(originally posted January 6, 2020)
I recently made a needlepoint pillow after a design by Alexander Girard for the dining room chairs at the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. It’s a simple pattern of colorful squares, a design that perfectly complemented the interior of the house and taste of the residents. Girard is one of my all-time favorite designers—his bright, graphic style is very appealing!
Trained as an architect, Alexander Girard is perhaps best known today for his colorful, whimsical designs for textiles and other decorative arts. In 1952, Girard became the director of design for Herman Miller’s textile division, a position he held until 1973. There, he designed vibrant, patterned textiles that worked with the designs of Charles and Ray Eames and many other designers of the mid-twentieth century.
Important Girard commissions include his 1959 designs for the interiors and furnishings for the popular New York restaurant La Fonda del Sol and the branding of Braniff airlines in the mid 1960s, a commission that resulted in more than 17,000 designs from furniture to blankets, dinnerware, and matchbook covers.
The Miller House
The Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, was designed by Eero Saarinen for Irwin and Xenia Miller and completed in 1957. The stark, rectilinear lines and white marble walls served as a perfect backdrop for the eclectic objects the Millers collected in their world travels, and for Girard’s colorful textiles. Each room in the house utilized different Girard fabrics. The resulting interior is far softer, livelier and more playful than that of other modern interiors such as The Glass House by Philip Johnson (1948).
Xenia Miller was an avid stitcher—the main suite of the house includes a sitting room furnished with a teak sewing table designed by Hans Wegner. The conversation pit of the house has a rotating group of pillows which includes several of her needlepoint examples, along with those made of Girard fabrics and textiles collected on the Millers’ travels.
Though the house was finished in the 1950s, Girard maintained his relationship with the Millers and in the early 1970s Girard was brought in by Xenia to create seat cushion designs for the Saarinen tulip chairs in the dining room. Tulip chairs typically had solid color seats, but for the Millers Girard designed a colorful monogrammed design for the armchair of each member of the family, along with a coordinating cushion with no monogram on the extra side chairs. Xenia and her circle of needlepointing friends worked together to stitch the covers, which were then made into cushions by another firm.
Making the Pillow
While I would eventually like to take a stab at designing my own Girard-style monogram, I started out trying to replicate the simpler cushion that is all colored squares. Conveniently, the archive of papers related to the Miller house is completely online, so I could access documents related to the design of the cushions. There is a color chart with yarn colors, and a pattern denoting where the colors go. I had a large color print out of the pattern made and marked the missing numbers of each colored square for easy reference.
In the absence of documentary evidence (and not being able to handle the Miller House cushions), I used 13-count interlock canvas (mono would probably be better!) and mounted it on stretcher bars. In order to get the squares set as diamonds with clean edges, not jagged edges dictated by the diagonal direction of the tent stitches, I had to turn the pattern 45 degrees on the canvas, which meant a 22-inch square canvas only created a 14-inch square pillow. I marked the center, chose a rough center from the pattern (the red square), and then worked out from there. Each square is about 1/2 an inch (6 x 6 stitches), and I used the basketweave stitch throughout.
The hardest part of the project was finding the right colors of yarn (note: I was trying to stay very close to the Girard original--if you are stitching this for yourself, you can use any colors you like!). Though the color card from the archive was available online, no information was given as to what exact colors or brand was used by Xenia Miller for the cushions. I assume Paternayan was used as it was the wool of choice when these cushions were stitched. So I had to match the colors as best I could with vintage yarn and supplies from my local shop, Needlepoint.com. Despite the vast amount of new yarns available, the colors did not match the originals as closely as I wanted. I ended up going online and ordering many colors of many different vintage yarns including Paternayan, Columbia-Minerva, and Scovill Dritz until I got the right combination of colors (this was the foundation for my now enormous stash of vintage wool!). This solution was definitely not ideal, as colors are very hard to judge online. Each brand of yarn varied slightly in thickness, and some were three-ply Persian versus tapestry yarns that are not divisible. The Scovill Dritz I used for one of the oranges (dreaded number 14 on the chart) was especially thick and difficult to pull through the canvas.
Then, I just kept stitching. Only in a few spots did I deviate from Girard’s pattern, always at the outer edges. The seemingly random pattern is made of a row of white squares, then a row of colors, within which, each brightly colored square is balanced by neutral-colored squares next to it. When I thought I’d be clever and sub in the bright pink because it was just getting cut off at the edge, it ended up directly next to another bright color, which became jarringly bright. The balance of neutral and bright was critical in Girard’s design.
I ended up stitching a couple extra rows, so the pillow actually turned out to be about 14 x 15 inches. For the back of the pillow, I chose a red cotton velvet, though it appears that the originals use a purple fabric of some sort. Again, not having handled the originals, I didn’t know the correct fiber or weave structure to choose.
This was a nice easy pattern, no complicated stitches, and it was fun to work on a Girard pattern from a great commission. Maybe I’ll try to do the monogram version in the future…? If you have information on other Girard needlepoint designs, please do be in touch! I would love to see more of his work in this medium. Below is an early needlepoint design by Girard (not for the Millers) that was displayed in the ‘Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe’ exhibit.