Saarinen’s Miller House: Still Great and Groovy

By Lynn Byrne. Having just come from the Eero Saarinen exhibition which opened last Tuesday at the Museum of  the City of New York, I am entranced by all things middle of the last century.  The exhibition is like an onion, with multiple layers dissecting Saarinen, his life, work and impact on American culture.  Not only is the exhibition a comprehensive view on Saarinen, it speaks volumes about who we were as a people back in the 1950’s.

A small section of the exhibition is devoted to Saarinen’s residential architecture.  It is small because he did not build many houses.  His best known home is the one he built for one of his major clients, Irwin and Xenia Miller.  It merits a closer look.
Built in 1957, the Miller house reflects the work of not just Saarinen, but Alexander Girard (a well known textile designer for the 1950s) who handled the interiors and Dan Kiley who designed the surrounding landscape.  After serving the Miller family for 50 years, the home was recently donated by Miller descendants after Xenia’s death in 2008 to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  The museum is currently undergoing a fundraising campaign to fully restore the worn but still intact interiors to ready the home for public viewing.
Saarinen organized the house as a rectangle divided into 9 sections.  The 4 corners house the master suite, the children’s (there were 5) bedrooms and playroom, a kitchen/laundry and a section housing a guest suite, servants quarters and car port.  In the center is a large atruim-like entertainment area.  The main walls of the public areas are floor to ceiling slabs of marble with exposed edges.  Natural light abounds with a series of skylights and no dark spots.  The floors are travertine.  The blue panels seen on the exterior are slate.
One of the most photographed elements of the Miller House is credited as the first “conversation pit,” seen below in a rendering by Saarinen and Associates published in the exhibition catalog, entitled Eero Saarinen, Shaping the Future, by Pelkonen and Albrecht (hereafter, “Shaping the Future“).   Shaping the Future states that the pit’s design was by Girard, but it is known that Saarinen also played with the form.  Saarinen installed a similar element in a girls’ dorm at Vassar which the students dubbed “the passion pit.”
Just beyond the conversation pit to the left, you see a key element by Saarinen.  It is the cylindrical plaster fireplace hanging down from the ceiling to a few feet above the floor.  Folding glass panels shield one from the flames.

Here is another view of the conversation pit, this time with white slipcovers that really highlight the Girard designed silk pillows.  The slipcovers  were switched out twice a year.

Photo from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

A close up of the sitting area seen in the back left of the photo above is shown below:  

Photo from Indianapolis Museum of Art.

In this photo of the “pit,” you can glimpse a Saarinen womb chair in the back right.  All of the colors are so harmonious.

Photo from the Architects Newspaper.

Girard and Xenia came up with a great way to house the clutter of family life.  They devised  a 50 foot long storage wall, which contained among other things, the family’s TV, stereo system, bar, bookshelves and sheet music.  You see it along the back in the photo above and in the following photo.  It was constructed of white formica, adjustable shelves and rosewood cabinets.  Art objects and paintings were placed in front of colorful patches of wallpaper.


Photo from Shaping the Future

The dining area showcased a Saarinen designed 96 inch round marble table.  The marble pedestal base was outfitted with a brass pump that supplied water to a recessed bowl in the center of the table.  The bowl could function as a fountain, lily pond or lawn.  Seating is provided by Saarinen tulip chairs.

Photo from Burning Settlers Cabin.

Here is the dining room as styled for a 1959 House and Garden shoot.


Photo of the dining room from House and Garden, reproduced in Shaping the Future.

Here is the Miller kitchen.  Love the blue.

Photo from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

This is the entry way.

Photo from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

In the children’s playroom, Girard used the Eames molded plastic, eiffel tower based chair. 

Photo from the Magazine Antiques.

The  photos of the gardens below show how compatible the outside design by Dan Kiley is with the architecture and interiors.  In the first photo the ” pit” is mirrored by an outside pool.  The second photo shows how the flower colors pick up Girard’s indoor palette.


Photo from Shaping the Future

Photo from a Garden Visit.

Indoors and out, it is all so bright and colorful.  It is hard to believe the home is more than 50 years old.

If you are digging the interior of the Miller House, remember that Saarinen’s womb chair and tulip chairs are available retail through Design within Reach, as are the Eames chairs shown above.  You could easily replicate the playroom checkerboard carpet with the many colored square carpet tiles available through Flor.  And Alexander Girard’s textiles are currently available as pillows, bedding  and curtains through Urban Outfittlers.

Go ahead, get that groovy feeling,   Photo below from the Architects Newspaper.

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