Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard’s conversation pit, a square architectural recess lined with upholstered couches and throw pillows at the Miller House has been preserved, though not as the artists originally created it. The Miller family commissioned Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard to design the conversation pit in 1953 and the family enjoyed it for decades. As the Millers aged, the conversation pit became increasingly difficult for them to enjoy because the cushions were low and difficult to stand up from. In 1995, the Millers asked Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates to modify the profile of the cushions to accommodate their comfort. Today the cushions have a larger profile and are made out of a different fabric. The decision to preserve the conversation pit at this later moment is keeping with the curatorial interpretation of the home.
So, the original materials are no longer present in the cushions, yet the cushions are authentic — I’ll return to this riddle in a bit. In early December I had the opportunity to have a rousing debate on the topic with one of my favorite colleagues, Joelle Wickens, the result of which was captured and presented in Glasgow, Scotland.
At the Getty funded conference, “The Real Thing? The Value of Authenticity and Replication for Investigation and Conservation,” Joelle and I compared the current state of the conversation pit at the Miller House to the conservation recommendations made by Joelle for the Globe chair, which was designed by Eero Aarnio in 1963 and is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A) collection. Ultimately, at the IMA it was decided that the current iteration of the conversation pit is the authentic moment to be preserved, whereas at the V & A it was recommended that the original profile and materials of the Globe were authentic and thus should be preserved. So how do museums arrive at these decisions? It comes down to context.
Museums establish context, or the interrelated conditions in which something exists, through referencing an institutional mission statement, a strategic plan, or a curatorial interpretation. In the case of the Miller House, the entire history of the property is the context in which the conversation pit is interpreted. The story the IMA wishes to preserve is the evolution of the interior of the home and the ongoing collaboration between the Miller family, artists, designers, and contractors. This story unfolds in the current condition of the house, where evidence of use remains and also within the rich holdings of the Miller House Archives.
Authenticity is dependent upon context. In the case of the conversation pit, the current condition shows evidence of use and function and is the true character that is being preserved. Yes, the original materials are not present, and yes, the profile of the cushions is not original, however, these are the facts that support the current context at the Miller House. The concept of authenticity is one of the core factors that drives the decisions made in conservation. At the Miller House, conservators focus primarily on preventive conservation or collections care. Moreover, there are no current plans to alter or restore the cushions, which were modified in 1995 to their 1953 profile. The house was and continues to be a dynamic space. Conservators, curators and registrars rotate the pillows and carpet in the conversation pit seasonally.
I have talked little about Joelle’s fascinating PhD research on the Globe chair; fortunately she has presented widely and published her research, including The Future of the 20th Century: Collecting, Interpreting and Conserving Modern Materials.
I would like to thank the IMA Research Travel Fund and Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library for financial support that made my participation in the Glasgow conference possible.
If you want to know more about where I found these incredible historical images, be sure to check out the IMA Archives — this is just the tip of a gorgeous iceberg!