How Alexander Girard’s Folk Art Obsession Changed The Course Of Modernism

“He was collecting vernacular and designing modern,” explains curator Monica Obniski.

An amateur collector might own a handful of pieces, a hobbyist a few dozen, and a serious collector a few hundred. But when you hit 100,000, it’s a downright obsession. One of the few to attain that level of collector mania? The midcentury architect and designer Alexander Girard.


Girard’s folk art collection reached 106,000 pieces before he donated it to the Museum of International Folk Art, in Santa Fe, in 1978. Dozens of those items–which include figurines, toys, and spiritual objects–are on view this summer as part of Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe, an exhibition at the Cranbrook Museum of Art that also did a stint at the Vitra Design Museum.

[Photo: Charles Eames/Alexander Girard Estate/Vitra Design Museum]
“You can’t look at Girard’s work without looking at his folk art; to me they’re inseparable,” Monica Obniski, a curator at the Milwaukee Museum of Art and expert on Girard’s work who spoke at a recent symposium on the designer, tells Co.Design. “He was collecting vernacular and designing modern.”

Girard’s collection wasn’t just an eccentric hobby–it was part and parcel of his work as an architect and a designer and a reflection of his legacy. He broke the rules of modernism by embracing the past, and in doing so, tempered its austerity. The collection, and the work that sprang from it, shows how collecting can nurture creative work.


Left: Candleholder, Metapec, Mexico, ca. 1960 Right: Daisy Face, Environmental Enrichment Panel # 3036. [Photos: Ricardo Martinez and Barbara Forslund/Museum of International Folk Art (left), Vitra Design Museum/Alexander Girard Estate (right)]
Designers collect for myriad reasons: to surround themselves with beautiful things, to explore variations on a theme, to admire the ingenuity of an object. But Girard had a more intimate relationship with his enormous collection: It informed his work, with some of his textiles and graphics directly referencing objects in his collection, and he often used pieces as prominent–and anachronistic–elements in the interiors he designed. The scale of Girard’s collection and how much he worked with traditional objects in the context of modern design was, and still is, a rarity.

[Photo: PD Rearick/Cranbrook Art Museum]
Girard’s collection included objects from the American Southwest, Mexico, Central and South America, India, and Eastern Europe. Growing up in a family of antique dealers, an appreciation of objects was in his blood, but he didn’t gravitate toward old artifacts so much as knickknacks aimed at tourists. On his travels, he would purchase folk art in bulk, often buying multiples of the same objects since he was thinking about his current and future interior design, staging, and exhibition work. A frequent collaborator with Charles and Ray Eames (who also collected folk art), Girard also used his collections as elaborate dioramas and sets for the couples’ films, like one on the Day of the Dead.

Girard established the textile division of Herman Miller and eventually became the furniture company’s director of design. To Obniski, his work in the realm of office and commercial design signaled a shift in how tradition was perceived in the context of modernism. After all, the modern movement that actively broke with the past and embraced the machine-made over handcraft, earning it a reputation as cold, sterile, and void of personality. But Girard’s version of modern design embraced warmth, color, and personality. His interiors were vibrant, exciting, welcoming, and livable. They adhered to the foundational principles of modernism, but enlivened it by synthesizing industrial production with the colors and motifs of folk art.


“This is really important when a corporation takes folk art on as part of their brand identity,” Obniski says. “It’s okay to not be a dogmatic, cold version of modernism, but to soften around the edges. One way to do that is through folk art.”

[Photo: Alexander Girard/Vitra Design Museum]
The environmental enrichment panels Girard designed for Herman Miller riff off of folk art motifs. He also made it easier for everyday shoppers to welcome folk art into their homes through the company’s Textiles & Objects Shop, which he opened and curated in the 1960s to sell toys and figurines from around the world. Girard’s focus on selling objects that exist to bring people joy plays into Herman Miller’s recent revival of retail, since its New York store sells curated objects, housewares, and decorative items–folk art included. In fact, the designer’s eclectic approach feels right at home in the context of maximalism, which is experiencing a resurgence today. Today, Girard’s obsession with folk art and traditional craft is proof that faithful observance of rigid rules doesn’t necessarily yield the most exciting design.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.


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