His designs are getting their time in the sun

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / July 23, 2009

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Enter the name Alexander Girard into Google, and more than 300,000 mentions of the prolific textile designer surface. But there was a time in the not-so-distant past when his name would generate just a handful of hits in any search engine. Only the most enthusiastic followers of modern design were familiar with his work.

“There’s been a huge increase in awareness,’’ says Sarah Sheesley, marketing director of Maximo Art & Design Research. Her agency has been working with the late designer’s family to license Girard’s designs on everything from toys to typefaces. In the past year alone, Girard’s work has shown up on new products sold by Urban Outfitters, Chronicle Books, and Flor carpet tiles.

Girard, who worked alongside Ray and Charles Eames at the upscale office furniture company Herman Miller from the 1950s to the 1970s, designed fabrics for corporate settings. But the designer, who passed away in 1993, was also known for other projects, including an exhaustive rebranding of Braniff International Airways in the mid-1960s. That encompassed everything from designing the company’s typeface for its logo to choosing plane colors to designing sugar packets (at the same time, Emilio Pucci was brought in to redesign Braniff uniforms). Girard is also revered for his menu-to-match book makeover of the New York restaurant La Fonda del Sol. He created over 80 different suns for the restaurant - many of which are now showing up on new Girard products.

Despite the fact that Girard was a design powerhouse, his work was largely forgotten after the 1960s. While the Eameses went on to become icons of modernist mid-century design, Girard’s work slipped into the vaults.

“There was a long period where his work was very underrated,’’ says Juliet Kinchin, curator of modern design in the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “For years, there was a feeling that textile design came much further down the hierarchical order than architecture and furniture, so his work was not regarded as highly.’’

According to Sheesley, Girard’s public profile suffered because unlike his Herman Miller contemporaries, he was not a self-promoter. While other designers carefully, and exhaustively, documented their creative process, Girard would simply clear his desk and move on to his next project. Also, because his textiles were only available to industry insiders, the general public could never purchase his designs. Unless you were lucky enough to work in a Herman Miller-designed office, you likely never saw his work.

“For instance, Marimekko textiles were picked up commercially,’’ Sheesley says. “Whereas Girard was available exclusively to architects and designers. Unless you ate at La Fonda del Sol, flew Braniff, or attended one of the exhibitions he designed at MoMA, you never saw his work.’’

Fifty years later, Girard’s work is finally enjoying the kind of renaissance that Ray and Charles Eames have enjoyed for years. Kate Spade used one of his La Fonda del Sol suns for a limited edition handbag. Designer Anna Sui used Girard graphics as inspiration for a line of T-shirts, and also for her spring/summer 2009 runway collection. More recently, Urban Outfitters introduced a line of textiles with Girard’s designs, and the modular carpet company Flor introduced carpet tiles that feature Girard’s designs, including his iconic suns.

“Modular carpet tiles were actually a project that Girard pitched to Herman Miller in the 1950s,’’ Sheesley says. “But they just didn’t have the means to do it at the time. It seemed like a natural collaboration to do this now.’’

“What we’ve discovered is that his archives are a bottomless pit of amazing work,’’ says Andy Cruz, the owner and creative director of House Industries, which is selling fonts based on typefaces Girard created, along with toys and tees. “So much of his work looks like it was done yesterday. It’s just incredibly timeless.’’

His bold colors were inspired by the folk art of Mexico and India, which he collected extensively. Kinchin says Girard was incredibly successful at taking folk art and reinterpreting it in a way that was urban and cosmopolitan.

Last month, Chronicle Books produced a set of Girard cards and journals based on the suns from La Fonda del Sol. It’s the company’s second Girard note card set.

“It’s sophisticated, but it’s still somehow populist in a weird way,’’ says Jason Sacher, associate editor at Chronicle. “He’s just one of those icons, and we’ve always wanted to work with his designs. Obviously we’re not the only ones. He’s clearly an influence on a lot of artists, and he’s not going away. It’s pretty exciting for people who love design.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at

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