If stripped of its furnishings, the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, would be a relatively colorless space. It is beautifully illuminated by the skylight grid that architect Eero Saarinen and chief associate Kevin Roche created as a defining feature of the home. White Alabama marble walls faintly veined with gray, travertine floors, and white steel contribute to the sense of even light. Pale and cool, these materials might conspire to make the space austere as well. But Alexander Girard was also on the design team, bringing delight in color, texture, form, and pure whimsy sufficient to balance the intellectual rigor of high modernism with warmth and palpable humanity. Girard remained close to Irwin and Xenia Miller for many years after their house was completed in 1957, assisting with changes and refinements. In 1974, one such project was to design new cushions for the twelve dining chairs. Mrs. Miller, always keenly attuned to color, wanted something that would work with a wide variety of table settings. Family members’ monograms served as the subjects for most of the group. Girard rendered them in highly stylized sans serif letters whose forms were shaped by the fine check that gave structure to both the letters and the flecks of color that enlivened the background. Cushions without monograms had an allover checked pattern. The actual needlepoint for the cushions was the work of Mrs. Miller and her bridge-playing friends—modern design meets small-town community! One can think of the cushions as a small-scale virtuoso essay in the same design dynamics that Girard used so masterfully throughout the house: vivid hues and meaningful personal expression contained within—but not diminished by—a framework of geometric precision and a background of neutral color.
Bradley C. Brooks is director of historic resources for the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Images: Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.