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In black and white and color

Why do architects wear black, anyway? Well, not all of them, but enough so that you can understand why one asks the question. Black turtlenecks, black jackets, black pants, black shoes, black, black, black.

I am off into purely personal speculation here, so I can only ask that you bear with me. Black is a serious color.  And architecture is a pretty serious business. To an architect, there is probably no more serious business. (Aside: priests wear black; ultimate reality is pretty serious, too.) Architecture is about form, space, and order – ask Francis Ching – the serious elements of this serious business. It’s not about mere decoration. Decoration is too ephemeral, too frivolous, very unserious. I’d suggest that black reflects and affirms an architect’s commitment to the seriousness of his or her profession; it says “decoration is not for me – I leave that to others. I create structure, space, form and order. I don’t pick out wallpaper.”

The Miller House:  modernism in black and white.

The Miller House: modernism in black and white.

So why is the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, predominately white? White steel on the exterior, white plaster and laminates and nearly-white marble and terrazzo on the interior. Granted, the house’s exterior walls are clad in nearly-black slate, but I’d argue that this merely heightens the impact of the interior’s light-filled whiteness. White is a serious color for modernism. White rejects the colors one associates with most traditional building materials – brick, wood, and stone – in the same way that flat roofs and large expanses of glass reject traditional buildings’ expressions of shelter and enclosure. White emphasizes architecture as intellectual concept independent of historical precedents or local traditions. One might say it’s the same idea as the architect’s black wardrobe rendered in reverse.

Recipe for the use of color and texture: add liberally to taste; stir judiciously.

Recipe for the use of color and texture: add liberally to taste; stir judiciously.

The Miller House has intellectual rigor to spare: the grid of its columns, the 5-foot module of its plan, its perfect clarity of openness and enclosure. All expressed in white or nearly-white materials. But the Miller House has plenty of color and texture as well – Alexander Girard saw to that – textiles, glass, ceramics, decorative objects. They balance the house’s austerity and reserve with an outgoing cheerfulness that belies the care of their selection and organization. Architecture is indeed an intellectual exercise, but a home environment must satisfy emotional needs as well. Saarinen, Roche, Girard, and the Millers understood this. My guess is that they wanted to see the full range, a home whose use of color metaphorically captures the greatest possible breadth of experience.

 

A reminder of classical Rome in Indiana

Early January in Indiana is a time that limits activities in the garden. At the Miller House, there has been flood clean up from the rains that came just before Christmas, and tree pruning is an annual winter task. Otherwise, there is planning for the coming year and reflection on the year that’s passed.

Thinking back on 2013, one item that we’ve checked off the to-do list is repairs to the fountain in the north garden. The main element of the fountain is an alabaster bowl, purchased by the Millers while on a trip to Rome in 1957. In a letter to Alexander Girard, Mr. Miller referred to it as a “Second Century Roman alabaster bowl” that he and Mrs. Miller purchased to “add to our house some reminders of classical Rome.” As a classics scholar himself, Mr. Miller would have found such mementoes particularly meaningful.

By the time the museum acquired the property in 2009, the fountain was in need of attention. The bowl itself was badly cracked, its metal lining was failing, its exterior was thickly encrusted with mineral deposits, and its spray jet had been replaced with a short length of white PVC pipe – the stuff plumbers call “schedule 40.” Not attractive.

 

Laura Kubick of the museum’s conservation department worked with Kemna Restoration and Construction, Inc., of Indianapolis to undertake the needed repairs. Of all aspects of the project, the most challenging was the removal of the mineral deposits on the bowl. Ranging in color from brown to white, these deposits obscured both the color of the material and the details of its carving. The completed bowl emerged as lustrous black with faint white veining, beautifully echoing the color scheme of the house itself. Its exterior was handsomely carved with strigillations, the curving flutes most often associated with Roman sarcophagi. Miller House site administrator Ben Wever found the spray jet among irrigation parts in storage and took it to a local metal fabricator for repairs. When reinstalled, the fountain again brought the sound and movement of water to the Miller garden, but now in a way that represents the Millers’ aesthetic intention.

Presently, the fountain is snugly covered with a Tyvek shroud to protect it from freeze-thaw damage as we look forward to the fine spring days when it will again sparkle with water droplets and add its soothing note to the garden.

