Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Designing With Folk Art

What is most impressive about Alexander Girard’s mural for Deere & Co. is its material reality. The objects do speak for themselves. An accompanying catalog was to identify certain items, or groups of items, and to put them in historical context, but only a pedant would really require this. There is a historical sweep from left to right, from 1837, the year Deere invented the steel plow, to 1918, the year Deere moved to mass tractor production. Top to bottom, one sees Deere in context, the mundane and the domestic, the historic and the farm, for each decade. The multiple themes and levels of objects float past one another on pegs that stick out from the wall, so that Girard can layer two-and three-dimensional items without hiding any part of an artifact. In her joint biography, Pat Kirkham credits Charles and Ray Eames with inventing the “history wall” as a means of contextualizing a historical subject with objects, but the Eameses’ first three-dimensional mural, A Computer Perspective, was installed at IBM’s Madison Avenue gallery space in 1971. She notes that the couple was influenced by Girard, connected to them via their time in the Detroit suburbs and their designs for Herman Miller. The three also worked together on the 1955 exhibition Textiles and Ornamental Arts of India at the Museum of Modern Art. Girard designed the show, while the Eameses helped arrange the objects and created a short film of the result. Later, Girard would help Ray Eames find appropriate items for the couple’s 1965 show on Jawaharlal Nehru. All three were expanding upon ideas about display getting off the wall, pioneered by Herbert Bayer at the Bauhaus and deployed by Bayer at a series of shows at the MoMA in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The most obvious parallel was Bayer’s use of a wider range of vision than had been typically seen in exhibition design: rather than a line of images at eye level, he deployed objects and artwork across the entire visual/vertical plane. George Nelson’s 1953 book Display showed Bayer’s historical work, as well as a number of very similar systems of poles and scrims and shelves simultaneously developed by himself, the Knoll Planning Unit, Alvin Lustig, and others.

Continues: Design Observer