C.A. and Maureen Miller refurbished this Foster Street home built in the late 1800s. (Rita LeBleu / American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, March 31, 2014 12:39 PMInterior designer Maureen Miller and husband, C.A., moved to Austin, Texas, in 1998, no longer content to be mere “weekend grandparents,” she said.
But as the grandkids got older, the Millers began to think about returning to their roots. She grew up on Louisiana Avenue. C.A. was a sixth-generation Cameron Parish native about to start his law practice there when Hurricane Audrey hit. Instead, he hung his shingle in Lake Charles and he and Maureen met while she was attending McNeese.
Maureen figured out early in her marriage, which will hit the 52-year mark this year, that she wanted a career in interior design. Ruth Cayton, “a wonderful designer mentored me,” Maureen said.
Austin was good to the Millers, according to Maureen. Some of her clients were Lake Charles transplants. “I wanted to move back home, but I didn’t want just any house, and I wanted to be close to my sister.” In no time, she found out about a “place for sale by owners like us, a couple who were making some changes in their lives.”
The house was over 100 years old, a 2,000-square-foot center-hall cottage – at one time. But the design had been altered, the hall closed up to create storage. Original transoms had been boarded up and painted over. What had been a south-facing screened-in porch (closed-in later) was a ruin. The original floors had been covered with vinyl held in place with a tar-like adhesive.
“It was a real Louisiana house that needed to be brought back,” Maureen said. And it was right across the street from Bette Talbot, Maureen’s sister.
The paperwork took three months. The renovations took eight, and during that time she relied heavily on carpenter Marco Baca and painter Stephen deLauney.
The Millers, lovers of travel and antiques – especially French antiques, would have to cull many of their beautiful things collected through the years to make the move to a much smaller home.
Her goal for their new place was the same as if she were taking on any other residential project, to create a house with the style, colors and décor that make the clients happy, a place to go to “sink in, regroup or recharge at the end of the day.”
When asked if the same things made both her and C.A. happy, she said that they have similar tastes and work well together. “He has an engineer’s mind,” Maureen said of her husband. She oversaw new construction and remodeling projects as well as consulted on interiors in Austin. They begin their projects simply by just spending a lot of time talking about ideas.
“He defers to my design input and I defer to his budget,” she said, laughing.
She said such simpatico is not always the case among couples. She’s learned to listen to what’s not being said as well as what is, and to watch for signs of enthusiasm to help her guide her clients to the elements that will satisfy them for the long run. “A lot of times people see something (a design style) and attach themselves to it. There’s a lot of psychology behind the design for something as personal as a home.”
The biggest challenge in remodeling the Millers’ newest home was re-opening the center hall. Maureen added bookshelves and a library rail around and above the west-facing opening. An antique oversized armoire offers a beautifully fitting way to make up for the lack of storage in a historic house.
Now there’s an unobstructed view from the front entrance to the rear entrance, flooded with light, where a water feature at the back of the home provides the design axis. “These homes were designed this way to circulate air when people used attic fans,”
Maureen said of the many windows, 12-foot ceilings and the center hall. She replaced the painted-over transoms with ribbed glass, a motif that repeats in the door facings.
When asked about her wall color choices, she explained. “I love color. I’m a colorist and that’s why many of my clients come to me. It’s not always easy to put a lot of colors together. This house was hard,” she admitted. “I could have kept it monochromatic and used the caramel beige in the dining area,” she explained. Instead she opted for different treatments in each room. All were rich hues, an appropriate backdrop for antiques and other collectibles on display.
Maureen chose what most people might call a dark green for the living room, knowing that the abundance of natural light would show off the color’s varied properties. But seeing the color through her eyes, a “colorist’s” eyes, “dark green” became something else altogether. It seemed to take on an energy of its own as she pointed out its many variations throughout the room. “There’s chrome in this green, a metal tone. It has a lot of life in it,” she said.
She kept the interior window shutters that were
in the living room and dining rooms when she bought the house, stripped them and had them repainted white. Each window has three shutters, covering the bottom, center and top of the window, ideal for adjusting for the amount of light shining through the windows at different times of the day -- and perfect for privacy.
The interior trim, original to the house, was painted a bright white, another technique that played up the complexity of the dark green.
Maureen used textures in an extravagantly sensual way in the living room and master bedroom, rough weaves against velvets with a fur throw tossed in for the living room. In the master bedroom, brocade rubs against silk.
The décor throughout the house is personal, items to which the Millers are “connected.” C.A.’s mother’s hand-crocheted bedspread used on his parents’ bed throughout their married life, hangs from the West Indies canopy bed. Three of Maureen’s paintings are displayed in the house. She was inspired to paint by her uncle. One of his paintings titled “Tears” hangs in the hallway with a Will Ousley scene, a grouping of Venice “sidewalk” paintings and a Leroy Nieman America’s Cup print.
The Miller’s have done some sailing and Maureen said it was a real eye opener to find out how small spaces can be used to stay organized on the boats they sailed, “just a different way of thinking about things.”
Multi-ethnic could describe the Moorish, English, French, Italian, Asian and Mediterranean-looking décor. But Maureen offers the better design term. “My taste is eclectic,” she said of the contents of the Foster Street home, which brings so many continents together beneath one roof.
There is an old brassiere from Damascus on the master bedroom’s hearth. Also from Damascus, hanging on the living room wall is a framed embroidered velvet jacket.“My mother bought it for me when I was 12 and it was too large. I couldn’t wear it until I was 18,” Maureen said.
On the dining room wall is a French antique panetierre from the turn of the century. C.A. explains that panetierre is the word for “bread.” These cabinets were usually hung (although they can be used on top of other pieces) to store fresh-baked bread.
Natural objects find space in this home too. Shells, rocks and crystals, collected through the years from Louisiana, Colorado, California, Florida, England and the Mediterranean have their own space in the Miller home.
The first thing they ever bought together from a little shop in Sea Island, Ga., painted metal plates, are hanging in this house
Maureen displays a Royal Albert Lady Carlyle English bone china tea set. “That belonged to my godmother, Aunt Joe,” she said.
On the porch is an antique iron bed from a convent in Arles in Southern France.
The Millers gutted the kitchen and bought prefabricated walnut-finished cabinets locally. Every detail has thought behind it. “The transitional stainless cabinet pulls are easy to grip for men and women. Function has to be there,” she says. A five-generation recipe book, A Lifetime of Louisiana-Inspired Cooking, designed by the Millers’ granddaughter contains family proven family favorites.
The kitchen is painted a deep red because “it promotes conversation and appetite,” Maureen said. The kitchen center island, reminiscent of a tavern table design, has a drop leaf for extra seating. Countertops are granite and tile artisan Olivier Grosset did a special rustic-treated inset over the range that includes a piece that Maureen purchased from Italy.
Not all of the Millers things are art collectibles, antiques or heirlooms. One is a simple framed quote from Elizabeth Ney and was a gift from the Miller’s daughter. Ney, born in 1883, was so intent on joining the exclusively male world of sculptors that she launched a hunger strike until her parents consented.
The quote reads, “The more our sensibility for the loveliness of things is nurtured and the more lovely our surroundings are made, the more lovely and joyful our souls will grow.”
Maureen Miller feels the same way about interior design as Ney did about sculpting. The quote says a lot about why Maureen does what she does, and can remind us all that the act of making our surroundings lovely – whatever that means to us --can reap joy and transform “a house” into “a home.”