Living Like a Mad Man- Saarinen’s Residential Design

The KMAC Radio Hour on ArtxFm (artxfm.com) will be hosted by KMAC’s Communications Director Julie Gross and she’ll be discussing Living Like a Mad Man- 1950s Residential Design. Tune in to the live show on Monday from 11am to 12p and stream it from your computer when you click PLAY on the embedded player located in the upper left corner of the website.

From the end of World War II until the mid-1960s, American architecture went through some very dramatic and exciting changes and the architects who were a part of this creative boom held a certain celebrity status. The now defunct American journal, Arts & Architecture, was a well respected publication that featured the era’s greatest architects, and Saarinen was one of them.

art&architecture

When World War II ended and the United States experienced a residential housing boom from the millions of soldiers who returned home. Houses were needed quickly, efficiently and with low material cost. Thus, the Case Study Houses were born. The Case Study Houses were experiments in American residential architecture sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine, which commissioned major architects of the day, including Eero Saarinen, to build inexpensive and efficient model homes. John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture Magazine wanted the architects to create houses that would capture the public’s imagination by introducing new ideas about how they might live in the future.

Case Study House No.9 or the Entenza House was designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for John Entenza (1949) and is still located in Pacific Palisades, CA. For details of the house and design, read the original article from A&A magazine HERE.

casehouseno9

The Miller House

Joseph Irwin Miller (1909-2004) was born into a prominent Columbus, Indiana family with business interests in banking and industry. He was also a philanthropist and a patron of architecture where as chairman of the Cummins Engine Company, a leading maker of diesel engines, he established a foundation that fostered new building designs from leading architects turning the small city of Columbus, IN into a modern architectural showcase. So, how did Eero Saarinen come to design the private home and garden for Miller, his wife, Xenia, and their five children?

The Miller family in the "conversation pit", 1961. Photo: Frank Scherschel
The Miller family in the “conversation pit”, 1961. Photo: Frank Scherschel

Eliel Saarinen -> Builds First Christian Church 1942 in Columbus -> J. Irwin Miller hires Eero Saarinen to build Irwin Union Bank & Trust 1950, Completed 1954 -> J. Irwin Miller hires Eero to build private home, The Miller House 1953, Completed 1957.

Photo: Leslie Williamson for Dwell.com
Photo: Leslie Williamson for Dwell.com

It took four years (1953-1957) to design and build the 6,838 square foot home, which sits on 13.5 acres in Columbus, Indiana. The super powers behind this project were architect Eero Saarinen, landscape designer Dan Kiley, and textile designer and architect Alexander Girard.

Structurally, the entire weight of the roof is supported by 16 free-standing cruciform steel columns which defines the 9-square grid of the floorplan.

Miller-house-floorplan

An intricate continuous skylight system forms a grid pattern throughout the house meeting at the columns. The skylight system also has  hidden artificial lighting fixtures to illuminate the interior and exterior of the house at night.

skylight

The Living area has a circular fireplace designed by Balthazar Korab, which was reportedly  his only assignment during the 2 years he spent with the Saarinen office.

Photo: Leslie Williamson for Dwell.com
Photo: Leslie Williamson for Dwell.com

The 50-foot long rosewood and glass storage wall was designed by Girard to be used for books, display of art objects and as concealed storage for the television, stereo, bar and other items. Girard used patterned backgrounds and art objects inter-spaced with the family book collection giving the wall the appearance of a 3-dimensional mural.

1961. Photo: Frank Scherschel
1961. Photo: Frank Scherschel
Courtesy of Indy Star
Courtesy of Indy Star

One trademark feature is the sunken living room (or conversation pit) which holds a square sectional sofa with a multitude of accent pillows. Most of the pillow fabrics were designed or selected by Alexander Girard. The sofa cushions were made in both red and white and would be changed around several times a year. This “pit” was Saarinen’s solution to the “inevitable slum of legs” created by a room filled with furniture.

The dining room which can be closed off with a curtain for food preparation or opened when dinner is served. One of the only interior Saarinen furnishings in the original configuration is the built-in dining table. It has a terrazzo base and a round marble top resembling the pedestal table series. It is lit from below and features a bubbling fountain in the center.

Photo: Leslie Williamson for Dwell.com
Photo: Leslie Williamson for Dwell.com

Seat cushions for the Saarinen pedestal chairs were designed by Girard and Xenia Miller with the help of her bridge club did the embroidery.

Each family members initials can be found inside the cushion designs. Photo: Indy Star
Each family members initials can be found inside the cushion designs. Photo: Indy Star

The Miller House and Garden is owned and maintained by the Indianapolis Museum of Art and daily tours are available. Go to www.imamuseum.org/visit/miller-house for info.

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