THE BOLTON HILL ROWHOUSE where graphic designers Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller live with their children is not a rigid place, but a living organism that adjusts according to whim, the seasons and its inhabitants' bustling lives.
The dining table, a replication of a long, spare design by modernist Jean Prouve, spends winters in the cozy library and, come summer, migrates to the home's light-filled back room.
A slightly surreal painting of a giraffe suddenly disappears from its spot over a mantelpiece. A cabinet in a sitting room gives way to a couch.
As if animated by a sorcerer's apprentice, birch cabinets designed by Paul McCobb are apt to trade places. Walls change color. And T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings' gracious round table -- produced "at a time when people had a lot of cocktails," Lupton says -- can be lowered and raised as martini time slides into the dinner hour.
As luminaries in the design field who have collaborated on numerous exhibitions and books, Lupton and Abbott, both 43, revere mid-20th century Modernism's form and function philosophy, but are not captive to its principles. Similarly, their home affirms the couple's commitment to design as a fulcrum for living, not as an end in itself.
"I think the house is not sentimental, not precious, not a self-portrait," says Lupton, director of the graphic design Master of Fine Arts program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the school's new Center for Design Thinking.
"At the same time, it's very comfortable, not stuffy and perfect," says Lupton, a Baltimore native who is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. She also curated On Display: Inside the White Cube, an interactive show at MICA that explores the way museum exhibits are designed and produced.
With its work-in-progress feel, their home exudes "a little formality, but is also kind of raw," says Miller, a partner in Pentagram, an international design firm. "There are very few drapes, it's bordering on bare. We just really like the spaces within the rooms," says Miller, who has designed exhibits for the National Building Museum, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Fashion Institute of Technology.
Blessed with "clean, clear volumes and a lot of light" and furnished with Modern pieces that have, Miller says, "already lived a full life," their home has a "human quality," he and Lupton say.
It breathes and bends, cracks visual jokes and tells stories. The kitchen's unreachable upper shelves, for example, are stocked with multiples of common products such as Heinz ketchup and Morton salt. "It's our own kind of ill-advised emergency storage," Lupton says.
In the next room, a vintage portrait resembling Lupton hangs authoritatively over a cabinet. Miller found it in a Baltimore antique shop and affixed a brass plaque with his wife's name on it, creating a sure-fire conversation starter.
Column of sunlight
When they purchased the house in 1997 after moving to Baltimore from New York, Lupton and Miller embarked on an ambitious renovation, including the installation of a stunning skylight. Tunneling from the third to second floor, the column of light illuminates multiple rooms, and allows occupants in the master bathtub to bathe in a column of sunlight.
That megawatt, second-floor bathroom benefits from the couple's research for their book, The Bathroom, the Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste (A Process of Elimination), (Kiosk, 1996, $19.95), originally a catalog for their exhibition exploring the psychological and social underpinnings of "the streamlined style of modern design."
Flamboyant orange-pink walls, subway-brick tiling in an opposing gray, as well as a long mirror and glamorous lighting elevate personal hygiene to an experience worthy of a glitzy Hollywood fable.
The home, in fact, was visited by Hollywood when it became a location for The Invasion, a horror film / thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig slated for release this year. The house was stripped of its furnishings and transformed for the shoot. A set designer installed the high kitchen shelves. Although their home was returned to its previous state, Lupton and Miller kept the shelving to display their emergency ketchup rations.
In the same way Lupton and Miller love to play with the design possibilities of typography set against different surfaces, they rearrange furnishings, artifacts and artwork against their home's sweeping backdrops. Interior decorating ideas parallel graphic design ideas. With a "funny surplus of furniture," some of it found at Oakenshawe Antiques in Hampden and Home Anthology in Catonsville, the couple employs a rich visual language for expressing those ideas. But they use it sparingly.
Rooms as galleries
Rather than deluge the house with stuff, the couple uses it as a livable series of galleries linked by provocative set pieces. In a second-floor sitting room, a black cut-paper silhouette, by Kara Walker, an artist known for her shocking explorations of slavery, is displayed against Miller's black-and-white wallpaper pattern Miller composed of entangled letter forms for KnollTextiles. The pattern, called Merge, is in the Cooper-Hewitt's permanent collection.
An adjacent radiator has been painted a ravishing red. The thinking was, "If you're going to the trouble to strip it, you might as well make it look like something," Lupton says.
With its diaphanous white drapes and vintage 1960s posters, the master bedroom is both glam and mod. The backboard of the couple's bed consists of a wood frame recycled from one of Miller's projects that encases two upholstered panels covered with a textile by Dutch designer Hella Jongerius. A pattern of pink rings designates Lupton's side of the bed; one of blue rings marks Miller's side.
In the second-floor family room, a skeletal couch made of metal and bamboo by Kenneth Cobonpue is cushioned with a silk-screened textile by the Maharam company. Its repeating pattern leads a merry chase through panels of stripes, birds and flowers, as if through a modern fairy tale.
Colorful vintage posters pop from the house's expansive walls, including a promo for Antonioni's 1966 film Blow-Up and one featuring the work of Archigram, a pioneering British architecture firm formed in the 1960s.
Another poster, designed by Miller, announces The Couch: Thinking in Repose, an exhibition on the role of the couch in psychoanalysis. In the graphic, Miller has turned an Eamesian sofa on its side, ending its own repose and lending it the graphic gravitas of a tall, H-like letter. Miller and his team also designed the couch exhibition, itself, mounted at the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna in honor of the 150th anniversary of Freud's birth.
In their design work, Miller and Lupton are all about getting straight to the point of a client's message. But at home, there are rooms and rooms for trying on ideas, experimenting with textiles, furniture, color and design elements plucked from the ether of high and low culture. Their home is a laboratory, a place to "clarify our own ideas about home and usage," Miller says.
"A lot of people keep their houses the same way for decades," Lupton says. But theirs "is always changing."
Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller
Where they met:
At The Cooper Union art school in New York City
Jay, 12, and Ruby, 8
Their home design suggestions:
Look at your house as a work in progress. You can change the way you experience a room just by moving the furniture. Switching the chairs and couches or end tables once in while can make you feel like you have a new room. We make these changes with the seasons and around the holidays, giving the house a new feeling without buying (much) new furniture.
Pay particular attention to lighting. If there is a part of the room that no one tends to use, maybe it's because the light is poor. Bad lighting can make a corner of the room "die."
If there's one spot where everyone likes to sit, ask yourself what makes that area so attractive. Is it a comfortable chair, a convenient side table, or warmth from the radiator? Do what you can to make other pleasant perches.
Mind the clutter. If all your little statues and magazines and gift items are valuable to you, by all means keep them, but display them in a way that adds joy to your life. If all the "stuff" is getting you down, then eliminate it: sell it, donate it to charity, or throw it away if it has no value.
As part of the exhibit "On Display: Inside the White Cube," Ellen Lupton leads "Make Your Own Museum," a workshop for all ages. Create paintings and other tiny works of art, from noon until 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10 in the Decker Gallery at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Admission is free. For more information, call 410-225-2300 or visit mica.edu.