April 2009 | The cleverest exponents of modern architecture and design have furthered their cause by playing to a deep-seated human obsession: curiosity about how people live at home. Modernism’s radical reformation of the built environment would never have succeeded without the show houses, model rooms, and design journals that gave a broad audience tips on modern living. Persuasive as those methods were, though, nothing can make architecture more understandable and immediate than a visit to an actual house, even when its residents are long gone.
The first director of the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design department, Philip Johnson (1906–2005), knew a thing or two about promoting modernism (and himself). To secure his place in history, he offered his much publicized country place in New Canaan, Connecticut, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But that underfunded organization could accept the bequest only if it came with an endowment to maintain the forty-seven-acre spread and its fourteen structures in perpetuity. Whereupon Johnson and his lover of forty-five years, the curator and collector David Whitney (1939–2005), adjusted their wills to seal the deal.
Now, another mid-century architectural treasure faces a more difficult transition from personal domain to historic landmark. The Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, is virtually unknown in comparison to the canonical Glass House and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s (1886–1969) Farnsworth House (1945–1951) in Plano, Illinois. (In 2003 the National Trust helped the preservation group Landmarks Illinois buy the Farnsworth House, for a reported $7.5 million.) But as a tour de force of totally integrated modernism, the Miller House—designed by Eero Saarinen, decorated by Alexander Girard and landscaped by Dan Kiley—is in a class all its own, and will be hailed as a major revelation when it finally opens to the public.
Commissioned by J. Irwin Miller (1909–2004), an industrialist, banker, and arguably the most committed American architecture patron of the postwar period—whose widow, Xenia Simons Miller (1917–2008), lived in the house until her death last February—this was among the few houses undertaken by Saarinen. By the 1950s he was so preoccupied with large public commissions that despite his belief in total design, he delegated many details he once would have handled himself. He begged off decorating for the Millers, which led to a surprising departure from high modernist conventions.
The severely minimalist interiors of the Glass House and Farnsworth House suited their unmarried middle-aged owners just fine. But the Millers sought a warmer, more playful atmosphere for their large family, and Girard was the perfect choice. As the director of the textile design division at Herman Miller, Girard had worked closely with Charles and Ray Eames. Although all three adhered to modernist principles in architecture, they shared a passion for colorful folkloric objects and delighted in accenting their interiors with naive artifacts in Victorian profusion.
This revival of clutter seemed heretical to many, but Girard never tipped the balance away from a dominant modernist theme. He devised a sweeping, floor-to-ceiling “storage wall” that gave a carefully composed mélange of books, art objects, and personal mementos the imposing presence of a wall sculpture by Louise Nevelson (1899–1988).
Soon after Xenia Miller died, her children offered Saarinen’s international style structure, its still-intact (if well-worn) Girard interiors, and Kiley’s surrounding landscape to the Indian-apolis Museum of Art, forty-five miles north of Columbus. The museum’s di-rector, Maxwell Anderson, accepted the gift with a mixture of alacrity and alarm. The deal was formalized just two months after the economic collapse of last September, but even at that frightening juncture there was no doubting this as a cultural priority of singular urgency.