Because he acknowledged no distinction between art and craft, applied his hand to everything from stained glass and sculpture to woodcuts and wallpaper, and made masterworks of stairwells, reading nooks, and doorways, Edgar Miller is usually portrayed as a latter-day disciple of William Morris, the English designer who helped found the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement. But as Richard Cahan and Michael Williams make clear in the long biographical essay that opens their new coffee-table book, Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home, Miller had plenty of inspiration available to him right at home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, the little town where he was born in December 1899.
One inspiration has to have been his father, James, whose adventures in beekeeping highlighted the same obsessive-quixotic streak that made Edgar the stubborn, arrogant, wildly productive art maker he was through practically all of his 92 years. Another was Ozro Eastman, a Whitman-esque wise eccentric who called himself Jo He (that’s he as in the third-person masculine pronoun) and seems to have made a sacrament of any job worth doing. Cahan and Williams quote Miller writing that Jo He “carved stone, built his own home, was a tanner, taxidermist, imaginative gardener, inventor, mural painter, saddle maker, and sheet metal worker. . . . He used his materials with good sense and freshness of attack and found emotional expression in employing this intelligence and perceptiveness in every task.”
Eliminate a few of the skills (tanning, taxidermy, saddlery), add a few others, and Miller could’ve been describing himself.
The refusal to take can’t for an answer became a hallmark of Miller’s life and work. Cahan and Williams make a motif of his inability to tolerate school rules—or, more accurately, to allow them to subjugate his own, infinitely more rigorous sense of discipline. He left the School of the Art Institute ostensibly because the administration took a dim view of swordplay between classes, but more likely he was sure he could go faster and deeper on his own. “Edgar never received a degree from the Art Institute,” Cahan and Williams report. “He was later offered one from a school administrator there whom Edgar remembered as a mediocre student.” Edgar declined: “‘I asked him how in hell he could give me a degree in art when he had no understanding nor idea of what art was about.'”
Miller stayed in or near Chicago for most of the rest of his life and achieved eminence working with architects, creating all kinds of embellishments for their projects. You can, for instance, see his limestone bas-reliefs at the Technological Institute on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus and his stunning black linoleum murals depicting the Chicago fire at the Standard Club. But his signature works are a few north-side residences (the first started in 1927) in which he was so completely immersed, both as artist and as artisan, that they can be called pure expressions of his vision.
Alexander Vertikoff’s beautiful, scrupulous, comprehensive new photographs of those residences—more than 200 pages of them—form the core of Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home. Going practically room by room through each building, they show mosaics and tile inlays reminiscent of a Roman villa; figurative and geometric iron grillwork; wood banisters, railings, doors, and beams overflowing with carved animals; and painted ceilings, including one with a panel commemorating the first atomic blast, in styles ranging from medieval to Prairie School to something out of the caves at Lascaux. There’s a bright eclecticism to much of it that reflects Miller’s penchant for reusing salvaged materials.
The cumulative effect is overwhelming, which is appropriate. Miller’s output and creative imagination were also overwhelming.