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Pillow Talk

Bradley Brooks, Director of Historic Resources, and Amanda Holden, Assistant Conservator of Textiles, write about textile rotation at Miller House.

Sounds comforting, doesn’t it?  Pleasant, soft, warm, intimate, relaxing, playful…   We’d like to use the blog for a bit of pillow talk.  Care to join us?  Come on, we’ll keep your secrets!

Doris Day and Rock Hudson – perhaps the most glamorous of mid-century pillow talkers.

Well not exactly pillow talk, you know, that is, not talk over a pillow or in the midst of pillows or under the pillows.  Rather, let’s talk about pillows, which pillows, how many pillows, what color of pillows…  It’s about pillows in the Miller House conversation pit, and what to do about changing them for the season as winter relents.

The interiors of the Miller House have a lot of eye-catching elements, to be sure, but the biggest crowd pleaser has got to be the conversation pit, a 15-foot-square, 2 ½ -foot-deep exercise in below-floor-level decorative decadence.  It’s been touted as the very first conversation pit, but that’s a pretty difficult statement to verify.  There are certainly plenty of antecedents, as well as related interior features in houses of the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Houses of the Victorian and Arts and Crafts eras had inglenooks and similar areas of built-in seating.  And it’s not hard to find mid-century houses that featured floor level changes that also incorporated seating.  Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames created such designs for the Case Study Houses in California in the 1940s.  Whether the Miller House conversation pit is indeed the first is something of an exercise in architectural hair-splitting, but if anyone knows of an earlier pit of the same completely enclosed configuration, we’d love to hear about it.

Interior, Case Study House #9.

The “pit” in the Case Study House above shapes the spatial flow of the interior – down to the embrace of the fireplace and outward at the same level to the landscape beyond.   With interior designer Alexander Girard in the mix at the Miller House, the pit concept does something different.  Functionally, it achieves the goal of providing significant seating without the clusters of furniture that Saarinen so detested.  Being below the floor level, it provided nothing to impede the view to the west through the allée of honey locust trees.  By enclosing the pit on all four sides, with entry by means of a short flight of seemingly-floating padouk wood steps, Girard made the pit into a huge, discrete decorative object that balances the 50-foot storage wall and the marble-topped dining table.  It shouts for the viewer’s attention, rewards it with a lush display of textiles, and offers the novelty of looking down to something other than the floor.

Your view from the Miller House conversation pit.

After this (purposeful) digression, we will return to the subject at hand: pillows.  From what we know of Mrs. Miller’s wishes, the house needed such an object.  She was interested in a means for decorative variety and change in an interior dominated by marble, travertine, plaster, and steel.  The conversation pit served this function.  Though constructed of Aurisina marble, the pit demanded seat and back cushions for comfort, all with slip covers.  And loose pillows – lots of them.  All these, as well as the rug on the pit floor, were changed seasonally to refresh the room’s appearance.

We are just embarking on changing the pillows for the first time.  Since the IMA acquired the house in 2009, the conversation pit has been wearing its winter garb of richly-colored pillows, many of them covered in woolen fabrics.  The summer scheme, carefully worked out in the original plan by Girard, employed fabrics lighter in both color and texture, many of them the striped Mexican cottons (Mexicottons) that he designed.

Drawing from cross-cultural inspirations, Girard designed fabrics with innovative color combinations.  Many of the Mexicotton pillowcases at the Miller House share a simple plain-weave structure and a cotton composition, but the placement of color separates each fabric as a unique and innovative design element.  Stripes were created by alternating colors of custom-dyed yarn as opposed to printing designs on the fabrics.  Below is only a small sampling of Girard’s many Mexicottons, which will soon be on display.  Below are details of two of the pillowcases created out of Mexicotton Stripe fabric.  The contrasting piping around the edge of each pillowcase is created out of Mexicotton Plain fabric:

For centuries, home furnishing fabrics have been changed with the seasons, which not only refreshed the room, but also contributed to the preservation of the color and appearance of some of the most significant, expensive, and vulnerable items that a family might own.  While conservation might not have been foremost in the thoughts of homeowners through the years, it is something we take very seriously at the IMA.  The seasonal rotation of the pillows at the Miller House allows us to realize two goals concurrently: it is in keeping with what Mrs. Miller originally intended and it will allow textile conservators an opportunity to assess the condition and needs of each unique pillow.

Before redressing the conversation pit in its vernal wardrobe, the curator and conservators teamed up and went to the Miller House to further discuss and implement the seasonal rotation.  The spring/ summer pillows were carefully removed from storage and placed on plastic close to the current display.  This facilitated curatorial decisions, such as which pillows, how many, and general placement.  While not yet in the conversation pit, the shifting palette of pillows from mulled wine to citrus spritzers can be observed easily.  And that red carpet on the floor of the conversation pit will be rotated out as well – but you’ll have to visit the Miller House to see the dramatic difference…

The conversation pit as it is currently installed, juxtaposed with the upcoming seasonal color scheme.

So, how does a seasonal rotation of pillows help preserve them for future generations?  Or more importantly – what happens to a pillow when it is not on display?  Once a textile is removed from display the conservators assess the current condition and address any need that the textile may have.  All of the textiles receive a gentle vacuuming as to not return them to storage with any dirt or dust that might have accumulated during display.  Each is then carefully packed and placed in a storage environment with stable temperature and relative humidity and away from light.  Protection from light is crucial in the preservation of textiles.

The Miller House is striking with its glass walls and skylight system; however, when textiles are struck by light some fabrics will fade (depending on the dyes used, type of light, and cumulative light exposure).  This orange pillow is slated for its public debut in the conversation pit.  When the side opening is gently pulled back one can observe that it has already faded from an electric orange to a humbler shade.  By rotating the pillows seasonally and placing them in dark storage for the time they are off view, we hope to extend the lush display of textiles in the conversation pit for years to come.

On the top is a detail of the inside of a pillowcase; below is the exterior of the same pillow case after years of light exposure:

Schedule a visit and be sure to experience the Miller House pillows for each season!

Filed under: Conservation, Miller House

6 Responses to “Pillow Talk”

  • avatar

    I think you need to do a juried pillow show at the Miller House. Hoosier textile artists would love the opportunity. Pillows are a great canvas!

  • avatar
    Peg Says:

    Great blog, Bradley! Very cleverly done and most interesting.

  • avatar
    Lynne Says:

    Delightful reading!

  • avatar
    Amalia Says:

    I’ve read your article and I guess I know, what to gift my BF on 14th february. Nice pillow, isn’t it a good present?

  • avatar
    kimann Says:

    i so love this house and its famous conversation pit. and i am a pillow nut: thwacked in the middle just so, vintage heirlooms to newly acquired pillows grace every last seating unit in our house –
    indeed, they are great little canvases, as ms bulington mentioned above. i too think there should be at least one new, additional rotation of pillows for the sake of sparing the older pieces. wear and tear from exposure is inevitable, irreversible and painfully obvious over time.
    new collection: a color palette and size could be decided upon for overall aesthetic purposes, but the submissions by hoosier textile artists could be limitless. i have just enjoyed looking at the coral reef art projects (npr’s “is that a star fish on my face?”) and am blown away: knitted, woven, crocheted – the end result could be just as amazing. thematically, indiana’s quilting tradition could provide a nice basis for a pattern parameter….

  • avatar
    irvin Says:

    Ah, Mr. Brooks. Brilliant as always.

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