All in the Mix
January 11, 2012
Text by Kara Lashley Photography by Sam Gray
Phillip Jude Miller isn’t one for following recipes. On almost any winter weekend, the Louisiana-born designer can be found in the kitchen of his vacation home in York Harbor, Maine, roasting a chicken or improvising a hearty stew, his work overseen by a marble statue of Saint George and a funky midcentury table and chairs.
Later, he’ll light a fire in the dining room—which is arrayed in what he calls “a very unusual palette” of brown, red and muted turquoise—as guests take a seat (Chippendale or Saarinen) around a glass-topped Le Corbusier table. With snowflakes playing outside the windows, everyone tucks into the meal under the watchful gaze of two bright-blue porcelain foo dogs that perch with a pair of old New England candlesticks on a 1940s mahogany sideboard.
In both cooking and decorating, there’s no telling exactly how Miller comes up with his inspired pairings, but his basic recipe goes something like this: gently mix eclectic ingredients. Add plenty of restraint. Yield: a deliciously homey kind of elegance.
“It’s just magic for me to have people enjoying dinner at my house,” says Miller, the owner of America Dural, an architecture and interior design firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Though the five-bedroom home is often full of guests, “I’ll cook an elaborate meal even if I’m by myself,” he adds. “When I work on a design project, it takes a year or two. But you can complete a meal in a few hours. It’s instant gratification.”
There was nothing instantaneous about the renovation of his weekend retreat, which he undertook little by little over the course of eleven years, but Miller wouldn’t have had it any other way. Even today, he hesitates to pronounce the house “done.” The designer is constantly rethinking paint colors, swapping out artwork, adding to the extensive perennial gardens and rearranging his collection of antiques and Chinese porcelain.
Evolution, he says, is what gives a house warmth. And this “rambling New England cottage,” as he describes it, is as cozy as they come, especially with its four fireplaces aglow. “I love it in winter,” Miller says. “I’m here in the winter almost as much as the summer.”
The house wasn’t always so charming, however. When Miller found the place, “it looked like Dogpatch, U.S.A.,” he says. “There were rotted timbers. You couldn’t open the windows in the summer. The house was really falling apart.” Yet he was drawn to its big front porch, the beautifully proportioned rooms filled with light and its site on a little rise across from York Harbor, looking down on Victorian rooftops.
“I tend to like small spaces,” says the designer, whose weekday residence is a petite Cambridge condo. But the 3,400-square-foot house was the right size for hosting his family from Louisiana, who visit frequently, and for his beloved dinner parties. Miller’s challenge was clear: to “create intimacy and warmth in a big old empty house that was falling apart.”
He started with the basics: rewiring, replacing the furnace and removing the radiators to make room for more furniture. He painted the rooms and “turned the trim up a notch,” he says. And he began to tame the overgrown garden, which today is his pride and joy, an oasis of stone terraces and beds that bloom from spring to fall.
Miller didn’t touch the home’s exterior at first—that is, until a client remarked, “‘I drove by and it looked so awful I didn’t think it could be your house,’” he recalls, laughing. He soon replaced the windows and siding, adding a mahogany railing and embellishing the entryway with a bit of trim. There’s nothing to be ashamed of now: in the warmer months, passersby will see Miller enjoying tea every afternoon on the front porch.
Eventually, he revamped the kitchen “to handle a lot of people, a lot of cooking”—outfitting it with slate-gray cabinetry and a six-foot-long slate-covered island—and installed a first-floor powder room.
All the while, he continued to refine the decor—he calls it “a balance of funny found objects and Chinese porcelain, contemporary art and Italian design”—and experiment with paint colors. “I love to play with color,” says Miller, who chose limey-yellow walls to offset the living room’s palette of rich blue and peach. A ten-foot-long Minotti sofa in dark-blue mohair stretches against one wall, picking up the blue in a Chinese porcelain vase on the mantel. The fireplace surround, which Miller believes came from an old inn in the area, was “the only elegant, refined thing in the house” when he bought it, he says.
Other bold combinations enliven the upstairs bedrooms. In one guest room, the designer accented the dusky blue walls with touches of red, coral and white.
The furniture and objects are a classic Miller assortment: vintage twin beds pushed together to make a king and dressed with a circa-1820 New England wool throw; nineteenth-century Chinese lamps atop vintage Crate and Barrel nightstands; and, on the walls, prints by Shepard Fairey.
In another guest bedroom, Miller had already concocted the palette of robin’s-egg blue and spring green when a dear friend bequeathed him a set of Gene Davis prints, whose multicolored vertical stripes tie the space together and give it a contemporary edge. “This is a classic New England cottage, but the artwork is very modern,” the designer notes. (Etchings by Sylvia Plimack Mangold hang above the living room sofa, and a Kate Shepherd work presides over the dining room.)
“The house is elegant, but it’s much more rugged than it looks,” adds Miller. “All my nieces and nephews grew up coming here. It’s the kind of house you can sit in with a bathing suit or sandy feet.”
It’s also a prime example of the one recipe he always follows: “You should love everything in your house, but not everything you love should be in your house.” And yet, while only a sampling of his treasures is on display, Miller’s Maine cottage manages to hold a place for almost everything, and everyone, he loves. •
Interior Design: Phillip Jude Miller, America Dural