1965 when airline industry hot-shot Harding Lawrence resigned
from Continental Airlines to kick-start the Texas-based Braniff
International, he knew he needed to make dramatic changes.
Lawrence called upon advertising maven, Mary Wells. "Listen,
Mary, I need a very big idea for this airline, something so
big it will make Braniff important news, overnight.
Wells had flown often enough to be tired of the bleak, military
feel of airlines. Stewardesses, as they were called,
were dressed to look like nurses or like pilots who could
fly the planes in case the real pilot had a heart attack.
There were no interesting ideas, no place for your eyes to
rest, nothing smart anywhere. And there was no color.
knew just what to do, We searched for Alexander Girard...
Alexander Girard brought vibrant color to post-war America.
Using flamboyant colors and patterns, Girard skillfully fused
the seemingly disparate worlds of modernity and folk art.
His designs for everything from wallpaper to flatware are
infused with an overriding sense of frivolity and joy, which
helped to define the style of the 1960s and lent a human touch
to mass-produced design.
international lifestyle of Alexander Girard began in 1907,
when his American mother and Italian father travelled from
their home in Italy to New York City so that he would be granted
U.S. citizenship. Girard was then raised in Florence and educated
throughout Europe, attending the Royal Institute of British
Architects in London and the Royal School of Architecture
was already a practicing architect and interior designer by
the late 1920s. In 1932, Girard returned to the U.S., opening
an office in New York City. By 1937 he had moved on to Detroit,
Michigan where he was really to begin making a name for himself.
1949, Girard was selected to design the Detroit Institute
of Arts For Modern Living. The show focused
on the design of everyday things, which happened to include
the first public presentation of the molded plywood chairs
of Charles and Ray Eames.
regional connection resulted in the body of work for which
Alexander Girard is best known. In 1952, Girard became the
director of design for Herman Millers textile division.
While at Herman Miller he designed over 300 different fabrics
and wallpapers.While Girard admitted that for most Americans,
a brilliant pink or magenta carried a connotation of
double-barreled horror, Herman Miller was bold in their
presentation of Girards hot color palette. "People
got fainting fits if they saw bright, pure color," said
Girard. It was these radiant fabrics which lent humanity to
the mass-produced furniture of Herman Miller. As Herman Miller
did a substantial trade to big business, it could be argued
that Girard helped to brighten the American workplace.
derived a great deal of inspiration from the folk art he collected
while abroad. The floral patterns in his Mikado fabric draw
inspiration from Japanese textiles. His Palio pattern is derived
from the semi-annual horse race of the same name which is
held in Sienna, Italy, which Girard was known to attend with
might consider Alexander Girards use of patterns and
color quite riotous and chaotic when, in fact, he had an acute
sensitivity to their proper use. One of his most stunning
commissions came when he was asked to design La Fonda Del
Sol, a restaurant in New Yorks Time Life Building. This
commission brought about Girards first venture into
furniture design, a collaboration with Charles and Ray Eames
which resulted in the La Fonda Chair. The chair combined an
elegant, space-age aluminum base with an upholstered fiberglass
this time, Alexander and his wife, Susan, had moved to New
Mexico where they were amassing one of the largest collections
of folk art ever assembled... over 100,000 pieces strong.
In 1961, together with Herman Miller, Girard created the Textiles
& Objects store in New York City. In a financial sense,
the store was a failure, seen by many as an elaborate exhibition
rather than a business. However, the store presented an eye-opening
bazaar to middle-class America. The Textiles & Objects
store sold items that Alexander and Susan brought back in
bulk quantities from their extensive travels, as well as products
made with his textiles including pillows, dolls, and... upholstered
1965, Mary Wells was placed in charge of creating a kind of
minor revolution at Braniff International. Her first step
in in shaking things up at the airline was to hire Italian
fashion designer Emilio Pucci to design new uniforms for the
stewardesses. While Pucci was hard at work sexualizing the
outfits (even throwing in a Braniff bikini, for good measure),
Wells was on the hunt for Girard. She was moved primarily
by Girards work at La Fonda del Sol, it was a
high-octane color montage of Mexican and modern, he worked
with Herman Miller designers and was a colleague of Ray and
Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, the people who had created
my wedding furniture. He lived in New Mexico and [my art director]
and I flew out to see him in his vivid New Mexican house with
its art gallery, a riot of folk art. We saw a thousand ideas
for Braniff's terminals, check-in counters and clubs in his
house and he had a thousand more when we signed him on as
the project designer. I thought it was a good omen when he
said he had been brought up in Florence and knew Emilio; it
all came together as if preordained.
Braniff advertising campaign touted Girard as busy redesigning
our airplanes in fact, tearing them apart
threw out nearly everything we had, and started from scratch.
Indeed he did. By the time he was finished Girard had designed
17,543 new changes for Braniff. My concepts for Braniff
International come from two primary, and seemingly contradictory,
design principles: First, design in depth, to insure variety,
interest and lasting excitement. Second, strip beautiful shapes
of non-essentials, to permit freest appreciation of the beautiful
airline had become an explosion of color. Braniffs planes
now flew in seven different vibrant colors, including lemon,
turquoise, and ochre. The interiors utilized 56 of Girards
iconoclastic Herman Miller fabrics, many custom-designed for
this project. From the Braniff logo, to dishes, luggage tags,
blankets, and playing cards, Alexander Girard customized every
With Girards warmth applied, a Braniff departure lounge
no longer felt like the sort of place which reminded you that
you were not yet where you needed to be. If you were a member
of Braniffs VIP club, you were in even better shape.
premier customers were treated to lounges which were furnished
with some of the most exciting work of Girards career.
Together with Herman Miller, Girard created a line of custom
furniture. Elegant dining tables of rosewood were accented
by streamlined aluminum legs. Seemingly simple chairs took
on chameleon-like qualities as fabrics were often varied between
the seat cushion, inner and outer upholstery. The aluminum
bases of the seating were strongly reminiscent of Girards
earlier work with the Eamses on the La Fonda Chair.
furniture put the final touch on the Braniff project. The
airline had become cutting-edge by hiring a designer whose
aesthetics were born in the primitive art of times past.
willing to take chances on the designers they believed in,
Herman Miller introduced The Girard Group in 1967. Based on
his designs for Braniff, Girards line of seating gave
the public the chance to experiment with the juxtaposition
of his fabrics, resulting in endless possibilities. Girards
coffee tables featured a clever innovation; its sculptural
aluminum supports were hinged in the center, allowing them
to adjust to accommodate either a circular or rectangular
table top. The furniture line was rounded off with a variety
of playful stools and ottomans, as well as a single hexagonal,
polished chrome table- quite industrial in appearance.
while a maverick airline appreciated Girards vision,
apparently the rest of America did not. The Girard Group was
discontinued in 1968 due to poor sales. Perhaps ahead of its
time in 1967, furniture from the Girard Group fits in with
the most contemporary of environments and has become an obsession
of many design enthusiasts and collectors alike.
work with Herman Miller continued into the 1970s when he livened
up their Action Office system with a series of Environmental
Enrichment Panels. In 1978, the Girard Foundation donated
its massive folk art collection to the Santa Fe Museum of
International Folk Art. They remain to this day the core of
the world's most important collection of cross-cultural folk
Jason Mojica buys
and sells used furniture.
this column in The Modernist's forums.
Braniff's "End of the Plain Plane" commercial.
Braniff's "Air Strip" commercial (Quictime)