The Great Gadfly

Shaker design was puritanical. The Bauhaus finally proved, well, Prussian. And The Opulent Eye of Alexander Girard, at the Cooper-Hewitt, is joyful. The thesis can hardly be scientifically substantiated, but to a surprising degree, design is colored by temperament. “No one sad could have designed these beautiful things,” said an eightysomething Brahmin visiting the show in her own discreetly ebullient, lavender-colored, leopard-spotted dress.

Slim tequila shot glasses, curvaceous sangria pitchers, roomy conversation pits, and bolts of cheery fabrics may seem like one man’s lighthearted romp through postwar design. But let’s give this guy with the sunny Italian temperament a little intellectual credit. Trained as an architect in England, Italy, and Scandinavia, where he encountered a modernism humanized by warm, crafted woods and relaxed geometries, Girard was not simply a court jester of color and pattern in the tight inner circle of American designers that included George Nelson, Eero Saarinen, and Charles and Ray Eames. Girard brought a highly developed point of view to the drafting table when he finally landed in New York in 1932 and then Detroit in 1937. Proof is tucked away in the show’s last room. In a floor plan of his own Grosse Pointe house, Girard designs built-in sofas and desks back-to-back along a wall cranked off the right angle. The double-sided, partial-height partition takes off into the middle of the room like an eagle.

The plan could have been the DNA of a major direction in American design and the foundation of a brilliant architectural career. But Girard was not born to practice in a traditional way. Hired in 1952 by Herman Miller to head the furniture manufacturer’s textile division, he pursued a para-architectural career that proved pivotal for postwar design. The multitudinous fabrics he created, sometimes bold and sometimes capricious, were a little like Andy Warhol’s platinum wig: Shocked by the platinum, you don’t notice it’s a wig. Girard’s fabrics warmed up and camouflaged the functionalist, factory-produced furniture, making it more palatable to suburban taste buds.

He wasn’t obviously doctrinaire, but he was conducting a quiet counterrevolution with an unwritten manifesto based on the color wheel and folk art. Modern furniture, even the floaty potato-chip chair by the Eameses, was predicated on factory-production logic. But Girard covered these exercises in objectivity with graphic abstractions of everything from feathers and rain drops to folk figures, which amounted to a radical critique of received modernist wisdom. His playful designs broke apart Platonic geometries; gridded fabrics distorted optically when stretched across the surfaces of curved furniture. He introduced feeling and emotion as a fourth design dimension.

The clipped lines and metallic austerities of modern design couldn’t resist the assaults of this charm offensive inspired by tchotchkes from Mexico, India, and the Southwest. Standard products designed for the statistical average acquired personality and temperament. His inspiration trickled up from village markets. He took from the vernacular and made modernism into a vernacular of its own. He addressed design issues that the homogenizing forces of globalization are again forcing designers to face.

Unfortunately, Girard did not follow up the great promise shown in his Grosse Pointe house with other buildings. For structures that deal architecturally with the questions Girard obliquely answered through the decorative surface, visit Samuel Mockbee: The Architecture of the Black Warrior River at the Max Protetch Gallery. Mockbee’s raw, highly tactile buildings, with bursts of turbulent geometries splitting open regular forms, occupy an intersection of influences, from folk design to more artistic and academic impulses.

Mockbee famously shepherds the Rural Studio, an Auburn University course in which students build houses for the poor in Alabama. With photographs and models representing these finished houses, the show understandably gives space to this optimistic vision. But with his pencil drawings and mixed-media renderings, the walls ultimately belong to Mockbee himself: “I’m a real architect,” drawls the bearded, Bunyanesque practitioner. “I’ve been sued.” His ruminative sketches reveal a mind concerned with the intimacy of special corners and singular gestures. He will lay out a strictly linear row of bedrooms, but the volume itself will shift under the pressure of a desired view and maybe crack open somewhere along the line because of some force, like a strong-willed staircase erupting above the roof line. Elevations, sections, plans, and close-ups crowd the same sheet, as though he’s rotating the house on paper and zooming in so that his eye can understand the complexity in space. Highly personal, the designs mix regularity and idiosyncrasy.

This is a far cry from both the postwar modernism that rolled off the assembly lines, and the dry, somewhat nostalgic modernism now being churned out by many architects. Built with concrete blocks and raw wood, the designs by his firm, Mockbee Coker, represent a kinder, gentler modernism. Girard would be intrigued by the cast-off tires from junkyards that become molds for rammed-earth constructions. The angled plan for Girard’s Grosse Pointe house seems reincarnated in the profile of the Farrington House by Mockbee Coker, with its freewheeling roofs. In another design, a lookout with lumber struts breaks through a version of the traditional dog-trot house. Mockbee is creating an emotional architecture rooted simultaneously in the abstract visual traditions of modernist architecture and in down-home building.

What distinguishes Mockbee’s work from Girard’s is that Girard simply abstracts forms and colors from commonplace objects. Mockbee’s sophisticated designs are hybrids connected to local traditions, and the people who have lived in such buildings for generations are at home in the new interpretations. Mockbee calls for architecture with “personality,” “charm,” and “spirit.” The architect has not parachuted in heroically to the rescue. He is not practicing outside the social order, but transforming it in a seamless and respectful way from within. The everyday, not the foreign, becomes heroic. What binds this work to Girard’s is its emotional undertone. Nobody sad could make these joyous buildings.

The Great Gadfly