The entrance and fireplace of the Miller House. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art
That center area had two foci, one traditional in function, if not style, the other wholly contemporary. The former is a plaster fireplace, a smooth oval extending from the ceiling to a few feet above the floor, where folding glass panels screen the flames. Such sculptural versions of the classic hearth were known as “feature fireplaces” in the home design magazines of the era, terminology that emphasizes their central role in the social life of the home. At the Miller House, a Kashmir shawl mounted on a panel screens the entrance from living room and helps to anchor the fireplace in the large open space. The panel functions like a theater curtain, hiding the action on the other side from guests at the entryway. Looking back at the entrance from the conversation pit, it also extends the decorative line of the storage wall.
Further accentuating that open center is the house’s most memorable element: the conversation pit. Upholstered in red and lined with silk and embroidered cushions, the pit provides a counterpoint to the marble floors, and an analogue in richness to the storage wall. (On a practical note, Girard provided alternate cushions and lighter-hued throw pillows for the warmer months.) Saarinen and Girard had both been moving toward the conversation pit in their respective work for some time. Girard’s 1948 living room in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, included a encircling built-in banquette, which created a similar lounge effect. Saarinen used a flower-like version as the central feature at the Emma Hartman Noyes House
(1954–58) at Vassar College, designed at the same time as the Miller House. By 1960, Saarinen feared such pits were overdone, but they couldn’t come up with a better way to restructure the formal parlor.
The third public element in the house was the dining room, set off in a precinct of its own between the kitchen and master bedroom suite. The dominating circular table allowed Saarinen to revisit the dining room his father designed for the Saarinen House, as well as create a built-in version of his own famous pedestal table for Knoll, first sold in 1958. Although the period Ezra Stoller photographs
show fiberglass Eames chairs with Eiffel bases around the table, these were soon replaced by tulip chairs. Girard designed custom patterns for the seat covers, and Xenia Miller and her friends embroidered them.The dinning area. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art
Eero’s 96-inch round table is made entirely of marble, allowing him to achieve the seamless, single-material goal that had been an aim for Saarinen, Eames, Bertoia, and others experimenting with new materials and forms for furniture. The flared support holds a brass pump that supplies water to a recessed bowl at the center of the table, which can function as a fountain, a lily pond, or a tiny lawn. This pump, a baroque touch, seems like it must have been a Girard suggestion. In the 1960s, Girard would design two theatrical Manhattan restaurants, La Fonda del Sol and L’Etoile. In the styling of the Millers’ table for H&G
, one can see the germ of Girard’s idea that meals were about more than just food. He’s turned Saarinen’s minimal base into an international landscape, with a tole candelabra, Indian carved angels, and California poppies in Siamese vases. The pink alabaster candy dish echoes the pedestal form of the table, and plays off the painted Bohemian glassware. We’re not at the Glass House, with its solitary ashtray and never used kitchen, anymore. Too often black-and-white photography and a certain sexism about decoration being the province of women (not architects) have made the icons of domestic modernism seem rather gray.
Of the famous glass houses, only the Noyes House, like this one, was built for a family. At the Noyes House, a certain New England Spartanism prevailed, with stone floors, Colonial chairs, and an outdoor passage from living to bedrooms (the Noyes kids say: chilly!). The Miller House was far more luxurious and aspirational. Never published photographs
of the Miller family taken for a 1961 LIFE
profile show it in use, with messy desks
and kids leaping out of the pit, and I have heard that wheeled transport was not unheard of indoors. But what fascinates me is that no compromise was made here between comfort and design. Instead architect and interior designer were challenged to reconcile their ideals with architecture for real life, lived in public and in private, with TV and toys. Girard liked toys too much himself for one to imagine that it was a big stretch, but Saarinen is a different story. He had three children, but his description of the perfect house was so obviously in the Miesian mode, I imagine he must have had to reach farther back in time to think about what it was like for him (family design project!) to call a modern house home.
This essay was adapted from a talk given at the Museum of the City of New York on June 2, 2009 and research done for the book Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (Yale University Press, 2006).