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Xenia Simons Miller: Modern Woman

Irwin Miller earned a lifelong design legacy for his influence, but the woman behind the man was just as consequential.

Before she married Indiana’s most eligible bachelor in 1943, Xenia Simons was a Morgantown, Indiana, girl with a one-year business-school degree and a new job at the firm her future husband’s family had founded. After her marriage to J. Irwin Miller, scion of the Cummins Engine Company, Xenia had to find her place as the wife of a man destined to be the driving force behind the Columbus company’s success and an international influencer.

Sporting Mamie Eisenhower bangs, dressed in expensive but somewhat matronly clothes and sensible shoes, Xenia Simons Miller directed her talents toward making her home, her hometown, and her home state an unlikely enclave of Modern art and architecture.

Irwin, a well-known architecture maven, is the one who has long been credited with forging a genius partnership between client and architects—in this case, 20th-century design greats Eero Saarinen for the home’s exterior and Alexander Girard for its interior. Xenia quietly helped steer the direction of the home’s design, even among this illustrious company. The year they married, a full decade before the now-famous Miller House was built, Xenia described her dream home in a letter to her husband, then serving in the Navy. “Can you picture a very, very modern house,” she wrote, “with huge front windows, a flat roof top, built of something beige color coming out from under the trees at the edge of the woods on our hill?” That probably sounds familiar if you’ve seen the home that Saarinen designed nine years later.

An old photograph of two people working together at a table.

Xenia Miller works closely with Alexander Girard in the early 1950s.Courtesy Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Family Collection

Xenia’s influence also helped shape the interior of the Miller House. Although Girard receives much-deserved praise for a bright interior that would go on to be praised as a crown gem of Modern design, Xenia worked with him closely to make final decisions about colors, furniture, patterns, and lighting. The home was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2000.

A literally monumental choice was left to Xenia when the family’s foundation charged her with finding an artwork for the plaza in front of the Columbus library, a building designed by I.M. Pei. When prodded by the foundation’s president-director in 1968, Xenia wrote back: “Have you and Mr. Pei found an unknown Henry Moore or Picasso to recommend?” Well, they hadn’t. So Xenia went to Moore and commissioned a piece. She paid for it through the family foundation. Today, Moore’s Large Arch stands on the plaza—just one of so many pieces of remarkable art and architecture for which you can thank Xenia Simons Miller.

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