Edgar Miller: Who Was He, and What Did He Do?

Edgar_posing_outside_Iannelli_Studios Edgar posing outside Iannelli Studios in Park Ridge, Illinois (c. 1924)

The late artist and designer, Edgar Miller (b. 1899, Idaho Falls; d. 1993, Chicago) seems to be experiencing something of a resurgence. Like many artists who were “discovered” after their time, modern-day enthusiasts and historians alike are recognizing Miller’s genius only now after his death. Miller is increasingly being admired as part of Chicago’s art and design history for his unmistakable aesthetic, his prolific body of work, and his diverse artisanal skillset. Miller came to Chicago in 1917 as a young man just out of high school at a time when the art, design, and architecture world was modernizing and old ways were being radically challenged. He quickly became a part of the city’s artistic revival of the 1920s where he became a professional progressive artist working in a wide range of media including: painting, sculpture, tilework, woodcarving, stained glass design, and metal craft.

Miller is increasingly being admired as part of Chicago’s art and design history

New aesthetic design styles were being heavily influenced by ideas from the Bauhaus School and French modernism, to Mexican social populism. The art world was also becoming dramatically altered by the radical departures from classical art modes in the form of abstract art. While Chicago was not generally seen as an epicenter for these movements, it was a bastion for artists, designers, and architects who embraced these global trends and incorporated diverse aspects of international styles and philosophies into their Chicago-centered work. Edgar Miller was considered a leader in modernist thought in Chicago allowing these trends to inform and inspire his visionary aesthetic. He became a go-to artistic designer for the city’s elite architecture firms, and pioneered many innovative graphic design styles in advertising for companies like Marshall Fields and Container Corporation of America. But it is Miller’s impressive sense of scale that is most captivating. Many of his most remarkable works of art are in fact some of the unique, intricately designed hand-crafted studios and homes, which pepper some of Chicago’s oldest neighborhoods, and influenced many subsequent generations of creative rehabbers who continue to spread the handmade aesthetic through the city’s vernacular architectural landscape.

Kogen-Miller_Studios_©_Alexander_Vertikoff
Kogen-Miller Studios, View from Wells Street | © Alexander Vertikoff

 

Sometimes referred to as Chicago’s “modern Renaissance man,” Miller traversed a dynamic, burgeoning creative culture in the lively bohemian scene. Miller oversaw the rehabilitation of a few of the artist colonies in Old Town where a thriving countercultural and avant garde scene was incubating. Old Town became the site of Miller’s “handmade homes,” which grew into full-fledged studio complexes that were homes for artisans and creatives working in a variety of professions. These artists learned from each other and worked together, piecing together a patchwork of aesthetic styles and modes. In Old Town, Miller was a shining source of inspiration for a new generation of artists, craftspeople, and other creatives.

Edgar_posing_before_Pabst_Blue_Ribbon_Hall_mural_(1942)
Edgar posing before Pabst Blue Ribbon Hall mural (1942)
Edgar_painting_Pabst_Blue_Ribbon_Hall_murals
Edgar painting Pabst Blue Ribbon Hall murals in Milwaukee (1942)

While Miller’s work did not make much of a mark outside of his hometown, his distinctly Chicago style has become a unique area of study for both scholars and laypeople. Miller’s aesthetic and design sensibilities were founded upon a sense of entrepreneurship and drive. His sense of ingenuity and limitless enthusiasm for building new and modern structures excited many artists and designers, and was the core of his unique design philosophy. Miller was ultimately as much a modernist as a medievalist. In the end, his ability to straddle the line between modernist design and classical artisanship may have been the product of being in a place like Chicago, a city rising on the global stage during an era of impressive change.

Zac Bleicher
Executive Director, Edgar Miller Legacy

Edgar_painting_Jo_Mead_Design_wall_hangings_(c._1960)
Edgar painting Jo Mead Design wall hangings (c. 1960)

 

Zac Bleicher founded Edgar Miller Legacy in 2014 with the mission to preserve the late 20th century artist Edgar Miller’s artistic and architectural works; to advance the historical research of the artist’s accomplishments; and to build programs for the public to access and learn from Miller’s inspirational aesthetic. Bleicher’s interest in Miller and his art began through his late uncle, Mark Mamolen, a preservationist who helped rehabilitate Miller’s architectural masterpieces in Chicago. As part of his role within Edgar Miller Legacy, Bleicher continues to manage the growing archive of Miller’s work and history and to find new ways to tell Miller’s story. Bleicher has a BA in American History, Art History, and Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Edgar Miller Legacy
Edgar Miller Legacy is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Miller’s art and the “handmade homes” he created in Chicago. We work to promote Miller as an overlooked artistic genius; to encourage study and research of his life and body of work; to act as a resource for educational institutions and organizations; and to provide inspirational experiences within Miller-designed spaces. Our programs, events, and tours allow visitors to experience Miller’s works as they were designed to be shown. Visit our site at edgarmiller.org to donate and help support our ongoing efforts and to view upcoming programs available to the public.

For more on Edgar Miller, check out the website.