In honor of Modernism Week, I've cleaned up an old post about Richard Neutra's Miller House.
One of only three homes designed by Richard Neutra around Palm Springs (the other two- the Kaufmann House and the now-demolished Maslon Residence), the Grace Miller House remains one of the architect's most deliberate and utilitarian residential spaces. Completed in 1937, just as the architect had gained international fame for his work in and around Los Angeles, the house was an experiment in customization, a design dedicated to modernism's programmatic possibilities. His earliest commission in the California desert, the Miller House may seem unremarkable in size, but its design, a small machine for living wholly devoted to Miller's daily routine, reflects the unique relationship between architect and client and the complex process of constructing a modern home.
In the winter of 1936, just two months after the death of her husband, St. Louis historian and socialite Grace Lewis Miller left the Midwest for California. A practitioner of the Mensendieck System of Functional Exercise, a posture improving technique developed during the 1920s, Miller wanted a winter home in the experimental enclave of Palm Springs, a place she hoped would welcome her holistic practice. After arriving in the desert town, Miller hired Neutra, who shared her belief in the mental and physical benefits of well-designed architecture, to build a small home and studio. With a budget of just $5,000, the pair set out to create a modern pavilion thoughtfully tailored to Miller’s lifestyle.
Originally located on a quiet two-and-a-half-acre piece of property, the 1,100-square-foot minimalist house is defined by its unusual program and sparse landscape. A glass box with stucco walls, screened porches, and framed views of the empty desert (now obstructed by development), the home is a successful combination of Neutra's machine aesthetic and Miller's progressive ideology. On the interior, an open floor plan influenced by Japanese tea houses (the architect visited Japan in 1930) offered flexible space for both living and training. The airy environment promoted mental and physical health while providing plenty of natural light and privacy to its occupant. Neutra designed the house to respond to the hot climate with a panel of north-facing windows for light and ventilation and wide overhangs on the south and west for much needed shade. Built-in furniture was created to conserve space, while porches blur the line between the domicile and the desert. Artful and serene, the home reflects Miller's radical routine, a detailed architectural response to one woman's philosophical and physical needs.
Though the Miller House might not be the most formally innovative Neutra design, it does offer rare insight into a somewhat unusual architect/client relationship. Sharing an affinity for a minimal aesthetic and the belief that architecture plays a role in improving the human condition, Neutra and Miller worked together to construct a desert home with a truly modern psyche. Lengthy correspondence between the two demonstrates a design process steeped in mutual respect, idealism, and the complex cultural conditions of the era. In the design for the home, Neutra weaved his own theoretical modernism with Miller's progressive attitude, creating a highly personal work of art- and a seminal moment in the history of desert modernism.
You can read more about the Grace Miller House and the Neutra/Miller relationship in Stephen Leet’s Richard Neutra’s Miller House (2004). Happy Modernism Week!
A version of this post was originally published on September 8, 2017.
Image at top: Ilpo's Sojourn (Miller House in Palm Springs)
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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