Outtakes of the Miller House by Eero Saarinen shoot for Dwell magazine by photographer Leslie Williamson. The detail above shows how the designers camouflaged what the owners called “visual warts,” like this TV.
Looking forward to seeing this whole shoot, as it is frustrating to look at the same photos of a house over and over again. Nothing is the same as being there, but even multiple visual interpretations help. If nothing else, we are much more interested in things like What Would Alexander Girard Do With a TV? today than we were in 1958.
Photos by Eric Laignel for Interior Design.
One of those commonalities is the idea that physical objects are vessels for memory and feeling. Girard thought this was a crucial idea to remember and incorporate when designing a space, but he thought that modernism, as a design agenda, had left this notion behind, to its detriment. Ironically, modernism was looking for a way to be global and cross-cultural, but by being abstract. So it’s effacing all those elements that have culture-specific, or what could be defined as narrative, references. But for Girard, storytelling was the whole point, since it is the core activity of every culture. Design is storytelling, and design elements—whether objects or motifs—are dramatic players in the “theater” that one creates when designing.
From an interview on Design Faith with Ruth Keffer, curator of the SFMOMA’s 2006-2007 exhibition Alexander Girard: Vibrant Modern. Lots of wonderful photos of that exhibition, plus images from an Interior Design feature on a northern California house designed by Don Knorr with Girard interiors. Still intact, still original owner.
I am, as ever, particularly taken with the cabinets and storage…
As faithful readers of this blog know, I had hoped to be writing a monograph on Alexander Girard right now. A minor figure in my dissertation, and in many histories of mid-century modernism, Girard fascinates me as an architect who refused to play the skyscraper game, focusing his considerable talents on restaurants, textiles, exhibitions and murals. His work looks exuberant, and sometimes kitschy, but it always has an underlying geometric rigor.
One of his greatest works is the mural he designed for Eero Saarinen’s John Deere headquarters, which I believe originated an idea of three-dimensional display usually credited to the Eameses.
Today on Design Observer, I have published a fragment of my future book, There’s No Place Like Work, Designing with Folk Art. This essay also appears in the catalog for an exhibition of Girard’s work at the New Mexico State University Art Gallery, Modern Design/Folk Art.
George Nelson’s 1953 book Display reserved special praise for Girard’s 1953 Good Design exhibit at MoMA:
This show is one with no backgrounds: all walls and the ceiling have been painted black, so that they disappear; within the black envelope the exhibits appear, set on, against, into glowing surfaces of light.
It is clear from Nelson’s description that there is a close affinity between the technique Girard developed for his history murals of the 1960s and his exhibition and showroom designs of the 1950s and 1960s. The idea of floating an object — on a rod, on a glass shelf, on mirror, on a wire — recurs again and again, as do grids of those rods, shelves and wires, creating showcases within showcases, rooms within rooms. At the MoMA, he painted walls and ceilings black, covered the floor in parts with blackened cork and even used dark flock paper on some of the inner walls of the cases. For the 1961 Textiles & Objects shop in Manhattan, Girard went in the opposite direction, making the walls, floors, and ceiling of a long, narrow storefront white and layering within them chromed 3D grids, backlit translucent shelving, fabric-covered single-leg stools, and panels of his own Herman Miller fabrics (most with a latent grid of their own). The lighting was designed to sparkle, tiny lights strung along the chrome uprights, so the stuffed and carved and painted objects within were both silhouetted and highlighted. Designer Marilyn Neuhart’s embroidered dolls stood, like a line of cubby schoolgirls, across a white-painted wire rack suspended from the ceiling across the front window.
Read the rest here.
I have blogged about Alexander Girard a number of times in the past, as I was hoping to write the first definitive history of his career as architect, and exhibition, textile and restaurant designer. That may still happen, but unfortunately I have to get in line behind Todd Oldham, who is putting together a visual monograph on Girard to be published by AMMO next year.
One of the aspects of Girard’s career that is most newsy, and that I am hoping I can convince someone to send me to Columbus, IN to cover, is the restoration and reopening of the J. Irwin and Xenia Miller House. I researched this house for the Eero Saarinen catalog, since he (mostly Kevin Roche) designed the house, while Girard did the interiors, and lectured about it this past June.
One of the most strikingly original aspects of the Miller House, completed in 1957, is that it is one of few iconic modern houses built for a family (I would count the Noyes house as the other). And Girard had a lot to do with making what could have been a mausoleum into a fun, color-coded home. Here’s a video from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, showing a recent discovery of a box of Girard’s swatches and notes. Don’t you wish you were there?
