At the age of 23, Alexander Girard created the first of many customised and intriguing interior landscapes for himself in a studio apartment on the top floor of his parent’s home in Florence, Italy. He would go on to design his own homes in New York, Michigan and then finally New Mexico, where he moved with his wife and two children in 1953. While there are numerous Girard projects one can look to for evidence of his undeniable contribution to mid-twentieth century design, his own homes are the most personal and integrated examples of his unique vision of the world and how he believed one could live in it.
After his time in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, which he called ‘a grey, conservative neighbourhood’, Alexander Girard visited the southwest of North America and fell in love with Santa Fe. Girard was entranced by the piñon-studded high desert, the startling clarity of the light, the pink and earthy adobe construction that was so different from the drab, tall cities of the east.Drawing both from these new natural surroundings as well as the local Native cultures and of course his own European childhood, he created a living interior landscape all his own. Using his expertise in exhibition design, his home was a constantly rotating display of his own designs, folk art, contemporary pieces and antiques. Though the house in Santa Fe was not designed by Girard from the ground up, he transformed the existing structures into a distinctively individual ensemble.
From the spatial layout to colourful wall murals and unusual built-in furniture, Girard created warm but sophisticated living spaces that constantly evolved along with his own findings and tastes. It was a key element of his philosophy to use what was already in existence as a springboard for developing his own interpretation. It was also crucial for Girard to have his studio attached to the home. In this way he was able to utilise his own interior to experiment with ideas, showcase his constantly changing collection of objects and artworks, and increase his productivity in general. His wife Susan was also an integral part of his design career and business. An aesthete herself, she had a wonderful eye for art, antiques, design and fashion and a highly personal style, which contributed greatly to the making of their homes.
Charles and Ray Eames were close friends of Alexander and Susan Girard. Not only did they work together on various design projects, they also travelled and spent holidays together. A large part of today’s existing photographs from the Girard home were taken by Charles Eames. This also applies to most of the photos that illustrate this anecdote. Expressing his admiration for the Girard home, Charles Eames once said: ‘Uninhibited by conventional colour schemes, the designer Girard has used colour in the same unembarrassed way that characterises his approach to all design in his home."
Niches or nichos, as they are referred to in New Mexico, were one of Alexander Girard’s favourite architectural elements. A dynamic example of this was found in his second home in Santa Fe, where he created a custom cubby to house an exquisite diorama of a Russian church of his own design and making. Inside the miniature interior, the figures of a grandmother and granddaughter gaze up at the beautifully painted pillars and ceiling. One could even illuminate this space by turning on a special switch that was low enough for a child to reach. The combination of impeccable design with whimsical details was a hallmark of Girard.
Girard’s homes were an extension of himself – the way he saw and used colour, pattern and texture, and the way in which he drew connections between so many different cultures of the world. He juxtaposed bold and neutral, rudimentary and refined, old and new; and through this remarkable living collage, Girard transformed the craft of interior decorating into the art of modern design.