Alexander Girard was involved in nearly every aspect of the design of the Miller House — a fact made obvious in the surviving documents that make up the Miller House and Garden archives at the IMA. Among the files is the correspondence between the Millers and Alexander Girard, and for a researcher of mid-20th century design these materials are a dream.
One of the treasures in the Miller House and Garden archives is a collection of over 1,000 3 x 5 inch index cards stored in a small file box. In the upper right hand corner of each card is a handwritten number, and on the front is typed information about items the Millers purchased with Girard’s assistance for the house.
Last spring Bradley Brooks, the Director of Historic Resources, and Annette Schlagenhauff, Associate Curator of Research, asked if I might be interested in helping them and IMA Archivist Jennifer Whitlock to make sense of what the archives contained. I immediately said yes. The House and Garden would be open in the spring of 2011, and the race was on to learn as much about the history of the house as possible.
During the first few weeks of perusing the cards, Annette and I tried to decide on their origins: Girard or the Millers. We came to the conclusion that the Millers generated these cards using the information from the invoices sent from Girard’s office in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The invoices are among the materials in the archives, and the cards contained much of the same information as the invoices, although in abbreviated form. Every invoice has a single item number which corresponds to the card’s item number.
We initially thought the cards provided a chronology until we noticed that the invoices are not organized chronologically. The earliest invoices are dated April 20, 1955 and correspond to Items 8 through 16 (there are no invoices for the first seven items). Invoices for Items 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 25, and 26 are dated April 23, 1956 – one year and two days later. And Item 24 was February, 15, 1957. With Items 29 and 30, we were back to April 1955. If the Item Numbers did not reflect the order in which items were purchased, what did they mean?
We hoped that by cracking the code of the Item Numbers we would better understand Girard’s design process and the extent of the Millers’ participation. We turned to the correspondence between Girard and the Millers for clues. After several long afternoons cross-referencing letters and invoices to the index cards, Annette and I were able to make sense of Girard’s code.
Our clue came in a letter from Girard to the Millers. He was arranging a meeting with the Millers in New York and wrote, “As I mentioned to you earlier, my chief concern is to have a good foundation on which to start building your interior furnishings schemes. The best way of achieving this is to try and make decisions on rugs, so I think we probably should concentrate our attention in that direction.” (AHG to JIM, 9-9-54; 32/380)
Many of the earliest item were rugs (14 of 28), and the number on each card seemed to correspond to a “to do” list of Girard’s making. In providing the furnishings for the house, Girard first found a rug for the living room in 1955 – Item No. 1. Item 24 is the entrance rug designed by Alexander Girard; its late invoice date of 1957 is easily explained: the design and fabrication of the rug took nearly two years.
Entering the house, the rugs do seem to be the foundation as they simultaneously define rooms and fade from consciousness. As Girard and the Millers selected furnishings for the house, Girard worked systematically to produce the house’s harmony of colors, shapes, and textures. Having made decisions concerning the rugs, Girard then turned to the pillows, and by June 1955 he had assembled the myriad textiles needed to make almost 100 pillows to be used throughout the house. Fabrics for pillows came from Indonesia (Item 35), Peru and Guatemala (Item 38), Thailand (Items 47, 48, and 52), the United States (Item 61), and Persia (Item 94). In July and August of 1955, materials for curtains were purchased (Items 36, 50, 53, 56, 60-63, and 65), and in August and December, all major decisions concerning textiles were made with the purchase of fabric for bedspreads (Items76–78, 161, and 179).
Having worked through so much material in the Miller House and Garden Archives has given me a much greater appreciation for Girard’s contributions. His hand seemed to have touched most everything that, for me, makes the Miller House.