In 1974, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design purchased “Environmental Enrichment Panels,” a collection of works designed by Alexander Girard, to decorate the just opened Home Economics building.
The brightly colored, geometric patterned panels hung in classrooms and the hallways of the East Campus building for decades, still there when quiltmaker Michael James joined the faculty in 2000. Dated by then, the panels were gradually taken down and put into storage -- until now.
“Seventeen years later, ‘Mad Men’ has come and gone and there’s a big re-interest in mid-century design,” said James, now chair of the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design. “We thought it would fun to put them together again.”
The best of the 18 or so panels are now on view in the Robert Hillestad Textile Gallery, paired with a dozen dresses to make up “Alexander Girard & Textile Design at Mid-Century,” a striking exhibition of ‘60s/early ‘70s fashion and textiles.
The Girard panels are handscreened prints done in his “architectural approach” to textiles, utilizing stylized patterns, geometric shapes and stripes and lines in bright, bold colors.
Even when the panels have subject matter, like “Girls,” which depicts five standing girls looking straight ahead, or “Triple Eyes,” a stacked view of three sets of eyes, the work is highly graphic with strong lines and vividly colored.
Girard, an architect, designer and head of the textile division of Herman Miller Furniture, made his designs for textiles to be used in the “modern” interiors of post-war homes -- on the walls, on pillows and furniture.
Those designs, both influenced and were likely influenced by a similar modernist movement in fashion, typified by work that came from design labels such as Finland’s Marimekko and Sweden’s Almedahl, which entered the U.S. market in the 1960s.
The connection between the fashions and Girard’s design can easily be seen in a pair of Almedahl “colorblock” mini dresses, which are printed with interlocked colored rectangles, in one case, with bright red, orange and yellow blocks and in the other, blue, pink, purple and brown.
The exhibition contains a handful of works from Finnish labels, including a black-and-gray abstract mini dress from Marimekko that is notable in part, because the fabric pattern used for it remains available -- evidence of the enduring appeal of modernist design.
There are a pair of coats in the show from famous designers.
Anne Klein is represented by a floral, figurewoven coat with lambswool trim and a tweed skirt that is unquestionably of its period.
Bonnie Cashin, the other noted designer, isn’t a household name, like Klein. But the line for which she worked certainly is -- Coach.
And her texture-weave and faux-leather coat incorporates elements now identified with Coach -- the turnlock clasp is used as the fastener for the unlined coat and the left hand pocket is made to look like a bag.
There are also a couple examples of locally obtained ‘60s fashion, dresses identified as being from Hovland-Swanson, the Lincoln department store known for quality, fashionable dresses.
The exhibition is beautifully presented by James and textiles and design professor Mary Alice Casto, who did much of the research and wrote the labels for the show.
Displayed against varying colored backgrounds, primarily shades of blue with the panels hanging near the wall and mannequins standing on platforms, the exhibition looks like a fashion show with colors popping around the room.
Augmented by a projections of a number of Girard’s designs on a white, labels set in fonts created by Girard and videos that look into the designer and his work, the exhibition provides plenty of background and examples of the work.
But more than that, it’s a blast just to look at, and take a time trip back to the ‘60s and a world saturated by modernist design.