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In 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.”

Mary 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.”

Wells knew just what to do, “We searched for Alexander Girard...”

Designer 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.

The 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 in Rome.

Girard 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.

In 1949, Girard was selected to design the Detroit Institute of Art’s “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.

Another 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 Miller’s 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 Girard’s 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.

Girard 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 great enthusiasm.

Some might consider Alexander Girard’s 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 York’s Time Life Building. This commission brought about Girard’s 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 shell.

By 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 mirrors.

In 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 Girard’s 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.“

A Braniff advertising campaign touted Girard as “busy redesigning our airplanes – in fact, tearing them apart… he 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 form"

The airline had become an explosion of color. Braniff’s planes now flew in seven different vibrant colors, including lemon, turquoise, and ochre. The interiors utilized 56 of Girard’s 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 detail.
With Girard’s 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 Braniff’s VIP club, you were in even better shape.

Braniff’s premier customers were treated to lounges which were furnished with some of the most exciting work of Girard’s 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 Girard’s earlier work with the Eamses on the La Fonda Chair.

Girard’s 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.

Always willing to take chances on the designers they believed in, Herman Miller introduced The Girard Group in 1967. Based on his designs for Braniff, Girard’s line of seating gave the public the chance to experiment with the juxtaposition of his fabrics, resulting in endless possibilities. Girard’s 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.

Alas, while a maverick airline appreciated Girard’s 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.

Girard’s 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 art.

--
Jason Mojica buys and sells used furniture.

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View Braniff's "End of the Plain Plane" commercial. (Quicktime)
[click here]

 

View Braniff's "Air Strip" commercial (Quictime)
[click here]

 

 

 

 
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