheading their ‘Textile Division’ in 1952. It was a significant coup for the company and the introduction of Girard was vital as he transformed the look and feel of the furniture products designed by Charles Eames and their other resident design team headed by George Nelson.
Girard’s tenure and work at Herman Miller literally brought about the design and use of hundreds of fabric designs and textiles until he departed in 1973. Early designs of his in the 1950’s very much followed his architectural roots and utilized stripes, patterns and squares, symmetry and algorithm. Into the 1960’s and 1970’s Girard showed his ability in reading the trends of the times as his fabrics became more free-form and showcased a whole range of bright and bold colors and designs.
The fabric creations of Girard can be found on a whole range of Eames chairs, from the Harlequin upholstery of the early shell chairs to the stripes and patterns of the flamboyant sofa designs. Girard's work was not only focused in bringing interesting textiles into furniture but bringing the right textiles too. Most important in his work was to find new and varied forms of fabrics that could be used on a whole host of products and offer durability, comfort and versatility.
The familiar fabric pattern of the signature 'Millerstripe' one of the hundreds for the company by Alexander Girard
Interior of the La Fonda Del Sol restaurant in 1961
La Fonda Del Sol
Despite Girard's work for Herman Miller he was not contractually tied only to the company and this led to other avenues that he could utilize his skills for. One of the most famous of which was the La Fonda Del Sol restaurant in New York City which opened in the Time Life building in 1960. It was a Latin American themed eatery with beautifully designed murals, typefaces, menus, tableware and fabrics all by Girard.
Girard was commissioned to design the interior of this new restaurant and this he did with the help of his great friends Charles and Ray Eames. Girard enlisted the Eames' to design and produce with Herman Miller the furniture to be used throughout the establishment. Girard famously requested that the chairs for the restaurant would not be higher than the surface of the table and that they could be pushed to the table and leave a clear field of vision over the restaurant.
The result was the La Fonda series of fiberglass chairs and tables by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller. The chairs were an adaptation of the fiberglass arm and side chairs but with a lower rounded back (to meet the design need) and always upholstered. Both these and the tables had new two piece polished bases and Herman Miller marketed the furniture designs for some years after.
Other Work, Finding Home & Legacy
Girard would actually go on to design other restaurant interiors, in New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In 1965 Girard was commissioned to re-brand and re-energize the Braniff Airline with a complete overhaul of everything imaginable. From airplane interiors to waiting room seating, condiments, blankets, uniforms and even food trays, everything was included in what was and still is one of the most comprehensive re-brands ever. There was over 17,000 different objects in the overhaul which included the company logo and even playing cards. On the back of this, Herman Miller produced furniture designs of Girard's for a short period afterwards.
During the 60's Girard and his wife Susan relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This was a place that he had fallen in love with and was mesmerized by the city, its architecture, its lights and its folk art, culture and feel. Over the years they amassed thousands of folk art pieces from around the globe and a beautiful museum is dedicated to that collection to this day in Santa Fe.
Alexander Girard passed away in 1993 but his design legacy very much lives on to this day. His designs in whatever form they come (textiles, furniture, wall hangings, art) have become super collectible and highly valuable.
The glorious 1960's were very much captured in the designs Girard made for Braniff Airlines in 1965