Graphic design for matchbooks for La Fonda del Sol, 1960. Courtesy Vitra Design Museum.

Alexander Girard was one of the 20th century’s most important modern designers, in a class with Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and George Nelson. He designed everything from postage stamps and matchbook covers to textiles, interiors, and architecture. He conceived the entire corporate design for Braniff International Airways, including plane tickets and other printed matter, lounges, flight attendant uniforms, and even the airplanes themselves. Girard’s progressive approach to design resonates still: the idea of a changeable logo—now very much in vogue—surfaces in the myriad versions of the sun motif he devised in 1960 for the identity of New York City restaurant La Fonda Del Sol. He also used text as part of the restaurant’s wall covering design, mixing scale, capitalization, and typefaces in a way that will be immediately familiar to denizens of today’s coffee shops. 

Now a new book, Alexander Girard, A Designer’s Universe, draws on Girard’s personal archive of more than 5,000 drawings, plans, and sketches, and 7,000 photographs, acquired by the museum in 1996. Not quite a coffee table item, but close, the book is beautifully bound in cream linen, emblazoned with a cheerful golden sun, its 511 pages printed on rich matte stock. The large, weighty volume, issued in conjunction with a traveling exhibition at the Vitra Design Museumbrims with photographs and previously unpublished archival sketches and color studies. Essays by six design scholars explore different facets of a productive career that spanned upwards of 50 years.

Girard’s sensibility was deeply influenced by his love of folk art, his personal collection acquired from over 27 countries including Mexico, Japan, the American Southwest, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Inspired by the bright colors and bold patterns, he connected his personal visual interests within the distinctive graphic identities he created. But perhaps of most interest to graphic designers today, Girard was always thinking about whole systems—how to find a design language that unifies all of its elements using color, pattern, and texture as well as structure.

Alexandra Lange, design critic and contributor to the book, notes that Girard’s sophisticated sense of color and willingness to create things that were more folksy, even charming, within high Modernism is part of his continued appeal, bringing a warmth and humanity to design in an era of hard-edged, gridded corporate design that could appear cold and forbidding. “If you compare his work to the gods of graphic design of that era,” she says,“it has more idiosyncrasies. It’s a little bit cute. Paul Rand was not cute. Girard didn’t even care about rules like winnowing down the corporate palette to a maximum of three colors. That just didn’t register for him. He did corporate design, but it wasn’t corporate! He played a different game.”