While I was in Amsterdam recently, I took a rather indulgent day off, flying to Basel for the day in order to get to the Vitra Design Museum where a massive retrospective of Alexander Girard’s work is currently underway.
The Vitra campus is basically one big photo opportunity, as it’s dotted with buildings by Tadao Ando / Frank Gehry / Herzog de Meuron / Zaha Hadid, and furnished throughout (even on the lawns) with classic contemporary furniture pieces. And if you’ve been looking for a Hang it All, you might as well stop right now, as I think Vitra has used them all up.
Most of my day was spent in the Gehry building above, where the the Alexander Girard retrospective was on show. It was a real treat to have nothing else to do but to take my time, read every piece of information, watch every video, and to sketch and photograph to my heart’s content. And it really did take quite some time, as the exhibition was exhaustive, showing artefacts, drawings, collages, ceramics, models, fabrics, sculptures and massive project installations made by this prolific designer throughout his long career.
I loved seeing the meticulous drawings and collages Girard made for his fabric designs, and the depth of detail that he went into when tackling giant projects like restaurants and airline rebrands, taking on a project in its entirety, from logo development to the shape of a salt and pepper pot on a table. Girard was a rare genius with enormous capacity and vision which translated itself into intensely design which is intensely pleasureable in its simplicity.
The thing that struck me particularly was in the early part of the exhibition, where a little room with an arched entrance had been built, and named The Republic of Fife. Here, an immense number of books, stamps, pennants, maps, letters and ‘passports’ were displayed, all made by Girard when he was a teenager at boarding school in England, imagining a world of his own construction, which he called Fife. The meticulous attention to detail in his construction of an imaginary world (complete with currency, alphabet and postage stamps) are entirely prescient of the enormous projects he would go on to do in the 1960s, on restaurant projects like La Fonda del Sol, and the re-brand of Braniff Airlines too. I just love the idea that this little oddball was able to find such a perfect fit for his rather peculiar bent.
There was an extensive exhibition of some of the folk art that Alexander and Susan Girard collected over decades, which inspired a lot of his design work:
“We can preserve evidence of the past for its incentive to the present, but not as a pattern for sentimental imitation, but as a nourishment for the creative spirit in the present, so that we too may evolve customs and shape objects of equivalent value”.
If you’re unable to visit the Vitra Design Museum yourself, take a look at this comprehensive review on Hyperallergenic, with more images from the exhibition and catalogue. I hefted the giant catalogue home with me, and it was definitely worth the suitcase space, but you can find it on Amazon here too.
I also visited the recently-opened Schaudepot in another Herzog de Meuron building, showing the massive Vitra furniture collection, with a spectacular chronological chair display upstairs (with only one bench for punters to sit on), and windows onto their furniture archives downstairs, where over 7000 chairs, lamps and other iconic pieces are stored. There’s also a reconstruction of the Eames’ office to peer into and a beautiful cafe designed by Ilse Crawford. It’s all quite something. Design with a Capital D, for sure!
What a day!