Despite what the mainstream media would have you believe, Mad Men is not responsible for today’s fervid embrace of mid-20th-century design. It’s more emblematic of a pattern in public taste since World War II: underappreciated trends rediscovered four to six decades hence. Consider the love for Victoriana in the 1950s, art nouveau in the 1960s, arts and crafts in the 1970s, and deco and moderne in the 1980s. Can a new rage for Memphis and PoMo be far behind?
As such, we shouldn’t be surprised that Alexander Girard is having sort of a moment. Late in 2011, Ammo Books released a 672-page tome about him, compiled by the fashion/ interior/product designer Todd Oldham with design writer Kiera Coffee. At NeoCon this year, concurrent with reintroducing an archival collection of his textile designs, Herman Miller mounted An Uncommon Vision, an excellent exhibition of his work that will remain at Merchandise Mart until spring.
As director of Herman Miller’s Textile Division from 1952 to 1973, Girard worked with George Nelson and the Eameses to create what became the company’s well-defined aesthetic. But Oldham and Coffee’s Alexander Girard is less a scholarly analysis of Girard’s career than a visual compendium of all things Sandro (his American parents raised him primarily in Italy), including designs for interiors, exhibits, textiles, tabletop items, furniture, and graphics, as well as his extensive personal collections of art and objects.
The book doesn’t offer an enormous amount of interpretative material, which is acceptable, because it does offer such a dense array of color-splashed images illustrating the vast range of Girard’s talents that it compels readers to draw their own conclusions about his influence on design, both then and now.
Dozens of pages full of his folk art holdings—figurines, textile pieces, tableware, and other objects—clearly demonstrate a commonality with the quirky toys and games that were such an important part of Ray and Charles Eames’ oeuvre. And while his space-agemolded plastic furniture designs for Braniff and their eye-popping upholsteries may have been too edgy to make their way into your average American home, they certainly seem to have captured the fancy of Hollywood art directors in the 1960s. Consider the sets for such TV shows as Love American Style, Laugh-In and Get Smart, or just about any Doris Day rom-com.
There is no denying the beauty and richness of the book, or the significance of its effort to catalogue such an important designer’s portfolio. Yet its very materiality raises all sorts of issues regarding the state of art publications and also the viability of print media generally. At a list price of $200 and an oversized format (12 by 16 inches), it’s a major investment in both dollars and shelf space. As a practical matter, it’s the kind of thing you’d probably have to keep out as an art object rather than put it in a bookcase.
While the debate over the relevance of actual, physical books rages on, publications that are primarily visual in content persist in print form, as increasingly more precious and rarefied objects. A publication like Alexander Girard attests to its publisher’s optimism that a market for an oversized volume with a $200-plus price tag still exists. Whether or not that’s true, the fact that the publication doesn’t exist in an electronic reader alternative seems aggressively non-modern, or at the very least antithetical to spreading Girard’s gospel to another generation.