When you look through the intricate watercoloured maps, carefully designed trading cards, flags, code languages and games that comprise The Republic of Fife, it is difficult to believe that this was all created by an adolescent boy, away from his home in Florence at a boarding school in England during the First World War. Alexander Girard’s childhood reverie, however, would become an incredible precursor for his later design career.Text by Aleishall Girard Maxon and Alexander Kori Girard
Alexander Girard (1907-1993) was one of the leading figures of postwar American design. Although known primarily for his textiles (he was head of the Herman Miller Textile division for more than 20 years) he worked across architecture and interior, industrial and furniture design. Girard was also a seasoned collector, amassing what is still the largest collection of folk art objects in the world, which eventually became The Girard Wing at The International Museum of Folk Art in New Mexico. He was also our grandfather and we knew him as a man of humour, kindness and mischief.
Growing up just minutes from our grandparents in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we were frequently in their company. We would explore their endlessly captivating home, always discovering new objects and places to hide. On occasion, we wandered through The Foundation, a 5,000sq/ft concrete room built to process and house our grandfather’s various collections: aluminium foil models of churches from Poland; drawers full of perfectly flattened candy wrappers; jars of stones, shells, seed pods and dirt from various locales, organised by size and colour; hotel stickers from seemingly every country in the world; an extensive collection of amulets, among many other things.Discovering The Republic of Fife after our grandfather had passed away was like being transported back to those early years, when we had had free reign to explore his world. The skilled execution, refined palette and playful imagery felt familiar, while the incredible focus and distillation of the idea is astounding when you consider the complexity of the project. It spoke of his ability to see a project from every angle, addressing even the smallest of components, and his desire to use design as a means of communication. One could consider The Republic of Fife, begun in 1917, as the first comprehensive design project of our grandfather’s career. It included everything from planning and layout, to the actual composition and execution of hundreds of documents and designs – flags, costumes, maps and banknotes – to support his vision for a make-believe world.
Drawing on maps of Europe available at the time, our grandfather deployed his experience of his early childhood in Italy, as well as his nascent understanding of the geopolitical situation unfolding as the First World War approached – The Republic of Fife was his way of digesting the world at large. Young enough that he would not be drafted, but old enough to fear the looming danger, he sought to compose a utopia where he could affect everything from the territories to the postage stamps and all that lay between. The endeavour also connected him back to his family, who had remained in Florence. Letters went back and forth in secret languages, demonstrating the family’s collective ability to engage his imagination. Enlisting all of his family to participate, and especially his younger brother Giancarlo, our grandfather honed his ability to bring people together through correspondence, colour, design and the human need for fantasy as a coping mechanism.The relationship between our grandfather and great-uncle Giancarlo, who became a ceramic sculptor, was a deep one. The brothers were born 10 years apart and The Republic of Fife is the earliest example of their visions coming together to create a complex and calculated visual language. Although Giancarlo was young at the inception of the project, he made a huge contribution as he grew older. Poring over the Republic’s extensive correspondence, city plans, kingdoms, characters and cryptic symbols, it becomes clear that the brothers found solace in the mystical world they created. This correspondence is what gave them the space to grow their relationship, despite the distance between them.
We recently experienced a number of elements from The Republic of Fife again when we visited the Vitra Design Museum’s “Alexander Girard: A Designer's Universe” retrospective. This time we saw the work with Aleishall’s children (ages five and eight), which brought us back to a more youthful understanding of this early work. Children’s ability to suspend disbelief and fully absorb a narrative is a trait our grandfather understood well. For Aleishall’s children, this wasn’t a fantasy or a game, but a possibility of a time and space that exists within imagination – a realm which, for children, is not yet severed from everyday life and in which they can speak and dream freely without the influence of adults. Even now, trying to decipher the exact meaning of The Republic of Fife is beyond our reach. It was a place that our grandfather created for himself and it was not intended for public consumption. The Vitra Design Museum’s exhibition deals with only a portion of the project, that produced between 1917 and 1924, but the world and the languages that the Girard family developed to support it went on for long after they stopped creating new documents and designs – much of The Republic of Fife remains a mystery for all bar those directly involved in its creation. But The Republic of Fife remains vital, however, thanks to the beauty of its utopian impulse. Our grandfather made the seemingly unfamiliar something that we might recognise within ourselves.