 

Remaking a rug at Miller House

Today's blogger is Bradley C. Brooks, Director of Historic Resources and Assistant Curator, American Decorative Arts at the IMA.

It seems that an important reason why the Miller House and Garden has retained so much of the integrity of its original design is that the Millers greatly cherished and valued the work that Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, Dan Kiley, and Alexander Girard produced for them. They were patient partners in the design process and tended to seek refinements, rather than wholesale changes, as the house evolved through later years.

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Top: The den rug before replacement. Bottom: The new den rug.

The rugs in the house are a case in point. The rug presently under the dining table, for example, is the fourth generation of the original Girard design. The first was one of a group of flat-woven rugs produced in France, all of which were later replaced with looped-pile versions of the same designs. With wear and food spills, the dining room rug was the most often replaced.

At the time the museum took ownership of the property, the Miller family had begun a project to remake a number of rugs in the house. Most in need of replacement was Girard’s den rug, which had been worn quite through in a few spots. We fudged it for a while with the placement of furniture to hide the worst of the damage, but this was only at temporary fix.

As with any such project, there were concerns about achieving the appropriate weave structure,  pattern, and color accuracy. We had received some of the original design drawings as part of the Miller House Archives, and IMA conservators had painstakingly removed unfaded fibers from deep in the rug’s pile in order to make accurate color comparisons. After several rounds of adjustments and approvals, we gave a go-ahead to Edward Fields to put the rug into production.

The new den rug!

The new den rug!

In mid-April of this year, the new rug was ready to install, and it more than lived up to all our expectations. The vibrant colors were back, and the many emblems of family history and association were renewed, all rendered in a highly disciplined, multiple colorway grid of lozenges – a glimpse into the mind and design process of Alexander Girard.

 

The Venini Chandelier sparkles again

Since the IMA took ownership of the Miller House and Garden in 2009, we have come to know more intimately the gift of a 20th-century architectural masterpiece. The Miller House is worthy of many superlatives, but as an older house requiring care and maintenance it presents challenges and surprises just as would any other. The questions may be framed slightly differently, but the joys and frustrations are much the same.

Bonnie Cate and Jeanine Franke (Miller House housekeeper) cleaning individual glass pieces while Ben Wever, site Administrator, and Bradley Brooks gently remove each strand of glass from the chandelier.

Bonnie Cate and Jeanine Franke (Miller House housekeeper) cleaning individual glass pieces while Ben Wever, site Administrator, and Bradley Brooks gently remove each strand of glass from the chandelier.

A task that we knew we would face one day was bulb replacement and cleaning of the Venini chandelier above the Millers’ dining table. This fixture was not part of the original furnishing scheme for the house, but came as a later addition after the Millers purchased it in Italy in about 1960. We had heard stories of the care and effort required of Miller employees to dismantle the chandelier for cleaning, but being reluctant to tackle such a daunting project, I had pushed it to the back burner where it stayed until nearly every bulb was out. Now we had no choice. Dismantle or go dark!

Chandelier with all metal and glass components removed. Tags indicate pattern of glass colors to help with reassembly.

Chandelier with all metal and glass components removed. Tags indicate pattern of glass colors to help with reassembly.

To prepare for the task, we padded and covered the dining table and placed a series of folding tables nearby on which we could wash and dry each of the 200 individual polyhedral glass “prisms.” A crew of four went to work; two to stand on the table to dismantle the chandelier, and two to do the washing and drying. In this design, the glass elements are suspended from a steel frame on linked wires, each pendant group fastened to the frame with a tiny nut and bolt. Tedious work, but we soon found the system and a rhythm. It took until early evening to reassemble everything, but with the glass cleaned, the sparkle of the chandelier was restored, more charming than ever.

The newly cleaned Venini chandelier lit up.

The newly cleaned Venini chandelier lit up.

With the glass off the frame, it was evident that the chandelier still had its original European wiring and fittings, which had been adapted to accept standard U.S. chandelier-base bulbs. Yellowed with age, they are past due for a rewiring. That will be a task for the winter. Just like every old house project, one thing only leads to another.

 

A Historical Home for the Holidays

Oldfields in the early light of a winter morning.

Oldfields in the early light of a winter morning.

