A Lab For Living

Design experts Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller use their Bolton Hill rowhouse to try out their ideas

February 04, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Reporter

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

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