A Conversation with Interior Architect Phillip Jude Miller

Big-1Southern Louisiana Influence, From Glamour to Good Taste

I’m fascinated with my cousin Rosalie’s 450 square foot condominium in Cambridge, MA. It’s amazing how spacious it feels, how unusual the design, and the surprise of elegance in every corner. Thus the magic and daringness of interior architect Phillip Jude Miller. Philip’s magic earned Rosalie’s condominium, Runner up: Home of the Year, in Metropolitan Home Magazine as well as a feature in Fabulous Floor Magazine, 2005, “Boston Going City Slic.”

I met Phillip briefly several months ago in his Cambridge shop, America Dural. It’s filled with antiques, mid-century furniture, art and many more one-of-a–kind items. Rosalie, a long-time friend of Phillip, is always telling me what wonderful pieces he has uncovered, their history and uniqueness. Curiosity and prodding from Rosalie led me to look at some of Phillip’s work.

I recently picked up a copy of New England Home: Celebrating Fine Design and Architecture and came upon an article, Gentlemanly Quarters, November/December 2009 which was the renovation of a Back Bay apartment done by Phillip, an extraordinary renovation combining the luxury of many centuries. This is design at its utmost: breaking all rules and adding new ones for design.

Who is this intriguing designer from Lafayette, Louisiana who breaks rules and creates his own? When I found out Phillip was from Lafayette, Louisiana, I knew we had something in common. Lafayette is one of my favorite places: it’s where I developed my love for Cajun cooking and music.

Imagine my surprise to find that Phillip would be visiting Rosalie and cooking Christmas Eve dinner! Oh dear, he cooks too? "A fabulous cook," says Rosalie. Hopefully I will get to know Phillip a little better.

After dinner I get to sit down with Phillip and his Manchester terrier dog, Otis. They are both very charming, but Phillip is doing the talking.

Phillip Miller photo How did you develop your interest in interiors and architecture?

I grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, which has its own rich culture of southern Louisiana. The architecture and history of Louisiana is primarily from French history and had a considerable influence on southern architecture, primarily interiors and furniture. The Acadian culture is more visible in our food and the importance of nature in life. I was one of 8 kids and my parents didn’t have time for history and culture but my grandmother did. Southern Louisiana has a special place in history, with its Cajun and French influence. I was always intrigued with the area; it’s not like any other place in the country. I used to love to talk with my grandmother about her family history and experiences in the unique southern way of life in Louisiana.

How did being one of eight make you the Phillip we know today?

I was very quiet, with 8 kids you can hide away. I never really talked at all. When I was three I had a serious burn accident, had to be hospitalized and all of a sudden I started to talk non-stop. I think I had so much attention at the hospital it brought me out of my shell.

I’ve never heard of an interior architect, what does it mean?

In 1978 I started in the school of architecture at the University of Louisiana, but also loved design. In my school experience, architects purely focus on the structure without any interest in how it meshes with the interior furnishings. This would never have been the case with architects leading up to the early twentieth century; Henry Hobson Richardson and Stanford White being great examples. Stanford White (1853-1906), was noted for being the most famous architect of the Gilded Ages. The Bauhaus Movement (1919-1933), had an extremely negative and somewhat fearful reaction to this decoration and emphasized more modernistic architecture. I was never interested in building skyscrapers but realized my architectural and interior design background would be a good combination for my clients.

Luckily one of my professors, knowing my love for design, suggested I move into a new field, interior architecture. She said I could incorporate both design and architecture. At that time, the Architecture Program was 5 years and Interior Architecture/Design was 4 years and the pay for Interior Design was higher than Architecture. I realized I was capable of looking at a project from both sides – architecture and design and the program was a good fit. If I was going to rip the walls down, I was also going to design the interiors.

I know you love art, why do you think art is so important in a home?

Art is very personal; it’s an expression of one’s soul and uniqueness. People are their art. It tells you something about their deeper feelings, and adds another dimension. It also adds a special touch to a home, and with the right guidance, art of significant importance is more accessible than people think. Art can turn a space from simple to elegant and balance texture and mood. Lastly the owner gets to enjoy the beauty of the art; if one chooses the right art, it will increase in value. Every year I make a point to attend The Armory Show in New York City. The Armory Show is considered America’s leading fine art fair devoted to the most influential art of the 20th and 21st centuries. I like to use modern art in my designs and the show keeps me up to date with what’s new. 