For many people, Christmas is a favorite time of year.  And for many good reasons – sparkling trees, shimmering lights in the winter darkness, hearing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” sung by a single chorister, favorite foods, and the excitement of Christmas morning.  No matter what it is that one most enjoys, the full effect is possible only with much preparation.  As the saying goes, there’s the rub.  Who hasn’t endured the annoyance of bumps on the head while hauling decorations from the attic, of the tree that keeps falling over, or the dish that just won’t come out right for the important dinner?  The point is that it’s easy to have something of a love-hate relationship with certain aspects of the season, if not an outright fear-and-loathing response to the impending holidays.  But who remembers the knuckles bruised while assembling toys and bicycles at 3:00 a.m. while surrounded by shrieks of joy just hours later?

That’s just Christmas on the domestic front.  For those with responsibilities to an institutional Christmas, there are added dimensions – of preparation, of annoyance, and of joy.

Having worked in historic house museums ever since leaving graduate school, I have faced my share of rooms, halls, and staircases that need a little Christmas.  Different houses, different time periods, various degrees of historic documentation and accuracy.  When the Indianapolis Museum of Art decided to cease using the former Lilly residence as its decorative arts galleries and interpret Oldfields as a residence of the American country place era, there were implications for what would happen at Christmas.  For years, museum volunteers, many associated with local garden clubs, collaborated in an extensive effort to decorate the house using many different kinds of materials – live, dried, and artificial.  These were beautiful decorations, created with much talent and effort.  With the house’s rooms serving as a group of galleries with different contents and interpretive themes, their overall concept did not have to be integrated.  When interpreted as a residence, it made sense to make Christmas decorations at Oldfields relate in some way to the presentation of the property as a country place-era residence.

Oldfields’ architectural rhythms guide the placement of decorations.

Oldfields’ architectural rhythms guide the placement of decorations.

But how to do that?  The Lillys, prominent as they were in the community, had left almost nothing in the way of personal documentation or ephemera to describe day-to-day life at Oldfields – no letters, bills, inventories, or snapshot albums.   The scant anecdotal evidence suggests that the Lillys’ Oldfields was never lavishly decorated for the holidays, nor was it the center of a whirl of entertainments.  At this point enters the tension between historical accuracy and emotional impact.  Personal experience demonstrated that perfect historical accuracy in Christmas decoration, if visually sparse, leaves many people unsatisfied.  Unsatisfied visitors are unlikely to return.  We settled on using the popular periodicals of our interpretive time period – focusing on the 1930s and ‘40s – to provide inspiration for the decorations.  In this way, the decorations retain a relationship to our interpretive period but are not limited to inferences about what the Lilly family may have done.  Specific historical documentation could have been a severely limiting factor, but a change in focus offered latitude to explore many possibilities – and to provide a more satisfying experience.

An early 20th-century Texas Christmas tree – proof that historical accuracy won’t always yield satisfying results.

An early 20th-century Texas Christmas tree – proof that historical accuracy won’t always yield satisfying results.

The magazines from which we draw ideas – House Beautiful, Arts and Decoration, and House and Garden, for example – suggest that Christmas decorations in the first half of the twentieth century were sometimes self-consciously traditional in character, and sometimes deliberately modern or unusual.  Having some of both helps enliven a visit to Oldfields.  Trees, wreaths, garlands, and bows were never out of fashion; the architectural rhythms of historically styled interiors like Oldfields’ provide the perfect setting for them.  Curiosities like upside-down trees or suspended transparent bowls overflowing with ornaments can be just unusual enough to signal that one is looking at another era’s notion of holiday décor.

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An upside-down Christmas tree was a big visitor favorite.

Tulle garlands stuffed with ornaments added a sculptural quality to decorations in the library.

Tulle garlands stuffed with ornaments added a sculptural quality to decorations in the library.

We offer Christmas at Oldfields as a way to imagine the holidays in the decades just prior to the middle of the last century.  We hope that if offers delight, inspiration, respite, or, for anyone who finds more enjoyment in looking at decorations than in hanging them, an opportunity to see a decorated  house without having to go into the attic.

 

About Bradley Brooks

Job Title: Director of Historic Resources; Assistant Curator, American Decorative Arts

Bradley has written 11 articles for us.