Beyond her Famous Garden: Hortense Miller’s Mid-Century Home

Hortense Miller is known for her hillside garden in Laguna Beach. But even she said it was her house that was equally remarkable, if not under-appreciated. She told a local newspaper: “Everybody who comes to visit wants to see my garden, but one of my biggest accomplishments is my house. It wasn’t easy building a midcentury-style home when everybody else in Laguna chose seaside cottages.” 
I AGREE!! If just looking at the lines of that hanging lamp gets your heart pumping with MCM lust love, you are going to enjoy this tour!




 When I met Hortense Miller in 1999, I was not especially into gardening, but was just developing my obsession with mid-century architecture and design. (I dropped by to pick up some photos for an article we were running about her in a local lifestyle magazine I edited at the time.) Hortense was just about 90 then, but was friendly and didn’t seem to mind all my nosy questions about her cool stuff. 

During a recent tour of her home and gardens, I went goofy over her home and “stuff” all over again! Let’s start from her amazing patio (she painted the mural) and enter through the kitchen.  
This is standing in her dining room (shown in first photo) looking back at her galley kitchen.The main feature of her home is that it does everything possible to make it transparent, so that you can see the outside as much as possible. I’m not sure my photos capture this, but like most MCM design, that’s the point.

Okay, you saw her dining room table in the first photo, and this plant is next to it. Are we surprised she has such an amazing indoor plant?
This is her living room. Hortense and her lawyer husband, Oscar, had the home built and furnished in 1953 (sadly, he died just 6 months later), and she changed little in the house after that.
She said the Eames Lounger held up for 40+ years.

This is a detail from the fireplace decor. Her living room and dining room have a view of her gardens and the Pacific Ocean. Many of her furniture pieces and lighting are from iconic MCM designers, guys like Eames and Wegner, etc.. During our tour, we were shown a folder where a volunteer had compiled a listing of every piece, including it’s designer, background, etc. I am not going to ID all the pieces, but you can visit!!
This is a portrait of Hortense–who was a naturalist, artist and intellectual as well as a passionate gardener– painted by a local artist.
 The pottery is from Mexico, one of her favorite countries to visit.

I don’t know the story of this globe, but a good guess is that Hortense made and painted it. She and her husband traveled throughout the world.
 Hortense reportedly made most of the artwork, murals and tapestries in her home.


Close-up of the globe.

This Danish modern desk is also in the living room.

But she also said she did not want any walls.

 So her visionary architect, Knowlton Fernald, Jr. of Newport Beach, had a large, movable bookshelf made that served as a wall.
Hortense, who designed the house with Fernald, had two requirements: one that she had a place to paint her murals, and that she could also see the gardens from any place inside the house. 
Now we are heading to the back of the house. A friend who was on our tour noticed that the house was so indoor/outdoor that you could not get from Hortense’s bedroom to the kitchen without going outdoors through the inside patio. This brick wall runs the length of the home and “through” the floor-to-ceiling glass wall outside a bathroom. (I’m going to post separately just on the artwork in this little bathroom next!!)
The brick wall itself is transparent, with little glass-covered openings.
So now we are heading into the bedrooms through a narrow hallway, where she painted this mural on the left wall. At the end, there, is her bedroom. 
A little quick background: Hortense died a couple years ago at age 99 (one month shy of 100!), and had given her home and 2.5 acre garden to the City of Laguna Beach. A non-profit group, called The Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden, raises money to tend the garden and home, and gives tours.
This is a Danish modern chair and desk in the small guest bedroom. Most of the art pieces are from Mexico.

This is the twin bed in the guest bedroom. Hortense made all the textiles, including these drapes.

Hortense painted this lamp and chest, using themes from Greek and Roman mythology.

This is looking out that guest bedroom. Can I stay here??
Then, there is this glass door out to the inside balcony covered this macramé screen that Hortense made. As you can see, it has disintegrated. A local teacher, apparently, replaced it at one point, but it has taken a beating with the elements as well. (Just look at those sweet textile designs on the skirt of the bed!!)
Heading down this same hallway on the left is this cabinet of her shell collection, all meticulously arranged.   Hortense embodied such an unusual mix of the discipline of science and the abandon of expressionistic artwork.
These sun images are glued on the wall of what I think was mainly her husband’s bathroom.
 Indulge me here, since I also love sun art.

The master bathroom. 
One of the many murals she painted inside and outside her home.

