Exterior of Miller House and Garden, Columbus, Ind. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art
For many American architects, their first commission is a house. Even if they go on to fame and fortune and skyscrapers, what people think of first, when they hear the name, is that house. Eero Saarinen grew up in two houses designed by his father Eliel, first Hvittrask
(1901-03) in Finland, then the Saarinen House
(1928-30) at Cranbrook. The Saarinen House became, like the Cranbrook and Kingswood school buildings, a family project. Mother Loja Saarinen created fabrics and rugs and collaborated on the garden. Eero designed furniture for his parents’ bedroom. Sister Pipsan
designed motifs for the family’s bedroom doors. Eero himself has never been identified with a house. But that might be about to change.
On May 10, the J. Irwin and Xenia Miller House in Columbus, IN
opens to the public for the first time since it was completed in 1958 (Video here
). Designed by Saarinen and Kevin Roche, with interiors by Alexander Girard and gardens by Daniel Urban Kiley
, the Miller House has been largely out of sight to the design world since its single publication in House & Garden
in 1959. Xenia Miller lived there until her death in 2008, so what will be on display is the house as lived in and impeccably maintained by the Millers and their caretakers, a father and his son. Curators at the Indianapolis Museum of Art have cleaned, repaired and replaced, but dedicated themselves to working with what the Millers had left there, rather than trying to return it to 1958. Adding the Miller House to the list of iconic American modern houses suggests some new ideas about Saarinen and his collaborators, but also about for whom modern houses are designed. That Saarinen’s first homes were family affairs turns out not to be just a footnote.
In a speech he gave in Munich in 1960, Eero Saarinen began to describe his ideal home. He told his audience he had picked a house site in Connecticut, “a densely wooded rocky side of a stream. This wild nature suggests an informal, dark, romantic structure.” But such a structure would not suit his taste. He glossed over the exterior and headed inside. Inspired by the simplicity of Japanese houses — “I would solve the problem of furniture, with its inevitable ‘slum of legs,’ by eliminating it completely from the living room. Instead I would create a sunken area more or less in the middle of the living room, consisting of two large steps, carpeted like the rest of the room in neutral color.” He admitted that such conversation pits had become cliché, but noted that he had “more or less” invented the cliché twenty years earlier in the 1942-43 PAC Housing competition.
Outside the pit, little furniture would be needed but end tables and some pedestals for sculpture. The house’s center would be the work room, where his wife, writer Aline Saarinen
, would have her typewriter, and he his drafting table. Climate controlled, carpeted, and book-lined, this room would be freed from distractions by the use of a skylight, perhaps one “that ran around the perimeter of the room so that books were lightened by it by day and by artificial light shining through it by night.” By its end, Saarinen’s speech gathered all the major elements he would include in his domestic designs (18 total, including renovations): the plain façade that hides an open, multi-level living area; built-in storage walls, controlled lighting, and a few curved elements punctuating a gridded plan.