Back to

Drawing Back the Curtains

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t ….you know the rest.  But perhaps the old adage could be just as meaningful if slightly rewritten: people who live glass houses need good curtain systems.  Modernist residences often incorporated prodigious quantities of glass, which meant that their designers had to think about how treat all those windows.

When thinking about glass houses, the first that leaps to mind of course is Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut – a shimmering glass pavilion without curtains or window coverings of any kind – a bold statement indeed.  But having no curtains did not mean that Johnson wished always to live in a fishbowl.  For those moments when even he desired privacy, Johnson retreated to the Brick House, a nearly windowless structure just steps away.

The more ordinary homes built for those of us with less-than-Johnsonian daring must accommodate our desire to have both light and views, as well as enclosure and privacy, depending on the hour of the day or whether one wishes to move about the house en déshabillé.  The Miller House was planned as a fully functioning family home, making privacy and control of light levels at the windows components of the program that architect Eero Saarinen had to accommodate.  One of the most memorable experiences that the house provides is impact of the views of the landscape and gardens through broad expanses of ceiling-height windows.

These, as well as smaller windows all required curtains.  In addition, two interior spaces, the den and the dining room, could be closed off from the main living area with curtains.

All the exterior windows have two layers of curtains – a semi-transparent “glass curtain” immediately adjacent to the window, and a denser curtain just inside.  In the bedrooms, the inner curtains are heavily lined and opaque so that the rooms can be darkened effectively for more comfortable sleep.  In the living areas, the inner curtains are denser than the glass curtains but have an open weave that further filters light without blocking it.  In the original scheme, the light filtering curtains were of textiles designed by Jack Lenor Larsen, while the bedrooms featured inner curtains designed by Alexander Girard.  The children’s rooms, for example, made use of his “Quatrefoil” design in several colorways.

The curtains on the smaller windows operate manually by means of cords and pulleys – quite straightforward.  At some point in the process of designing the house, someone – perhaps one of the Millers, perhaps Saarinen – decided that for ease, convenience, or drama some of the curtains should be motorized.  The curtains on the west side of the main living area, the longest expanse of glass in the house looking out to the most important landscape view, were among those chosen for motorization.  Here the motors help with the task of moving the heaviest and longest curtains.  The curtains in the master bedroom are also motorized, with the control switches located on the headboard of the bed.  What luxury to be able to open the view to the Dan Kiley landscape before one’s feet have even hit the floor!

Today, such systems integrate the drive motor with the traverse mechanism within the curtain track in a single proprietary package, such as those manufactured by Somfy.  The drive shaft of such a motor directly engages a belt inside the overhead track to move the curtain.  The motors are small and easily hidden by the draperies they control.  Simple, elegant, and easy.

In the 1950s, it was a little more complicated.  The integrated systems, it seems, were yet-to-be-designed things of the future and Saarinen’s office had to decide which components to select to build the motorized system they desired.  Correspondence suggests that they had worked on similar problems before, and rather than shop around or put the system out to bid, wished to use motors manufactured by the Draw-Matic corporation of Michigan because they had been less troublesome than others.  The tracks and traverse hardware appear to have come from Kirsch.  By all accounts, the motorized curtains in the Miller House were never trouble-free and required a fair bit of repairing and adjusting throughout the years.  The drive pulleys tended to be a particular problem – with wear they lost traction on the curtain cord and failed to move it.

Problematic though they might have been, the Millers retained the Draw-Matic motors through all the years they lived in the house.  The state of the art changed, but the Millers’ curtain system remained stubbornly fixed in the mid 1950s.  Obtaining parts to keep things going became more and more difficult.  While Draw-Matic exists today, the firm stopped manufacturing curtain systems a number of years ago, and the style of motor used in the Miller House is now completely obsolete throughout the industry.  Draws-Matic’s stock of old motors and parts is now exhausted.

Not knowing exactly the direction to take to try to repair the ailing curtain systems, I made a number of phone calls including one to Somfy, whose regional representative, David Towslee, patiently explained the nature of the business today.  He visited the Miller House to see the curtains and look at the Draw-Matic motors, many of which have been removed for repair. David brought with him a remarkable stroke of good luck; he confirmed that he had found a small cache of old Draw-Matic motors and parts in a drapery shop in Cincinnati.  Checking an image of the Cincinnati items against the Miller House motors, he determined that they were an exact match.  After a brief flurry of phone calls, we agreed on a purchase price.  The motors and parts are in Columbus now; with luck they will help us get some of the house’s gee-whiz curtain system back up and running.

Filed under: Miller House

3 Responses to “Drawing Back the Curtains”