What could be more exciting to see than examples of human expression and creativity from around the world, but unfortunately, in museums, folk art is often displayed much like flies or insects, organized by shape or size, pinned to a white wall. With this expectation, I walked in to the Alexander Girard wing of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I was shocked, struck by innumerable colors and shapes all densely packed into small playful displays.
The exhibition, designed by Girard himself, features more than 10,000 objects, including textiles, ceramics, baskets, and figures made of clay, wood, paper, cloth and even plastic. These objects were selected from his collection of over 100,000 objects of international folk art, and are shown in a manner meant to highlight aesthetic similarities, subjects, or object types without discriminating by ethnic group, nationality, or time period.
Some objects are arranged in scenes depicting events from daily life, playfully interacting with each other to create vignettes. Others are organized by material, showcasing how different cultures utilize a similar medium. The walls are not white, but rather change colors often, and sometimes jut out and up to create column-like pedestals to house other objects: dolls, toy horses, model airplanes.
The collection was a source of inspiration for Alexander Girard, an architect and interior and industrial designer who served as the head of Herman Miller’s textile division for over twenty years (1952-1973). The work that Girard created for Herman Miller (along with that of his colleagues Charles and Ray Eames, and George Nelson) is often credited for using colorful patterns and softer rounded shapes to imbue modernism with warmth and a sense of approachability.
Alexander Girard’s interest in folk art flew in the face of the leading modernist ideologies of the first half of the twentieth century. In his influential manifesto Ornament and Crime (1908), Adolf Loos equated ornament with a degenerate, less civilized culture. The Bauhaus (1919-1933), one of the most influential design schools of the twentieth century, and which at first had modeled itself after craft guilds, quickly moved toward a unification of art and industry and sought to create designs produced by and for machines, thus abandoning ornament. And finally, the influential modernist architect Le Corbusier also rejected ornamentation and decorative traditions. He thought them to be outdated for the Machine Age, and new houses, which he termed “machines for living” were to include only useful and “well-designed” things.
The result of this ban on ornamentation and decoration led to the proliferation of the “International Style” or the “no style style” that removed decorative elements and local aesthetic traditions, and pared down its forms to simple, geometric structures that are often devoid of color.
During his two-decade tenure at Herman Miller, Girard designed over 300 textiles (some now produced by Maharam), several collections of wallpaper, decorative prints, wall hangings, furniture, and other objects. For many designs he drew heavily from his extensive collection of folk art. Girard wasn’t only inspired by the objects themselves, he also learned about their materials and manufacturing procedures and often commissioned makers in different countries to produce lines for him. For example, the textile lines Mexicotton (1961) and Mexidot (1963) were made with cotton grown, spun and woven in Mexico.
If you are ever in Santa Fe, I highly recommend you visit the Girard Wing at the Museum of International Folk Art. It’s like walking into an enormous library of human creativity, with a wide array of patterns, shapes, and colors that demonstrate the many ways one can, for example, represent a human figure, cover a surface, or combine different colors. It’s the aesthetic representation of our shared humanity.