Mermaid images are everywhere. She said they brought bad luck. I  guess she didn’t care about that!

Check out that staghorn fern. And those avocado subway tiles!!

This is her bedroom. The mural, which Hortense painted, is about the Midwest, pointing out historic hot spots. She was from St. Louis, Missouri. 

Although she thought she would never marry (Hortense was a feminist, and did not have children for concerns about population control, as well as a lifelong vegetarian), she met Oscar during a paddle-wheel riverboat ride on the Mississippi, and so much for that notion.
 (Good thing, too, since he bought the home and property back in the 50’s.) MCM nuts, I assume you spotted that yummy Wegner chair!!!
This is one of the “walls” leading to her outdoor garden,
 where she had several shallow ponds that attracted local critters and could watch them from her bedroom.

MCM light switch. 

Now heading back to the front of the house. Did you notice that ALL of the walls are glass? 
Who wouldn’t want a house like that?
 (In the upper right, you can spot one of her murals in the outside gazebo.)

This is off the center courtyard (you are probably  a bit disoriented at this point. Sorry!)
 But this awesomeness–can you see the cobalt blue tile floor?–was her aviary. 

 She had a pet Cockatoo named Dody, but I don’t think he spent much time in this crazy cage,
 which hangs inside the aviary. (In her book, A Garden in Laguna, she writes how Dody met his reward after an encounter with a bobcat.)

This is the garage on the right side.

Hortense made this sculpture from her carpenter’s sawhorses.
 I love these almost as much as her sweet little arty bathroom (which I will feature next!!!)
Almost done. This patio leads into the front courtyard and house, and the garage is on the right. The place is literally a tangle of massive vines (wisteria and bougainvillea) that will soon be dripping with blooms!
This is the gate to the entrance. Huge trees everywhere. Don’t you want to go back in–and stay forever??

If you missed my previous post–where I wrote about her famous gardens–click this link.

If you are in the area and would like to visit the garden and home,
 you need to make a reservation at least 2 weeks in advance. If you are enchanted with Hortense, you might enjoy her book, A Garden in Laguna, where she wrote essays on everything from rat’s nests, to two devastating fires in 1979 and 1993, encounters with rattlesnakes, her favorite vines, fairies, “The Blues,” milkweed, moss, daisies, doves and much more.  

13 thoughts on “Beyond her Famous Garden: Hortense Miller’s Mid-Century Home

  1. Fantabulousness!!! I'm so envious that you were at Hortense's place, seeing all these treasures! Thanks for the great tour… I can't wait to get home from work so I can look at this more closely …

  2. Wow….so much goodness! I think I most covet the two danish modern desks and chairs…SO amazing. And the whole notion of having a house that looks out to your garden, mine couldn't me more different. So beautiful…thank you!

  3. Wow! What a post, Wow! Thank you so much for this. I did not know of her. I am speechless. Did you notice, not one piece of plastic. So organic and oh so modern, wow!

  4. Fabulous tour! Now I need to get down there myself to see those drapes in the guest bedroom, among the many other splendors.

  5. Very cool indeed. I love modern but modern can sometimes seem detached and severe. This house has character. It's playful. A person with joy and curiosity was involved in its creation.

  6. Thanks for sharing all these great photos. I love the tub and the light switch because they are so unexpected.

    I was lucky enough to tour Hortense Miller's garden at the turn of the century. After our tour by an area master gardener, we were treated to a visit by Hortense herself. What a wonderful character she was.

  7. wow, i'm bowled over. what a beautiful, personal and stylish home. the textiles are amazing! not to mention everything else. makes me want to move back to southern cal.

  8. I'd never visited your blog before. This post had me hooked and I spent the last hour digging up your past posts! It's my new favorite garden blog! Art, architecture and gardens — everything I love.

  9. Loved your blog! You do the house and gardens credit with your great pictures. The globe in the living room was purchased from a teacher supply store. Hortense bought it when she was a teacher. It was a blank globe so that teachers could show wind patterns or oceans or continents-whatever they wanted on the globe. My mom, Marsha Bode, is the president of the Friends of the Garden and we were hanging out with Hortense in the living room one day when we asked her where the globe came from. She was quite a character and had an excellent memory. It was always a pleasure to visit with her.

  10. What a wonderful house. Being as concerned as she was about the environment and population control, it must have saddened her to see the So. Cal. back in the 1950s to the So. Cal. of today.

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