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Finding Girard in Columbus

Today's guest blogger is Cindy Frey, Associate Director at the Columbus Visitors Center.

Alexander Girard, Interior plan (detail), Miller House and Garden papers, IMA Archives.

The opening of Miller House and Garden has been wildly successful, with sold out tours for five solid months.  The home where Cummins CEO J. Irwin and Xenia Miller raised their children illustrates the masterful skills of the renowned mid-century architect Eero Saarinen.  The garden, designed by Dan Kiley, offers a lush contrast to the stark structure.  But, the explosive colors, textures and folk art inspired by interior designer Alexander Girard give this house its soul.

Girard is perhaps best known as the textile designer for Herman Miller Furniture Company from 1952 to 1973. One of the pre-eminent designers of his generation, Girard’s work has experienced a surge in popularity in the last decade.  His spirited designs now can be found on Kate Spade bags, Electra bicycles and Urban Outfitters pillows.

In Columbus, Indiana, Girard-inspired designs have never fallen out of fashion.  His influence is a testament to the friendship he shared with the Millers, especially Xenia.

If you know where to look, you’ll see his handiwork throughout the city.  Start with North Christian Church, which is full of tell tale signs of Girard’s handiwork.  The church was yet another example of a collaboration between Saarinen, Kiley and Girard (Saarinen died three years before the church was completed in 1964).

North Christian Church.

Sitting at the center of the hexagonal sanctuary is a substantial communion table, ringed by 12 seats for the church elders. Throughout the year, the cushions on these seats will transition from green to red to purple to white, in step with the liturgical calendar. This mirrors an idea Girard incorporated successfully in the Miller’s home. Cushion covers and pillows in the conversation pit were changed with the seasons, featuring pale neutrals in warm months and deep reds in winter.  The interiors of both the Miller House and North Christian Church are clean, stark and neutral.  Girard switched out the textiles to transform the interiors with the changing seasons.

Girard added additional ornamentation inside the church, with elaborate rod-iron flower stands in the main sanctuary and candelabras of similar design in the baptistery.  Also in the sanctuary, one can sometimes see a brightly-colored “Tree of Life” appliqué, designed by Girard, although the piece is showing signs of wear and is rarely on display.

Clients of the Saarinen-designed Irwin Union Bank (now operating as First Financial Bank) in downtown Columbus enjoy the collection of George Nelson desks and Saarinen chairs.  Since all the exterior walls are made of glass, there is limited wall space for art.  Two interior walls are adorned with textiles from India.  In fact, nearly-identical textiles are on display in Girard’s collection at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In 1964, Girard designed a streetscape plan for the Victorian-era structures that line downtown Columbus’ Washington Street.  Working with a group of downtown business owners, he recommended a color palette of 26 colors.  According to a brochure about the project, “One of the startling aspects of the proposal and one which was of immediate appeal to young people in the community was Girard’s use of bright accent colors for decorative details and windows, with the most popular being the bright orange bay window…” Over time, 80 percent of the downtown buildings repainted in Girard’s color scheme.  Today, infill construction and redevelopment of the area has minimized the impact of Girard’s plan from decades ago.  But one downtown Columbus building is vintage Girard.

301 Washington; photo by Don Nissen.

The former offices of Irwin Management are located at 301 Washington.  Locals know the building simply as “301.”   Joseph Ireland Irwin, J. Irwin Miller’s great-grandfather, operated a dry goods store in this building.  After establishing one of the city’s early banks, he remodeled the building in 1881.  His holdings grew and through the shrewd business dealings of his son and great grandson, the family’s business holdings grew.  They included partial ownership of Cummins Engine Company, the diesel engine manufacturing company founded by W.G. Irwin and Clessie Cummins.  Even after J.I. Miller guided the company to profitability, he continued to keep his offices at 301.  In 1973, he hired Alexander Girard to renovate the structure.  The building was recently sold to Cummins Inc. for offices and training space.  However, plans are in the works to open the reception area and Miller’s office, with the original furnishings, for public tours in the spring of 2012.

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