For a home that was built nearly 60 years ago, the Miller
House in Columbus, Indiana designed by Eero Saarinen still seems remarkably relevant. One of only a
few designed by the legendary modernist, the home, now owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art
, presents some compelling
solutions to challenges that still bedevil home designers. [All photos in this post are by Boyce Thompson.]
Saarinen, who designed the Arch in St. Louis and Dulles
Airport, worked within the confines of International Modernism, with its
emphasis on open interior spaces and a material palette of mostly steel, stone,
and glass. But the Millers, who met at Cummings Engines where he ran the company and she initially worked in purchasing, had four children when Saarinen was drawing their
Columbus, Indiana house, with a fifth on the way. Concessions to practicality had
to be made.
The architect’s solution was to design a separate children’s
wing with a homework center, much like you’d see in modern production housing
today. Considering that homework centers really only came into vogue 10 years
ago, Saarinen was way ahead of his time. Four utilitarian bedrooms with built
in desks and closets surround the work/play space, ironically decorated with a
typewriter and small portable television.
To make room for the wide-open common rooms he sought,
Saarinen relegated most of the functional spaces – the children’s wing, the
master suite, the kitchen, and the guest quarters -- to the corners of the
7,000-square-foot home. That enabled him to leave the living room, dining room,
and an infamous conversation pit (shown at the top of this post) – out in the open.
The most significant lesson may be how all this is
discovered. Today’s visitors enter the home conditioned to expect killer views through
the house of the backyard landscape. The home is surrounded by large hedges,
trees, and other vegetation that create a series of geometric enclosures extending
from each side. It was landscape architect Dan Kiley’s contemporary riff on patterns
found in English gardens. But Saarinen
doesn’t give it all away upon entry – a small
panel separates the entry vestibule from the main rooms of the house. Once
visitors pass the panel, the home opens up in magnificent fashion. Large
sliding glass doors
frame dramatic views of the exterior in three directions,
creating the impression of seamless interior and exterior spaces.
The approach stands in contrast to the typical approach
today; to emphasize only one view – to rear landscaping – and give it away at
entry. That makes the house feel like something to just look or pass through.
The interiors and exteriors of the Miller house, by contrast, read as one;
there’s no need to pass through. The place you are standing is exquisite.
Unhindered axial views are accommodated by a series of 16 freestanding
cruciform pillars that hold steel
beams supporting the home. Since none of the
walls are loadbearing, Saarinen could take liberal license with the walls,
specifying big slabs of slate on the exterior and marble on the interior. The
interiors are lit by natural light from a massive skylight system that crosses
the roof along the lines of the structural grid.
Other elements of the floor plan seem ahead of their time. The
master suite features his and hers walk in
closets (hers even has a dressing table)
and a home office, complete with his-and-hers workstations. One
hinged bedroom wall for hanging family pictures and memorabilia gives way to
reveal a television set and storage drawers.
The kitchen was large for its time, designed to accommodate
cooking for the Miller’s many guests, including
heads of state. Rapt attention
was paid to relieving the space of clutter. Built-in cabinets fade into the
walls. A flush mechanical system on the counter accepts blenders and other
mechanical appliances. An elaborate fan system, designed to accommodate an
indoor charcoal grill, is hidden from view.
With its architectural palette of white, grey, and black,
the home might have been uninviting had it not been for the colorful playfulness
of the interior design scheme. Alexander Girard, an architect and designer who
became the design director of the textile division of Herman Miller, designed colorful rugs, cushions, curtains, and even some folk art, along with a
50-foot-long storage wall in the living room for books and art objects. Girard is credited with the idea of putting a conversation
pit in the living room -- he didn’t want furnishings to interfere with views to
the rear of the house. He created furnishings for the conversation pit that
change with the seasons. The Miller children, especially the baby, must have
been very well behaved. Some parents would be tempted to wrap a barricade
around the potential child hazard.
Other modern details remain remarkably fresh, especially the
circular fireplace designed by one of Saarinen’s associates. Standing in the
center of the sitting area, rather than along a wall, it’s wrapped by a
circular metal grate. The shape is echoed in the dining room table -- cut out
in the middle for a water fountain -- which sits on a pedestal.
The home doesn’t succeed in every respect. The skylight
system has to be cleaned of insects, dirt, and debris every six months. Point
to the home’s flat roof, a docent wants to get one thing out of the way early.
“Yes, the roof leaks.” The Indianapolis Museum of Art conducts tours most of the year. For more on the history of the house and how to purchase tickets to tour it, click here.
Boyce Thompson is the former Editorial Director of Builder
Magazine, and the author of The New New Home.