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For the legendary Alexander Girard, design was in the details


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Judy Woodruff: Now: an exhibit celebrating the work of a legendary 20th century designer, Alexander Girard. His work fuses sleek modernism with the playfulness of folk art, creating a world of his own.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery's report is part of Canvas, our ongoing arts and culture series.

Kathleen McCleery: Many children invent imaginary friends, but when the late Alexander Girard was a young boy, he dreamed up an entire country, says curator Laura Addison.

Laura Addison: Here's a map. Here's the Republic of Fife. And this is the earliest work chronologically that he did. And it is a metaphor for everything he did thereafter.

Kathleen McCleery: That fantasy land is where the Girard retrospective at Santa Fe's International Folk Art Museum begins. Girard drew stamps, forged coins, even concocted a secret language.

Laura Addison: He created worlds. He was an inventor of spaces and universes.

Kathleen McCleery: In 1960, that meant shaping the space for a chic New York City restaurant, La Fonda del Sol, in the Time-Life Building. He designed nearly every aspect of the Latin American eatery.

Laura Addison: Nothing was too small and nothing was too large to tackle. So, not only did Alexander Girard work with the interior space, with the walls and the treatments and the tables and the larger objects; he also did everything from matchbooks, to the tea service, to the match strikes, to the napkins, the waiters' uniforms, the carts.

Kathleen McCleery: In 1965, an even bigger design makeover for the Dallas-based Braniff Airlines. The new slogan? The end of the plain plane.

Narrator: We hired Alexander Girard to do our planes. We have blue planes, orange planes, yellow planes. You can fly with us seven times and never fly the same color twice.

Kathleen McCleery: Again, Girard designed almost everything, including a brand-new typeface used on tickets, baggage tags, and even sugar packets.

Laura Addison: The rebranding that he did in terms of logo, typography, it came through at over 17,000 individual objects.

Kathleen McCleery: The aim, Girard said, was to destroy the monotony of air travel. And he did the same for office environments.

Laura Addison: Alexander Girard was best known as a textile designer.

Kathleen McCleery: It was at Herman Miller Furniture in Detroit that Girard gained his reputation as one of the 20th century's most influential interior and textile designers.

There, he worked with Ray and Charles Eames, a married couple known for their sleek modern chairs and tables, often upholstered in Girard's fabrics. In the 1960s, cubicles were the latest in office design. Girard created panels to brighten the sterile workplaces.

Laura Addison: This is Daisy Face. She's a human figure morphing out of a tree. Or perhaps it's the other way around. You see the branches coming out of her arms, and as well as her legs. And she had petals around her head, just like a daisy.

She's graphically bold, very colorful, and meant to bring joy into your office space.

Kathleen McCleery: The common spaces, the restaurant, the office environment, how can what's there be considered art?

Laura Addison: Well, Alexander Girard liked to say, art is not art if it is not synonymous with living. To him, it was all about the joy in the making. It was about human creativity.

Kathleen McCleery: Girard's creativity was inspired by his passion for folk art, such as the traditional Tree of Life. Visitors can see that inspiration in a huge permanent exhibit across the hall, says museum director Khristaan Villela.

Khristaan Villela: We're just steps away from the retrospective, and folk art was a very important part of his design practice.

Kathleen McCleery: Girard and his wife traveled the world for decades, scooping up folk art.

In 1978, they donated more than 100,000 pieces to this museum, giving it the world's largest collection; 10,000 objects are on display, all of them placed exactly where Girard instructed.

Khristaan Villela: This is a Mexican village, the town of Acatlan, which is in Southern Puebla in Mexico.

Kathleen McCleery: Here, too, Girard's treasures are assembled into miniature worlds.

Khristaan Villela: Girard wanted things like a very large church, or a train, or a graveyard, or 500 cactuses, or a jail. And so he commissioned this entire scene and recreated it here.

Kathleen McCleery: None of the folk art is identified by country, artist or date. And that's on purpose.

Khristaan Villela: He wanted you to experience this as he saw it, and labels would be a way of interfering with that vision. It's also intended to be a space that surrounds you, almost like an immersive experience of Girard's vision and of world folk art.

Kathleen McCleery: Twenty-six years after his death, Girard continues to inspire designers, like Raul Cabra of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Raul Cabra: For me, what's important with Girard and the relationship for us is that he creates a translation, and a translation of tradition into something that is design and something that is contemporary. And I think that's how this has influenced the work I do and many others.

Kathleen McCleery: That includes the work of artists Aleishall Girard Maxon and Alexander Kori Girard, who grew up surrounded by their grandfather's collection.

Alexander Kori Girard: It was just such a lesson in how to see, you know, and how to understand different visual languages.

Kathleen McCleery: The two believe the exhibit offers context on Girard's legacy.

Alaishall Girard Maxon: People love to say how whimsical and warm and happy his work is, and it is. But it's also the distillation of human spirit that is so universal, that he saw so clearly.

In the end, we have far more similarities than we do differences, and I believe that he was pushing that through all of the projects that he did.

Kathleen McCleery: A Designer's Universe is on exhibit in Santa Fe through October 27. It goes to the Palm Springs Museum in California later this year.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Kathleen McCleery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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