What other passions do you have and how do you generate your ideas?

I love the placement of objects, their form and color. When I look at a project I look at it from every angle, inside and out. I don’t think of the rooms separately, I imagine the whole home as one, how it flows and how it feels. I get many of my ideas from the classics, the 1920’s or 30’s; I listen to the client and get a sense of who they are and what moves them. (The house a client chooses and its architecture is an important element that drives the design. One can go with the architecture or contrast it.) I use new and antique side by side. I enjoy opposites, traditionally detailed fabric on clean-lined furniture. I will often take a more formal chair with traditional forms and cover it with a very simple fabric such as burlap. This gives the chair what I call “star quality.” Each room should have something of star quality.

I adore Asian pottery but I’m less knowledgeable than I should be. Asian pottery brings exotic forms and magnificent glazes to the mix.

I’m fascinated with the world, and see new ideas everywhere.

How did you come up with the name for your firm, America Dural?

I struggled with the name of my firm. I wanted it to sound like a business but I wanted to express my identity. I juggled family names in my head and came up with the name of my nanny, America Marie Dural. America raised my mother from infancy and moved in when our family began to expand. She was a very reserved and independent woman of African-American descent who ran our house with a lovingly iron hand. I admired her strength; naming the firm after her allowed me to be closer to her and pay her tribute for all that she had taught me.

What would be the top 10 suggestions you would give to someone who is considering a renovation?

Here's what I think.

  1. Plan for the rule and not the exception. People say I want a sofa bed in case I need it. You ask them how many times in the last 20 years they needed a sofa bed and they’ll say never. I had a client with a piano that just didn’t fit in the room; it turned out the piano had never been played by anyone. Once we got rid of the piano, everything started to gel. 
  2. I say, love everything in your room but don’t put everything you love in the same room. If one puts every style which attracts them in the same room, it looks like a garage sale. Decide what's important, the antique dresser or the décor chairs. 
  3. Mixing style and time periods brings excitement to a space. It also gives rooms a sense of evolution. If mixing styles, they either need to be the same or very different. Don’t put two different camel back sofa styles together. Modern French next to antique English is better than antique French next to antique English, etc. 
  4. Always have an element of surprise. All of your favorites don’t have to go in the most obvious places. That favorite painting doesn’t have to go over the fireplace, maybe it’s better shown on the wall as your turn to go into another room. 
  5. Good design involves making choices. Any theme should be consistent, either the palette is bright and spring like, or more somber. A good designer can help you with these choices. 
  6. Be consistent in your planning by treating the whole home. If you like intense colors then be intense. Don’t paint one red wall because you think you “need” to add excitement. This will throw off the entire home. If you like subtle, then make everything subtle. Your home should have a unified statement which represents what you like. 
  7. A designer’s most important role is editing, knowing how to select and mix pieces you love which are compatible with the scale of the space, (or where they will sit, and what they will sit next to.) The home ultimately belongs to the client but the interior designer represents the expertise that the client seeks. Of course many of the ideas and thoughts may be beyond the scope of the client; this is how the interior designer can help. One of the designer’s jobs is to bring the clients sense of “uniqueness” within the elements of good design. 
  8. This may sound corny, but there must be a connection between the client and the designer. The designer must be honest with the client and this comes through their connection. Without a connection it’s hard to design what the client wants. Good designers don’t design for themselves, they design for their clients. The client should share their likes and dislikes with their designer as well as look at the designer’s portfolio. Hiring a designer is not like hiring an electrician. There is only one way to wire in a light fixture. Each designer or architect can offer a very different vision. Some might not be compatible with your own. Don’t assume that because someone has a title that it will be a good fit. 
  9. In the long run, less is more. If the project is a redesign, the client should share what’s staying and what’s going. Sometimes what you take out is as important as what you put in. Removing or editing what you have can be more effective than adding new pieces. Balance and scale are key.
  10. When bringing in colors to coordinate with an important accent in a room such as an area rug, choose the least dominate color in the rug, not the most dominate. This will make the room much more interesting and create that element of surprise. 

There seems to be more, Phillip has invited us up to his summer home in Maine. I’ve heard the gardens are magnificent. 

Want to see more of Phillip Jude Miller? Visit his site.

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