At a time when modern, minimalist design has come into vogue in high-end resort towns like Aspen, a house with an understated aesthetic, both rustic and refined, turns heads. Take the residence owned by Susan and Lloyd Miller on McLain Flats. The simplicity and traditional elegance of the home’s materials and floor plan offer a compelling alternative to the curtain walls, hard surfaces, and exposed steel elements often found in contemporary architecture.
It helped that Susan, in particular, had a clear vision: “I wanted a one-story ranch house with two wings, one for the master suite and one for the kids,” she recalls. “I wanted it to be a house that could accommodate big parties and family gatherings, and I wanted it to open up on all sides.” And she had a certain style in mind.
Already well-versed in architecture, design, and all things fashion, Susan set the plan in motion by visiting numerous projects, including many designed by Backen, Gillam, and Kroeger, whose free-flowing floor plans, earthy materials, and dedication to natural surroundings are synonymous with modern wine country style. She met with architect Howard Backen and his associate, Cristof Eigelberger, at the firm’s office in St. Helena, California, and “they got it immediately,” she says.
The home that Backen and Eigelberger designed for the Millers has a unique blend of common agricultural forms, crisply detailed gable roofs, and tall, elegantly proportioned window walls that effortlessly bridge the gap between modern and traditional design. Most significantly, perhaps, the dwelling pays homage to its surroundings, sitting long and low in the landscape and blending so seamlessly into the rolling pastureland out front and the low, oak-covered hillsides to the east that it appears deceptively small.
Whereas many people want multiple stories in order to capture the views in all directions, the Millers wanted to protect their site, with an emphasis on integrating indoor and outdoor space. Constructing such a large house with just one story was a difficult feat to achieve in a mountainous environment, notes general contractor Briston Peterson. “It’s nearly impossible to find a lot that will accommodate a 13,000-square-foot home on one level in Aspen and many parts of Pitkin County,” he says.
At the property’s entry gate, the landscape beyond unfolds in subtle layers, immersing the home in a sea of pasture grass and hosting an ever-changing panorama of light and shadow. A gravel drive meanders through the contoured pasture, continues past a rustic stone guest pavilion set close to the road, and ends in the walled entry courtyard of the main house.
From there, a breezeway opens to a formal, enclosed garden that leads to the oversized front door. A series of layered roof masses breaks up the structure, minimizing the home’s overall profile and giving it more transparency, a feature, says Eigelberger, that distinguishes this style of regionally expressive architecture.
“Ultimately, there’s no threshold between indoors and out,” he notes. “We looked for opportunities to connect these multiple masses in a way that allows for public and private spaces, both indoors and out, to develop and emerge.” This style particularly suits clients like the Millers, who are comfortable entertaining on a grand scale yet also want a home that feels relaxing and intimate, even when they are alone in the house for several weeks at a time.
A gracious kitchen that accommodates a chef and catering crew flows into an open family room at the home’s center. It’s a place where the public and private functions of the home converge, an element key to the Millers’ busy lifestyle. “When they are here, the house is always full,” says Eigelberger, referring to Susan and Lloyd’s five children and the frequent guests who hail from all over the country. Even though she has her own dedicated home office, Susan finds she works better at the kitchen counter because “that’s where all the action is.”
But the kitchen can also take on a different persona. The fantastical panorama of mountains and sky visible through floor-to-ceiling windows is enough to make this space a respite for days at a time. Waves of tawny meadow grass merge with the meandering lines of Owl Creek Road in the distance as it disappears into the horizon. Just outside the family room, sofa-size swings hang on either side of the sliding glass doors, under the protective cover of a large veranda, while, farther afield, a fire pit beckons for late-night marshmallow roasts under the stars. To the side, a fireplace illuminates an intimate dining area, one of the many outdoor “rooms” that seem to serendipitously appear around the home’s exterior.
Eigelberger notes that these outdoor spaces intentionally reflect the vibe of the adjacent interiors. For example, the intimacy of the area off the family room is ideally suited for a small group to sit on the swings and enjoy the view, whereas the larger, more open spaces off the living and dining rooms were designed as virtual extensions of these more formal areas.
The rest of the home extends in both directions from the kitchen/family room. To one side lies the children’s wing, including several ensuite bedrooms and a media room that seems more like a light and airy library, with big windows, bookshelves, and deep, cozy sofas. This configuration reflects an evolution in the room’s traditional function. A staple in high-end residential architecture for so long, dedicated media rooms are now passé, says Eigelberger. Instead, clients want multifunctional rooms where big screens aren’t front and center. Miller agrees, noting that her kids prefer the media room to their own rooms for slumber parties with friends.
On the other side, a formal dining and living room extend, seemingly held in place by a 30-foot wall of steel and glass that folds back onto itself, providing access to the outdoor patios and creating an indoor-outdoor space that accommodates the large parties the Millers frequently host on behalf of organizations such as the Aspen Art Museum and National Jewish Health.
The key to the design’s overall success is the flexibility it gives the Millers to configure the house in different ways. Says Eigelberger, “These are not grandiose spaces when you consider how efficiently the home can be broken up and lived in accordingly.” For example, just as the children’s wing can be closed off, the master wing becomes a type of self-sufficient area when the Millers are the only ones at home. Located at the far end of the formal living area, it includes a master bedroom, guest room, office, and large dress ing area. The entire space can be closed off at a vestibule just off the living room, transforming it into a private apartment of sorts.
Eigelberger and the Millers are particularly proud of the craftsmanship and detail apparent throughout the home’s interiors, a collaborative effort that remained true to the guiding principles of subtlety and simplicity. “An architect contributes the aesthetic vision, but we don’t always know how best to achieve it,” Eigelberger says. “A good craftsman will take that vision and bring it to life with a unique design, specific finish, or texture.”
While the exterior consists of a simple palette of wood, stone, and copper, interiors are enriched with earthy, Old World materials and finishes, including bright bronze, petrified wood, hand-knotted wool, velvet, and ebonite wood. In the kitchen, Belgian bluestone countertops merge seamlessly with reclaimed oak cabinets and doors. Walls of stone that was quarried in the Napa Valley add rich color and texture to the finely crafted woodwork throughout. Silk carpets in solid gray and white provide a quiet contrast to the strong horizontal lines of finely finished wood beams and the dazzling scenery beyond the big windows. Specialty pieces from Maison au Naturel and Kneedler Fauchère, and French deco–inspired furnishings by Jean de Merry add flavor to the otherwise subtle aesthetic.
The work of local craftsmen is also evident throughout, including the oversize hood in the kitchen fabricated by Paonia Iron Works and, in the family and dining rooms, a set of iron light fixtures accented by straps of tooled leather that were designed by Basalt-based Myers and Company. A custom carved-marble vanity in the master bath sits side by side with imported tile that was jetted with water upon installation to deter any odd breaks from occurring in the intricate design.
What really distinguishes the home is its ability to express a timeless regionalism that is at once modest and inviting. That appeal is strengthened by an extraordinary attention to detail and a logical conclusion about how people inhabit their homes. While its style reflects the Millers’ desire to create “a place for everyone,” the home eschews extravagance in favor of place, its design completely, and satisfyingly, in sync with its surroundings.