The sunken living room. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art
Saarinen met J. Irwin Miller
in 1939, when Eero accompanied his father to Columbus for meetings about Eliel’s design for the First Christian Church. The two men, both Yale graduates and scions of leading families in architecture and industry, respectively, became close friends. Miller ran the Cummins Engine Company from 1934 until his retirement as CEO in 1977, building it into a Fortune 500 company. In 1954, in response to the postwar baby and manufacturing boom, Miller formed the Cummins Engine Foundation in an attempt to improve the architecture of the new schools being built in Columbus; the foundation’s Architecture Program, which continues today, pays the architect’s fees for local public buildings, and eventually led to Columbus itself being designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000. (A visit to the Miller House would not be complete without a tour of some of Columbus’s other amazing modern landmarks
In 1953, Irwin Miller selected a 13.5-acre site on the edge of town. That extensive landscape served as a buffer. Despite (or perhaps because of) Miller’s public role in business and banking, religion, education, politics, and the arts, he actively guarded his family’s privacy. The house was set back from the street, and the driveway was tucked in among other residences. Short hedges in two staggered rows provided a visual barrier without creating an un-neighborly wall. One side of the house faces a flood plain of the Flatrock River, and on the other, landscape architect Dan Kiley created a series of outdoor rooms, including a locust-lined allée that echoes the house’s 5-foot grid.
Miller also restricted the house’s appearance in publications and forbade any mention of his name, the house’s specific location, or its cost. But it can now be seen as a link in the chain of glass houses that announced the arrival of modernism in America, and remain the icons of their respective architects’ work. Examples include Philip Johnson’s Glass House
(1949), Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House
, the Eameses’ Pacific Palisades home
(1949), and the family version built by Eliot Noyes
down the road from Johnson in New Canaan
(1954). All of these houses have glass walls and verdant settings. They sit flat upon the ground, with furniture resting in the rooms like so many backlit sculptures. One understands why Saarinen was so sensitive to “the slum of legs” because, in the modern interior, there was truly nowhere for some ungainly antique to hide.
In the Miller house, the public spaces are enclosed by four slate-sided pavilions, one at each corner, containing private quarters — a master suite, children’s bedrooms, the kitchen/laundry, and an area containing a guest room, servants quarters and carport. The spaces between them also serve clear and separate functions: entryway, dining room, den, with the fourth side left open as a bridge between living room and outdoors. Although photographs of the Miller House can make it look as chilly as a vault, the Miller children remember it as a welcoming and comfortable space — but for the need to cross the living room to travel from bedroom to kitchen.
To ensure the house’s livability, Irwin and especially Xenia Miller hired a secret weapon: Alexander Girard. Girard’s contributions show up as spots of color, populating the minimalist architecture with texture and whimsy. The public saw the Miller House (albeit not named as such) on the cover of House & Garden’s
February 1959 issue. The cover featured a close-up of the storage wall designed by Girard, which ran from entrance hall to den and held books, sculpture, folk art, and engravings, set against a backing of black-and-gold and red tea paper. Hidden behind rosewood doors were a television, bar, stereo system, and storage for camera equipment. Such built-ins were relatively commonplace in the domestic landscapes of Girard, Nelson, Saarinen, and the Eameses as a way of organizing, and often hiding, the necessary stuff of life
Girard’s wall differs from many of its predecessors in that it is meant to draw attention to itself. It can be considered a three-dimensional version of his Herman Miller fabrics
, with real objects instead of flattened cut-outs. The net effect is of a massive art object, a “three-dimensional mural” similar to those Girard would create for corporate clients like Hallmark and Deere & Company
using their archives to make an exhibition and a pattern at the same time. At Christmas, Xenia Miller would make exhibitions of her own, filling the shelves with crèches from around the world. A few of those Herman Miller fabrics were used as draperies in the house; most notably "Eden" in the kitchen. Girard also designed several rugs for the house; an abstract design for the dining room and another for the family quarters with heraldic symbols representing family history and interests.
Perhaps influenced by Girard and Xenia Miller’s choices, the H&G
article emphasized the vernacular aspect of the Miller House rather than its modern elements. “The great center area is a big, handsome, festive meeting room for activities and entertainment. Inspired by old Mid-West farmhouses where all rooms opened on a common room, it has the same magnetic effect, expresses the common unity of the family.” Another reading would be that H&G
felt it had to sell the livability of modernism hard, making a formal house seem homey.
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