Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Folk Art Brought Into The Modernist Fold

There's something irresistible about the designs of Alexander Girard, and it's not just the bright colors and the big patterns or the friendly folk influences and toylike motifs.

The brass, glass-jewel suns for La Fonda del Sol, the Latin-American restaurant that Mr. Girard designed for the Time & Life Building in 1961; the poster-graphic Palio fabric (and over 300 others) that he created for the Herman Miller Furniture Company from 1952 to 1973; and the tropical-travel painted fuselages for Braniff Airlines in 1965: the stuff looks happy.

That could be the key to its appeal right now -- it looks like news and not nostalgia. It's hot, not cool, at a moment when contemporary taste has settled with a lengthening snore into the industrial safety of mid-20th-century icons like the Eameses or the ironic suavities of fashion: shag-carpeted Los Angeles boutique hotels and the faux-Zen design stores in SoHo and TriBeCa.

Mr. Girard's most memorable commercial commission -- and for many, his most sadly missed -- was La Fonda del Sol, a themed restaurant conceived by Joseph Baum of Restaurant Associates. Mr. Girard was recommended by Philip Johnson, who had created the Four Seasons for Mr. Baum.

La Fonda del Sol was Mr. Girard's love of folk art -- the joy that it captured and radiated -- put on public display. The staff costumes, designed with Rudi Gernreich, including ponchos embroidered with gold suns; the potterylike place settings; the 80 different matchbooks, with their grinning high-noon faces; and the checkerboard tiles of the open kitchen, with its chefs behind a flaming grill, were like a market day in Mexico, brought in a basket to Midtown Manhattan.

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