In 2003, which now feels like a lifetime ago, my now-husband and I embarked upon a three-week modern architecture tour of the Midwest. Most of the sites on our list were topics for my dissertation, but the others were not incidental: to truly understand the history of modernism in the United States, you have to get off the coasts. Our roughly circular trip took us from New York to Pittsburgh (Wright, Harrison), Detroit [Saarinen, Saarinen, Mies (image from Dwell above)], Zeeland (Nelson, Eames, Girard), Chicago (Mies), Racine (Wright), Spring Green (Wright), Moline (Saarinen), St. Louis (Saarinen, Sullivan), Bartlesville (Wright), Columbus, IN (Saarinen, Saarinen, Noyes, Weese), and some other places I am sure we have forgotten. At the General Motors Technical Center we were the only foreign car in the lot; in Zeeland, a dry town, the only restaurant seemed to be Boston Market and the Herman Miller archivist couldn’t believe we lived blocks from the location of his favorite film, Moonstruck; when we got out of the movies in Tulsa at 9 p.m. the vast mall parking lot was empty but for our car. It was a strange trip, mostly strange because, except at the Wright sites, we seemed to be the only people interested in the buildings. I have written about the private proximities of major postwar designers like Noyes and Knoll and Saarinen, and about the corporate proximities of the same, but I never thought to rearrange the names and careers geographically.
I was reminded of this trip by the discovery of the website Michigan Modern (which subsequently posted a link to my Design Observer piece on Aline and Eero Saarinen, Love & Architecture), the online front for a just-launched project by the State Historic Preservation Office intended to highlight the many modern architects and buildings in Michigan. Examples are thick on the ground, with loci of invention in Detroit (and suburbs like Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe) and Zeeland (home of Herman Miller, and close to furniture town Grand Rapids). Cranbrook, the Bauhaus-like academy of art and design founded by auto entrepreneur George Booth and run by Eliel Saarinen, was a node in what became an international design network of teachers, students, and alumni. At one point, of a cold Michigan evening, you could find yourself at a party with Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard and Minoru Yamasaki, men who defined postwar architecture and design from what was then a booming city. Everyone seemed to have a bentwood chair in his backseat, or a skyscraper based on a new structural system on the drawing board. And Girard’s pioneering 1949 exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, “For Modern Living” brought all of these people and more together for the first time.
Everyone knows that Los Angeles—to which Charles and Ray Eames soon decamped—and New York—where the Museum of Modern Art created its own design society, were style centers, but other cities and other states certainly had their moments (Kansas City, where the Halls of Hallmark decided to remake the downtown in the 1960s, certainly comes to mind), much as other cities and other states are now at the forefront of thinking about green living, sustainability, affordability. I hope Michigan Modern inspires other states to get excited about their more recent heritage as a matter of American history and preservation. It is all very well for the media, and out-of-state historians, to try to tell a city what they are trying to tear down, but it is much better to have locals retrace the intertwined histories of industry, innovation and (oftentimes) suburbanization for themselves. The results will be less formal, and closer to the scrappy, personal culture that spawned the icons.
At a certain point during our three-year renovation, I OD’d on design websites. I couldn’t look at another wallpaper-inspired, radically-simplified, IKEA-hacked, upcycled fill-in-the-blank, much as I sometimes needed to choose tile or a shower curtain or a coffee maker. Now that we are done, my purchases tend to design-free diapers and Carters pajamas (though in truth, I did avoid those with mottoes). And in truth, I am repressing the Marimekko throw pillow spree. But those are a lifetime obsession.
Which is why my new favorite source of procrastination is Reference Library. I don’t know who the author is (though judging by his friends, I ought to), but his site offers beauties new and old, architecture and objects, fashion and textiles, idiosyncratically grouped by personal taste and rarely with a price. I love how plain and unexplained it all is. And I love almost everything on the site. But I get the feeling I can just admire.
I ran across Reference Library Googling Alexander Girard. As I may have mentioned, I am trying my hardest to write a book on Girard, mid-century architect, textile designer, exhibition designer, folk art collector, and have found the internet material on him selective and repetitive. That’s why I was thrilled to turn up his Detrola chair, part of the vast RF Ebay trove, most tagged “Items I Didn’t Win.” He says these are his disappointments, but for me the idea of ownership during the period of the auction is usually enough, just like checking out a book from the library.