How Folk Art Becomes Design – and Vice Versa

Interview with Kori and Aleishall Girard

Alexander Girard collected folk art from all over the world. Over the years, he built up a large private archive in Santa Fe, which is now owned by Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art. But what is actually meant by the term folk art? And why was Alexander Girard so fascinated by it? In an interview, his grandchildren Kori and Aleishall Girard answer this and other questions.

"Folk Art is an ancient global tradition which facilitates the preservation of cultural traditions through artwork made for the people, not for mass production. As a young child in the early part of the 20th century many of the toys Alexander Girard was given were considered folk art in and of themselves and thus his exposure to this tradition began as part of his childhood. One of his earliest toys was a handmade wooden Pinocchio doll which is now housed as part of the collection he donated to the International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Both his grandfather and father were in the business of buying and selling antiques and as such Girard was introduced to the concept of collecting as an integrated part of life. Visiting markets and curio shops was as much a family tradition as celebrating Christmas. While most of what he may have seen as a child was in the European tradition, you can see evidence of his more global interests in the earliest interiors he designed for his own apartment as a teen in Florence, Italy, including small African sculptures and textiles from India."

How did this interest translate into his work with design and architecture?

"Alexander Girard took inspiration from absolutely everywhere, whether it was a walk in nature, a market or his extensive world travels. Folk art became a deep part of his design process in that he was constantly adding to his collection no matter where he was and often incorporating pieces into specific jobs. As far as a specific influence on his own design and architecture, the clearest line we can draw is through the details of pattern and color and a wide range of materials."

The Wooden Dolls are part of Alexander Girard’s most important and best-known works influenced by folk art. What’s their story?

"Discovering new tools and all their capacities was an ongoing practice for Girard. The Wooden Dolls were born through his exploration of a new band saw he had purchased for his studio. While much of what he made was for specific jobs and clients, he also made many things for his own home and these particular objects never left his own personal collection. Our grandparents consistently used their homes and everything in them as a place of experimentation and risk taking and certain things that he made or did would end up becoming permanent fixtures."

If you were to characterize the Wooden Dolls – like small-scale personalities – how would you describe them?

"There is an obvious influence of folk art from all over the world when looking at the dolls. Kachinas from northern New Mexico where he lived when he made them, African ceremonial figures, puppets from India, his younger brother’s Italian ceramics, his own first Pinocchio doll, the list could go on and on. The dolls appeal to such a wide audience because they are universally relatable. Within their collective faces you can see the whole spectrum of human emotion and this was something that deeply interested our grandfather. One struggles to choose a single doll that they relate to because our emotions and moods change daily if not with more frequency. Girard was always interested in building bridges across divides, whether they were cultural, economic or lingual, with design. The dolls hold with them the essence of universal humanity."
Kori Girard and Aleishall Girard Maxon are the grandchildren of Alexander Girard and co-direct Girard Studio, the entity charged with preserving, protecting and sharing the vast legacy of Alexander Girard. Both artists and designers in their own rights, the siblings work from their homes in Berkeley, California.

The Swiss fashion house Akris found inspiration for Spring / Summer 2018 in the work and motifs of Alexander Girard. The label presented the collection in the Vitra Campus Fire Station on 13 July, 2018.

Publication date: 28.6.2018
Author: Vitra
Images: Studio Girard, LLC 2018

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