Modern Landscape Design Lessons from the Iconic Miller House Garden
Can we let you in on a little secret? An iconic modernist garden in Columbus, Indiana, just south of Indianapolis, brims with design inspiration for today's landscapers. In the mid-1950s, landscape architect Dan Kiley created this 13-acre pioneering masterpiece for industrialist and philanthropist J. Irwin Miller and his wife Xenia. Kiley later went on to complete thousands of other celebrated landscapes including those at the National Gallery of Art and New York's Lincoln Center. Today, his Miller House design continues to inspire modernist fans who tour the home and gardens, now a National Historic Landmark.
We talked with long-time site administrator Ben Wever about the property's multitude of timeless design lessons.
Take Design Cues from Architecture
Designed by architect Eero Saarinen, the 6,800-square-foot home is a remarkable feat and a true collaborative effort between the design team and the homeowners. Kiley expanded on the team's architectural vision by bringing a strong geometric order to the landscape, including a rectangular lawn, a gridded apple orchard and modular garden rooms formed by walls of arborvitae. "The landscape is truly an extension of the floor plan of the house," says Wever. "If you look at the house from an aerial view, you can see the garden is made of green rooms that extend from the main floor plan and continue in the garden."
Blur the Line Between Indoors and Out
Broad views of the outdoors can be glimpsed throughout the home thanks to its expansive glass walls. "Every possible location has a garden vignette that's maximized by all the glass walls that overlook those spaces," says Wever. The kitchen reveals an intimate grove of crabapples while the living area overlooks a 7-acre lawn that leads to a woodland along the Flatrock River.
Embrace Garden Evolution
Over time, the garden's plants have aged out and new varieties became available. Wever and his team have honored the original design by selecting replacements that thrive in the Midwest. When a grove of redbuds started to decline in the 1980s and the nursery industry lacked replacements, they subbed in crabapples and added a checkerboard underplanting. European horse chestnuts lining the driveway were prone to blight, so they were replaced with native yellow buckeye trees with similar trunks and leaf structure. This spring, Wever's team updated the apple orchard with a new grove of crabapples of the same Malus family to maintain a similar visual effect. "Change has to happen," says Wever. "If you can do it all at once, you can keep to the design intention versus just replacing three out of 30 trees."
Maximize Seasonal Color
"Kiley knew the family had a summer home in Canada and wintered in Florida, so he wanted to make sure the garden had a lot of color in the spring and the fall," says Wever. In spring, crabapples and magnolias bloom; in fall, the tree foliage brings color to the garden.
Maintain Clean Lines
Geometry plays an important role in a modern garden, and regular maintenance of the plants and bed spaces is essential, Wever says. The landscape crew at the Miller House neatly edges beds and uses string lines to precisely shape shrubs.
Add Privacy with Greenery
Instead of a large, gated fence, Kiley proposed a staggered hedge as a privacy solution. "It's a beautiful way to create the privacy that was needed but still have a green space." The shrubs are sheared annually to maintain their trapezoidal shape.
Try a Fresh Take on Allées
Two long allées—tree-lined walkways—are signature elements of the Miller House garden design. Instead of extending them perpendicular from the front door, Kiley positioned them parallel along opposite sides of the house, where they shade the home and serve as walkways through the garden. The west allée is made of honey locusts with dark trunks that contrast with the buff-colored limestone and lacy foliage. The entrance allée is flanked with native yellow buckeyes.
Repeat Exterior Materials in Hardscapes
Look closely, and you'll notice the home's slate walkways, crushed granite paths, limestone borders and geometric paver driveway all complement its corresponding exterior materials. The Millers first spotted these unusual pavers in Switzerland. When they couldn't source anything like them in the United States, they had the pavers shipped from Lausanne to Indiana. "They give another central piece of geometry especially, for such a large area like the drive," says Wever.
The Miller House is owned by Indianapolis-based Newfields art museum and open for tours. For tickets and information, visit the Columbus Area Visitors Center.